The Myth of a Non-Jewish Galilee Must End!

Second Temple Stone Table with Menorah found in Migdal, Galilee.

Second Temple Stone Table with Menorah found in Migdal, Galilee.

Over a year ago Justin Taylor of Gospel Coalition posted a blog summarizing seven differences between Judea and the Galilee during the Time of Jesus. The summary was from R.T. France’s The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT, 2007). While I agree with France’s so-called lament that NT scholars know little about the world of “first-century Palestine” and we should not presume that Jewish communities were unilaterally united in their sentiment against Rome, his list of difference between Judea and the Galilee—if summarized by Taylor correctly—treads old ground where the Galilee is largely presented as a group of Jewish & Gentile villages filled with uneducated, agrarian folk that were looked down upon by their southern Judean counterparts (although he notes that they are wealthy?). In other words, the area of the Galilee is a “backwater hick town.” Unfortunately, such a viewpoint has very strong implication for how we understand Jesus—whether or not France intended this—and continues to support this myth of a gentile Galilee. At a minimum it separates Jesus (philosophically, religiously, and culturally) from the religious and cultural center of Jewish life in the 1st century. That minimum is too heavy a price to pay!

So I will deal briefly with Taylor’s seven points and what is France’s final result:

1. Racially the area of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel had, ever since the Assyrian conquest in the eighth century B.C., a more mixed population, within which more conservative Jewish areas (like Nazareth and Capernaum) stood in close proximity to largely pagan cities, of which in the first century the new Hellenistic centers of Tiberias and Sepphoris were the chief examples.

Just a quick note—I think “racially” is a poorly chosen word. 

It is true that there would have been a mixed population after the Assyrian conquest but the Assyrian conquest occurred in 720 BCE. That is 700+ years prior to the first century CE. By the time of Jesus, archaeology has shown—though debate continues—that Sepphoris had a distinct Jewish population (Hanan Eshel, Ronny Reich). Meyers and Chancey have noted the following: “Unfortunately, some scholars have misperceived Sepphoris as a center of Greco-Roman culture in the time of Jesus on the basis of finds from the centuries after Jesus. Sepphoris was indeed a thriving and growing city in the early first century C.E., but the evidence for Hellenistic culture is limited. As for the city’s population, the overwhelming majority were Jews. Gentiles, if they were present at all, were a small and uninfluential minority.” So, a Hellenistic center, Sepphoris was not!

Tiberias, on the other hand, founded by Herod Antipas in 20CE, would later (post Bar-Kokhba) become the capital of the Galilee, but because it was founded on a cemetery such a city would render Jewish inhabitants ritually impure—which is perhaps why Jesus never steps foot in Tiberias despite its proximity to Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida.

2.     Geographically Galilee was separated from Judea by the non-Jewish territory of Samaria, and from Perea in the southeast by the Hellenistic settlements of Decapolis.

View of the north-west shore of the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret)

View of the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (Yam Kinneret)

This is just the geographical reality but it does not speak to any cultural, religious, or linguistic differences. We will leave for now the problems with the Decapolis in ancient sources during the time of Jesus but the geography does not mark a huge difference in culture or language. The geographical distinctions were narrowed with the rites of pilgrimage. Three times a year—Passover (Pesach), Pentecost (Shavuot), & Feast of Booths (Sukkot)—Jewish folk would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Jesus, though Galilean, is presented in the Gospels as coming to Jerusalem during these Holy Days (e.g., John 10:22)—with his parents every year (Luke 2), a tradition he likely kept during his adult years.

3. Politically Galilee had been under separate administration from Judea during almost all its history since the tenth century B.C. (apart from a period of “reunification” under the Maccabees), and in the time of Jesus it was under a (supposedly) native Herodian prince, while Judea and Samaria had since A.D. 6 been under the direct rule of a Roman prefect.

This administrative difference does not necessarily affect the JEWISH Galilean identity. At the end of the day, although Antipas was in control of Galilee (since the death of his father Herod) and a procurator (e.g., Pilate) was in control of Judea, ROME WAS ALWAYS IN CONTROL. The political reality  did not change Galilean religious identity.

4.     Economically Galilee offered better agricultural and fishing resources than the more mountainous territory of Judea, making the wealth of some Galileans the envy of their southern neighbors.

While there were surely wealthy villagers in the cities of the Galilee, Jerusalem was no stranger to wealth. Discoveries from the Second Temple period in what is now the Old City have revealed massive homes, which were apparently occupied by the Jerusalem priests and other wealthy villagers.

5.  Culturally Judeans despised their northern neighbors as country cousins, their lack of Jewish sophistication being compounded by their greater openness to Hellenistic influence.

images-1Not so. Hellenism abounded in Eretz Israel. In fact, Josephus remarks that within the Holy City of Jerusalem there was an amphitheater and a theater—clear signs of Hellenistic influence upon a city. In fact, Josephus remarks that these were opposite of Jewish customs (Ant 15:268). This is not to say that Jerusalem was more Hellenized than the Galilee but to note that Hellenization was a normal part of Greco-Roman society and that Jewish Communities regularly thrived, as Jewish, in these settings.

