Galilee in the Bible

Jesus was born in Bethlehem and spent part of his youngest years in Egypt, possibly Alexandria. But his step-father Joseph and likely his mother Mary were from Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. This put them several days’ journey north from Jerusalem, which was not only the location of the Temple and the primary focus of Jewish worship, but also the home of some of the most important Jewish religious figures as well as the Sanhedrin. Jesus’ status as a Galilean helps us understand his upbringing and who he was during his earthly ministry. It also suggests that he would have been subject to some prejudice, something that is confirmed in the Gospel accounts.

While in the past some scholars believed that the Galilee in the first century was inhabited by descendants of the northern ten tribes, it is now generally accepted that the majority of the inhabitants were Jews that is to say, Judahites or Judeans. These Jews are now often referred to as “Judean Galileans”. How did it come about that they took up residence in the north? This happened during the time of the Judean Hasmoneans, when this territory was occupied after military conquest and Jews (that is, Judeans) spread there from the south, the traditional territory of the tribe of Judah. The association of Galilee with Judeans was so pronounced that Luke uses the term Judaea’ to describe both Judaea and the Galilee that is, the entire land of Israel west of the Jordan (Luke 1:5, 4:44; Acts 10:37).

This is not to say that members of the tribe of Judah were the only Israelites who survived in the original Promised Land at the time of Christ, just that they were by far the largest group. The New Testament mentions Levites and priests, who were also from the tribe of Levi. The southern Kingdom of Judah in Old Testament times already included the tribes of Benjamin and Simeon, with the latter especially over time absorbed into the tribe of Judah. The Assyrian deportations of northern Israelites were not complete. A remnant from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were still in the north at the time of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 30:1). We also learn that a remnant from the tribes of Asher and Zebulun were still in the north at this time and that some in Asher, Zebulun and Manasseh came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover during Hezekiah’s reign (2 Chronicles 30:11). It is also likely that during the Assyrian invasions of both Israel and Judah, some from the northern tribes resettled in the relevant safety of Judah.

Evidence from the New Testament confirms and extends the evidence that Judaea and the Galilee would have had descendants from the other tribes in their midst. Anna the Prophetess, who worshipped at the Temple during the time Jesus was born, was from the tribe of Asher (Luke 2:36). The Apostle Paul was of the tribe of Benjamin (Romans 11:1; Philippians 3:5). The Talmud records of the first-century bc rabbi Hillel the Elder that his father was from the tribe of Benjamin and that his mother came from the line of David and was thus a Judahite. There are many references to Judaea in the Gospel accounts, but also many mentions of the more expansive term Israel. Jesus said that he came to save “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). He spoke of the twelve Apostles in the future age “judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28). So “Judean” at this time meant more than a member of the tribe of Judah.

The Judeans in Galilee in the first century were to a certain extent viewed by southern Judeans with suspicion and as not being as strict in their Judaism. They spoke a slightly different dialect of Aramaic or Hebrew. They depended more on the synagogue for worship. Their region had a higher proportion of Gentiles, especially Greeks, or at least those who were culturally Greek. They were more agricultural in orientation. The Galilee was also in a different Roman administrative jurisdiction and it was separated from the Roman administrative region of Judaea by the administrative region of Samaria. The New Testament matches perfectly what history and archaeology tell us about first-century Galilee, including the fact that southern Jews distinguished themselves from their northern cousins.

Jesus was a Galilean. All twelve disciples were Galileans too. These facts come out rather pointedly at various junctures in the Gospel accounts. In the New Testament, the term Galilee’ is used sixty-three times in sixty-two verses and the term Galilean’ is used eleven times in ten verses.

Galilee in the Old Testament

The Galilee is mentioned six times in the Hebrew of the Old Testament. In Joshua 20:7 we read that one of the cities of refuge is “Kedesh in Galilee in the hill country of Naphtali”. Kedesh was also given to the Gershonite Levites as a Levitical town (Joshua 21:32 and 1 Chronicles 6:76). The Roman administrative region of Galilee as it was in the first century takes in parts of the tribal allotments of Asher and Naphtali in the north and all of Zebulun and Issachar below them. Already in the time of the Judges we are told that most of the Israelite tribes to varying degrees did not completely drive out the Canaanites. This included the tribes of Zebulun, Asher and Napthali. Hence, populations of Canaanites lived among the Israelites in that region (Judges 1:30-33).

In 1 Kings 9:11 we are told that King Solomon gave King Hiram of Tyre twenty towns in the Galilee in return for the cedar Hiram supplied to Solomon for the Temple and palace in Jerusalem (although verses 12 and 13 tell us that Hiram was not pleased with these towns). In 2 Kings 15:29 there is an account of Assyrian King Tiglath-pileser capturing seven towns in the Galilee region that had been part of the tribal allotment of Naphtali. Shortly after the complete conquest of northern Israel by the Assyrian Empire, the Assyrians deported northern Israelites to Assyria and Media (2 Kings 17:6). The region was resettled by the Assyrians with people from Syria and Mesopotamia (2 Kings 17:24). Although scholars and historians continue to debate this, since some Israelites remained in the north, they likely intermarried with these new populations. Thus, the Samaritans of the New Testament probably could correctly claim some Israelite descent, as the woman of Samaria does in her conversation with Jesus (John 4:12). This is supported by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus.

