Jesus’ words and deeds have taken on a new dimension for me after reading a history of Galilee.* Late as I am in my career, it isn’t too late to study the region’s history as it was where Jesus began and did most of his work to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God was near, where he healed many people, and from where he walked for days and weeks to Jerusalem and surrounding territories. So what were the conditions in Galilee during Jesus’ time?
It had not been a region of Israelite settlement since the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel many centuries before. With encouragement from a newly reestablished priesthood, Jewish migration from Judea got into full swing in the first century B.C. after the Maccabean revolt. By the time of Jesus, Galilee had become a predominantly Jewish province with a culture and accent that Judeans took to be signs of country bumpkins. Galileans were separated from Judea by the land of the despised Samaritans but maintained allegiance to the temple as the center of Jewish life and worship. Nevertheless, they developed their own network of synagogues as gathering places for civic life and worship. The area had long been under Greek or Roman control so gentile ways were not unfamiliar to the people. In Jesus’ day the puppet king Herod Antipas ruled as Rome’s surrogate in an environment that fostered rebels, bandits, and self proclaimed messiahs. They were troublesome but easily put down. Malaria was rampant in marshy lowlands, giving Galilee a reputation for being pestilent. Infant and new mother mortality rates were high. Living into a “ripe old age” meant surviving past the age of 30. The economy was agrarian, villages small, and and cottage industry diversified to produce the needs of daily life. There were only two cities of any size: Sephora and Tiberius. Sephora was the older and had Hellenistic origins. Tiberius was a new city built by Antipas. Few villagers ever went to them and there is no record that Jesus ever did.
Gospel records and Sunday school illustrations present a different picture: one of pastoral landscapes, relatively peaceful villages, and prosperous fishermen. Jesus grew to maturity in the hilltop village of Nazareth where he experienced the reality of life in Galilee, both the good and bad.
He began his ministry not in Nazareth but along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and from there he called his first disciples. In a mysterious way, the pastoral scenes depicted in the gospels were not entirely wrong. Wherever Jesus went he proclaimed that the kingdom of God had come near because he was its manifestation. Where he was the kingdom was. In it was love, healing, reconciliation, and godly truth delivered in person by the Word of God made flesh. While others announced coming rebellions or an apocalyptic end of the world, Jesus promised that, through him, one could enter from this life into God’s eternal kingdom. No wonder people had a hard time understanding him.
He left the curious in awe of the authority in his voice calling all to love one another. What a different message in a land that bred rebels by the dozens. They marveled at the healing power of his words and touch. They were astounded when he assumed the right to forgive sins. Those who opposed him found themselves powerless to do anything despite their curses and threats of violence. And so it was until the day Jesus chose for it to be otherwise.
What an odd place to begin the work of the world’s salvation: among villages of country people living in a region always on the edge of lawlessness, where Jews, gentiles and Samaritans bumped contentious elbows, and with a history of failed messiahs. His core followers were a ragtag group of fishermen, social misfits, Roman collaborators, and, of all things, women. For all of it, his overwhelming presence of godly authority threatened Herod, annoyed Pilate, and unnerved the Jerusalem priesthood.
He couldn’t be stopped, not even by crucifixion. One would expect the Jewish wars against Rome, starting in about 66 A.D., would have squelched any remembrance of a messiah who played by none of the rules.
Unlikely things happen where God is involved. As Rome had leveled Jerusalem and forced Jews out of the area, troublesome, backwater Galilee became the center of the Jewish world. Rabbinic Judaism arose from Galilee to guide Jews throughout the world for the next two thousand years. Christianity, however, did not take root in Galilee, yet it spread quickly from there to every part of the Mediterranean and beyond. If Christianity did not take root in Galilee, it was the garden where the seeds were sown for the world’s redemption, and where Judaism gained renewed life in a deeper faith.
©Steven E. Woolley
*Galilee In The Late Second Temple and Early Mishinaic Period: Life, Culture, and Society
David A. Fiensy, James Riley Strange, editors.
Fortress Press, 2014