 6.     Linguistically Galileans spoke a distinctive form of Aramaic whose slovenly consonants (they dropped their aitches!) were the butt of Judean humor.

Dialectal differences between the Galileans & Judeans in the Second Temple period are not necessarily an easy thing to assess.  Furthermore, much of this information is taken from Rabbinic literature. The problem with this methodology is that New Testament scholars fail to note that there was a considerable linguistic shift after the Bar-Kokhba revolt (132-135 CE) nearly 100 after the death and resurrection of Jesus (Marc Turnage, “The Linguistic Ethos of the Galilee,” forthcoming; cf. also Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language, 115-116). Therefore, we cannot simply use post-Bar Kokhba evidence to determine the linguistic nature of the Galilee in the first century.

In fact, Turnage has noted from the evidence available that the linguistic nature of the Galilee was tri-lingual where Hebrew, and not Aramaic—though Aramaic was known and used—would have been the primarily language in use. To this we add Greek.

7.     Religiously the Judean opinion was that Galileans were lax in their observance of proper ritual, and the problem was exacerbated by the distance of Galilee from the temple and the theological leadership, which was focused in Jerusalem.

I will let Lawrence Schiffman answer this: [W]e find no evidence of widespread laxity in the Galilee in tannaitic times or later. On the contrary, our study finds time and again that tannaitic sources attributed to the Galileans a higher degree of stringency in halakhic observance than to the Judeans[I]n most cases, the Galileans were more stringent in regard to the law than their Judean coreligionists. Other instances indicate that differences of practice were minor or resulted from distance from the Temple. In no case did the sources portray the Galileans as lenient or less observant (Schiffman, “Was There a Galilean Halakhah?,” 144–45).

Shmuel Safrai has also noted this Galilean stringency (Safrai, “The Jewish Cultural Nature of Galilee in the First Century,” 174–80).

Turnage suggests, “Galilean adherence to Jewish law undoubtedly developed under the influence of Sages in Galilee during the Early Roman period.” (see above)

France’s result as quoted by Taylor

…even an impeccably Jewish Galilean in first-century Jerusalem was not among his own people; he was as much a foreigner as an Irishman in London or a Texan in New York. His accent would immediately mark him out as “not one of us,” and all the communal prejudice of the supposedly superior culture of the capital city would stand against his claim to be heard even as a prophet, let alone as the “Messiah,” a title which, as everyone knew, belonged to Judea (cf. John 7:40-42).

jesusboat5This is not the case. While we must assess for the development of cultural distinctions between Galilee and Judea, we must also take into account how the two Jewish revolts affected these areas. Furthermore, the pilgrimage festivals, Jesus’ desire to be in Jerusalem (as well as his family’s yearly journeys to Jerusalem), and Pharisaic presence in the Galilee suggest that there is a close connection between the two geographical locations.

To Taylor’s final point:

This may at first blush sound like interesting background material that is not especially helpful for reading and interpreting the gospels. But Mark and Matthew have structured their narratives around a geographical framework dividing the north and the south, culminating in the confrontation of this prophet from Galilee and the religious establishment of Jerusalem.

Coming this far, we must re-imagine Taylor’s final sentiment. When Jesus enters Jerusalem, it is his overwhelming popularity that prevents the priestly elite from getting a hold of him (Luke 19:48).  So we have clear evidence in the Gospels that a Galilean finds acceptance, and was in fact “at home,” in Jerusalem. In fact those that cried over Jesus during the crucifixion were referred to as the “daughters of Jerusalem” (Luke 23:28).

Thus, it is clear that Jesus the Galilean, and by extension the Galileans, generally speaking did not find Jerusalem to be an alien city, religiously, culturally, or linguistically. To do so is to misread the evidence and the unnecessary consequence of tearing Jesus from his Jewish culture.

Other resources: Mark Chancey, The Myth of the Gentile Galilee (SNTSMS; Cambridge, 2004). 

-Jeff García. Ph.D. Cand.


9 thoughts on “The Myth of a Non-Jewish Galilee Must End!

  1. Pingback: Myth of a Less-Jewish Galilee

    • Derek, thanks for the repost. I thought I had posted a comment regarding the language situation in the Land of Israel during the time of Jesus but it seems to have not been submitted. I will repost at some point in a blog.

  2. Pingback: History Channel’s Bible Series: The Good, the Bad, and the Minutiae | Nyack College: Graduate Programs in Ancient Judaism and Christian Origins

  3. May I demur on your characterisation of Samaria as ‘non-Jewish’? While Samaritans and their neighbours surely had a long history of mutual hostility, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who wasn’t au courant with minutiae of doctrine and practice would have been able to tell a Jerusalemite Jew from a Samaritan Jew.

