A Bible question: Why were there herds of swine in ancient Israel at the time of Jesus?

So I’m re-reading Matthew (once in a while I actually pick up the Bible and read some of it), and I come across the well-known story of the Gaderene swine. So, for absolutely no reason I can see, a thought pops into my head: Why would there be a herd of swine in a country where eating pork is a huge taboo? The parable of the prodigal son raises the same question. When the prodigal son hits bottom, he takes a job as a swineherd, which I assume is pretty much the lowest rung on the social ladder in ancient Israel. So who gave him the job? A pagan or another Jew?

I’ve speculated a bit about this, but I haven’t come up with anything in which I feel any confidence.

I thought maybe there were small populations of pagans in Israel at the time of Jesus, but it seems to me that the Jews weren’t all that tolerant of pagans at the time. The only other option would be that there were Jews who kept herds of swine, and hired down-and-outers to herd them, but that seems even less likely to me than any substantial population of pagans in the Israel of Jesus Christ. After all, the prohibition against eating pork goes back to Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Even so, why would anyone be keeping a herd of swine in ancient Israel in the first place?

Please understand this is not supposed to be a debate about the reliability or unreliability of the Gospels. The author of Matthew would never have simply made up that detail, as it could be easily refuted if it wasn’t true.

Still, I’m stuck with this awkward anomaly. Who would keep swine in ancient Israel?

Perhaps they were feral pigs. In a land where no one eats pork, there is less predation by hunters, so wild pigs would multiply.

Plenty of non-Jews around.

Then there would be native populations, since they obviously wouldn’t be being hunted.

Modern example; http://seattletimes.com/html/nationworld/2017095950_pakpigs26.html

Umm, doubtful. The prodigal son was hired to be a swineherd, which meant that some people, at least, kept domesticated swine.

The Bible shows that they weren’t feral:

Matthew 8:32-33 (KJV)
32 And he said unto them, Go. And when they were come out, they went into the herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters.

33 And they that kept them (“those tending the pigs” in the NIV) fled, and went their ways into the city, and told every thing, and what was befallen to the possessed of the devils.

I was talking about the Gadarene swine.

Well, I find that doubtful. considering that the ancient Jews regarded pagans with loathing and horror. If you can come up with some source showing that there were substantial populations of pagans in ancient Israel, I’ll be more likely to change my mind.

Not likely that anyone would hire a swineherd to herd feral pigs.

The event took place in the region of the Gadarenes or the Gesarenes, depending which gospel you read. Either way, both were over the border of Israel. Both towns were crossroads of Hellenistic (Greek Empire), Roman, Jewish, and other local tribes. Since it wasn’t a primarily Jewish town it was perfectly ordinary for there to be swine herding there.

In that case, they were clearly being kept as props for parables, in case any messiahs were born.

Nevertheless, the parable of the prodigal son shows that some people, at least, kept domesticated pigs.

Gentiles, maybe?

Ah, I see. I mistakenly thought the incident took place in Israel itself. Thank you for correcting me.

It’s important to remember that over 900 years before the birth of Jesus, Israel had a civil war of the North (called Israel) v. the South (called Judah, where we get the term, ‘Jew’). This was right after Solomon’s reign and the two kingdoms lived side by side for about about two hundred years until Israel was sacked by the Assyrians the the ‘ten tribes of Isreal’ (the lost ten tribes) were assimilated into Assyrian culture. Their descendants were, at the time of Jesus, the Samaritans which practiced a religion close to Judaism, but different enough to make them hated (think North v. South Ireland in the 70s).

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that Jesus was born and grew up in this northern region which was not a strictly Jewish region. It was full of Samaritans, Jews, and Gentiles (both Greek and Roman). The only time Jesus is in a strictly Jewish ‘neighborhood’ is when he heads to Jerusalem in the south located in Judah.

So, the vast majority of the time during Jesus’ public ministry, he is traveling to mostly Jewish settlements around the Sea of Galilee (which is in the north) but also entering towns that are mixed Jewish and Samaritan and Gentile. Remember, “Caesarea Philipi” is a Greek settlement. And “the Decapolis” is Roman.

(grin) Thank you for all that clarification! I feel like I’ve really been educated today!

As for the Prodigal Son, wasn’t he in a faraway land when he fell that low? It gives the parable a nice extra dose of “dangerous furriners”.

We did this last year. Read it and weep.

There’s also all that leather to consider, or do people who keep kosher also steer clear of pigskin?

Definitely. Touching the skin of a pig makes you unclean, per Leviticus 11:7.

And, of course, it’s after sundown on a Friday so the observant Jews of the Dope can’t chime in until tomorrow night, but if I recollect from prior threads most Jews today follow the prohibition on eating pork but don’t regard using pigs for other purposes to be forbidden.

True that. Pig heart valve: not for yummies, kosher to a k.