Against this dark backdrop, Isaiah 9:1 sounds forth with a note of hope for the future:

But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land before the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

With the retention of Canaanites, the towns possessed by Hiram (although we are not told how long the Phoenicians held them) and the resettled Syrians and Mesopotamians, it is easy to see why the region would be called “Galilee of the nations”. Isaiah 9 is also prophetic, for this would be true of the time of Jesus too. Both at the time of Isaiah and in the first century, the Galilee had a large Gentile population.

The family of Jesus in Galilee

Joseph and Mary were from the tribe of Judah by ancestry. This is confirmed in the genealogies of Christ: Joseph’s in Matthew 1:1-17 and Mary’s in Luke 3:23-38. But they were living in Nazareth in the Galilee when the angel Gabriel came to Mary to tell her that she would bear the Messiah (Luke 1:26, 2:4, 2:39). Thus, they fit into the pattern of Judeans settled in the north. The family went to Egypt to escape Herod the Great and on their return bypassed Judaea to return to Nazareth in the Galilee (Matthew 2:22).

Jesus was known as a Galilean and was living in Galilee up to the beginning of his ministry. He comes from Galilee to John the Baptist for his baptism (Matthew 3:13; Mark 1:9). The wedding of Cana in Galilee is described as the beginning of his miracles in John 2:11. Much of his preaching mission was in Galilee and this is where he called his disciples (Matthew 4:12-25; Mark 1:14-39, 3:7; Luke 4:14,31,44, 5:17). The women who were followers of Jesus were also Galileans (Luke 23:49,55).

Ethnic prejudice against Galileans

During the first century, there was some ethnic prejudice directed against Judean Galilees by the southern Judeans. There is evidence for this from the New Testament as well. Part of the problem from the point of view of the southern Judeans is that they could not accept that the Messiah would come from the Galilee. Some asked: “Is the Messiah to come from Galilee?” (John 7:41). Jews were aware of the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that said the Messiah would come forth from Bethlehem in Judah. Thus they asked: “Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village were David was?” (John 7:42; see also verse 52). Earlier, when Nathanael was told that the Messiah was from Nazareth, he asked: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip’s reply was simply: “Come and see” (John 1:46). Even a Galilean like Nathanael had a difficult time associating the Messiah with a humble town like Nazareth in the north.

But of course Jesus was from the tribe of Judah and in the royal line of David. He was born in Bethlehem. It is just that his fellow Jews (and even some of those from the north) had a difficult time with the idea that the Messiah grew up in the Galilee.

John in his Gospel account records an incident in which the Jewish leaders accuse Jesus of being a Samaritan and demon-possessed (John 8:48-52). Jesus was neither. It is likely that both the label Samaritan’ and the accusation of demon-possession where ethnic slurs. Samaria was not as far north as Galilee, but it seems that in the minds of some southern Judeans they were associated. Also, since all of the cases of demon-possession recorded in the Gospel accounts occur to the north of Judaea, it is likely that the Galilee was culturally associated with demon-possession, which would have been viewed dimly by the southern Judeans (cf. John 10:20-21), who may not have been afflicted in this way.

In the well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus stresses the importance of loving neighbour and in so doing also addresses ethnic prejudice (Luke 10:25-37). Many Jews hated the Samaritans. But being from the Galilee, Jesus was better able to understand the problems of ethnic prejudice.

The Galilean background of Jesus and his disciples becomes an issue around the time of the crucifixion. We see this when Peter denies Jesus three times. The bystanders accuse him of being a Galilean and note that his accent gave him away. “You also were with Jesus the Galilean”, they say (Matthew 26:69; see the full account in 26:69-75, along with Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62). When Pilate discovered that Jesus was a Galilean it became a jurisdictional matter, as the Galilee at that time was under the control of Herod Antipas (Luke 23:6-12).

After the ascension, the angels address the disciples as Galileans in the memorable words: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jews at the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem comment on the disciples’ status as Galileans (Acts 2:7). The Apostle Peter stresses that the preaching of the Gospel began in Galilee (Acts 10:37). As a Galilean himself, he likely still found it exhilarating to know that “something good” came out of his region.

Jesus’ Galilean background is one of the surprising themes of the Gospel accounts. It is not what the Jews, certainly those in the south and probably many in the north, anticipated. But this unconventional background, far from the official religious teachings associated with Jerusalem and the Temple (both of which Jesus deeply respected and loved), helps provide the context for the unconventional teachings of the man from Galilee.

The Galilee and the call of the Gentiles

Jesus came in the first instance to call the Jews to repentance and the kingdom of God. However, given that the Galilee did have a Gentile population along with a Judean population in the first century, some Gentiles would have heard his teachings. Jesus certainly interacted with Gentiles. He healed a centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13). He had a long conversation with a Samaritan women (John 4:1-45). He healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman, after a playful exchange that saw the two directly engage with the issue of ethnic prejudice in the use of the term dogs’ (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). So already in the ministry of Jesus we see intimations of the call of the Gentiles a call that would go out fully a few years after his resurrection and ascension into heaven, as recorded in the Book of Acts.

In Matthew’s account of the Gospel, he quotes Isaiah 9 as a prophecy of Jesus’s preaching in the Galilee:

And leaving Nazareth, [Jesus] went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Napthtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:13-17 ESV)

And so it was that the region associated with the tragedy of the Assyrian deportations of Israel centuries before came to be the region associated with the ministry of the Messiah, who gives hope to both Jews and Gentiles.

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