    Is there any room left for differentiation of Galileans from Judeans, as John seems to take for granted?

    • Thanks for your comment. The characterization of Samaria is not mine, however, it is R.T. France’s via Justin Taylor. That said, I would agree with your assessment. Although, in terms of religious tradition, I am not sure if the Samaritans would have worn tzitzit or phylacteries, though the verses where such practice is derived appear in the Sam Pent.

      Surely, there would have been differences between both regions in the Second Temple period, but many of these have been overblown.

      The differences between the Galileans and Judaeans, which appear in the Gospel of John, reflect the growing tension that existed in post-70 Judaism and finds attestation in Rabbinic Literature.

  4. Blown, overblown, underblown — scholars are apt to make mountains out of molehills while they ignore the pinnacle looming right in front of them.

    So your position is that Galileans and Judeans evince no regional rivalry (or that such rivalriy was minimal, subject to being ‘overblown’) — after having been governed as or by distinct regimes for hundreds of years, and only ‘reunited’ by force of conquest under Aristobulus, with compulsory circumcision? It seems much more likely to me that the two regions (separated by Jewish-ish Samaria) showed the sort of rivalries and distinctions one can observe between Scots and Irish immigrants, between residents of the Michigan mitten and the Upper Peninsula, Duke and Chapel Hill, and so on. That we have texts that suggest such tensions tends to confirm their existence, doesn’t it? On what basis would one dismiss a general social proclivity toward regional tension affirmed by reports of tensions — is there positive evidence of Judean/Galilean harmony?

    Understand, I’m not positing hostility on the scale of Judean-Samaritan hostility (nothing like a common enemy to bring people, Judeans and Galileans, together) nor despicable lies that associate Galilee with an Aryan Jesus; some degree of regional tension seems an eminently plausible outcome of the different histories of these different locales and for the texts that bespeak a degree of rivalry between the two.

    • No…My position is that a regional rivalry, however that might display itself, was not one that separated the Galilee from Jewish culture and religion, in that it was distinct or something other, especially as it was expressed in Jerusalem or in the Temple.

      Regional differences that do appear seem to be expressed in intra-religious debates on practicum. We should read this, however, as a connective since it indicates that the south is willing to accept that the north has a opinion to be heard, though they might disagree.

      The differences are generally dialectal and Torah observance. Dialectal differences do not indicate a separation of religious practice and Torah observance as seen in Rabbinic literature has been dealt with by L. Schiffman and referenced in my post. But, again, since certain Rabbis are interested in record them it indicates a connective. Furthermore, some of our more prominent rabbinic figures come from the Galilee. Furthermore, I would argue that the willingness to move Judaism’s center to the Galilee, like Sepphoris where the Mishnah is edited, indicates a historic relationship that existed in the pre Rabbinic, even pre-70 era.

      Regarding the Second Temple period, specifically, most of this though on the regional “hostility” seems to stem from this myth of a Gentile Galilee (the opening, full-scale salvo against this myth was published by Marc Chancey, THE MYTH OF A GENTILE GALILEE). This myth appears to originate from the thought that Aristobulus I forcefully converted a Gentile population and that this population developed into later Galilean Jewry. Archaeology, however, has already shown a significant Jewish presence in the Galilee from the days of John Hyrcanus (Aristobulus I’s father). This presence appears to have been the result of a migration of Jews from Judea. So it has been argued that the Judaean immigrants brought with them their social attachments to their southern neighbors (this has been dealt with in a soon to be published manuscript regarding the linguistic ethos of the Galilee in the Second Temple period).

      So my contention is not that there were NO regional differences, just that these differences did not cause a stark separation and further that Galilean Jews participated in a religious observance that was similar to those in Judea and more importantly Jerusalem.

  5. “No stark separation”, “no Gentile Galilee”, “differences are generally dialectal and Torah observance” — 100% agreement.

    “This presence appears to have been the result of a migration of Jews from Judea.” Is that the only explanation, or the best explanation, relative to the possibility or likelihood that people never stopped worshipping the God of Israel in the territory north of Samaria?

    If we don’t begin from an assumption of uniformity in notions of cultural identity — that is, if we allow that northern devotees of the God of Israel may have reckoned certain aspects of that devotion more important, or differently important, than did Judean devotees, why do we need to suppose that there was ever an abrupt change in theology and practice between the fall of Samaria and the ‘reconquest’ of Iturea/Galilee? After hundreds of years of political/theological difference (manifest in both the rivalry between Judah and Israel and in the tensions over the restored Temple), is it not simpler just to suppose that the changes wrought by Hasmonean engagement were political (wresting the region from Seleucid rule) and theological (enforcing Judean custom on northerners more accustomed to local observance)?

    But these are areas with less evidence than warrants loud claims of certainty; we’ve attained agreement on the basics, and strong unanimity on opposing the myth of a Gentile Galilee (hats off to Mark for his salvo against that notion), and that’s welcome.

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