The Myth of a Non-Jewish Galilee Must End!, 1 — J.P. Garcia

In light of the Bible Secrets Revealed series on the history channel, I thought it would be nice to re-post some of our older blogs for new readers. Enjoy!

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 EshelRonny 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.

Check back on Tuesday for the my comment on numbers 3,4,5.

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