Galilee, Jesus' Home Region


"Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people" (Matthew 4:23).

According to John's Gospel, two days after meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well (John 3:43), Jesus left for his native Galilee. He decided to preach his message there because he knew its roads, towns and villages, and he understood his fellow Galileans.


Spotlight on "Galilee"

Roughly speaking everything north and east of the modern city of Haifa was known as Galilee and this most famous region covers an area some 50 miles from north to south and 25 miles east to west. Under the Romans this small area in northern Palestine was a fixed administrative distinct; earlier its boundary was vague and variable. In ancient times, as now, it was Israel's lushest region, known for its sunny, temperate climate and its spring-watered lands. Each spring the valleys and slopes became an ocean of wildflowers and blossoming trees. Beginning in March the area was covered by a vast blanket of green. The fertile land was a texture of vineyards and fruit orchards. Grapes, figs, olives, pomegranates, oranges and other fruits flourished in its pleasant, subtropical climate. 1st century AD Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who knew the area well, wrote this about it:

"...Its nature is wonderful as well as its beauty; its soil is so fruitful that all sorts of trees can grow upon it, and the inhabitants accordingly plant all sorts of trees there; for the temper of the air is so well mixed, that it agrees very well with those several sorts, particularly walnuts, which require the coldest air, flourish there in vast plenty; there are palm trees also, which grow best in hot air; fig trees also and olives grow near them, which yet require an air that is more temperate. One may call this place the ambition of nature, where it forces those plants that are naturally enemies to one another to agree together; it is a happy contention of the seasons, as if every one of them laid claim to this country; for it not only nourishes different sorts of autumnal fruit beyond men's expectation, but preserves them a great while; it supplies men with the principal fruits, with grapes and figs continually, during ten months of the year and the rest of the fruits as they become ripe together through the whole year" (Wars of the Jews, book 3, chapter 10:8).

This natural beauty and abundance attracted a large, racially mixed population who lived in rural towns and villages scattered throughout the hills and along the shores of the Sea of Galilee, the district's largest fresh water lake. Josephus recorded that it had 204 villages, each with a population of no less than 15,000, making a total of three million! Although Josephus was governor of the Galilee for a time, historians believe the figure is exaggerated. A more reasonable estimate for the time of Jesus would be about 350,000, including a large number of slaves and about 100,000 Jews. The primary language was Greek, which was widely known and spoken throughout the Roman Empire. it was the language of the rich and powerful, the language of the Herods; but it was also the language of international business. Many Jews, though, including Jesus and his disciples, spoke Aramaic, the language of the ordinary people. About 400 years before Jesus' time it became customary, even among rabbis, to teach in Aramaic. It was preferred over Hebrew because it was more highly evolved and more suitable for expressing thoughts and ideas.


Following the death of Solomon, Galilee formed the northern part of the Kingdom of Israel, and from then on it was considered non-Jewish, in the sense that it was not part of the southern Kingdom of Judah. In 734 BC it was absorbed into the Assyrian Empire by Tiglath-pileser. From that time on the conquered area, primarily consisting of the old tribal territories of Naphtali and Asher, was referred to as the galil, Hebrew meaning "circle," "circuit" or "district." Isaiah (9:1) called the region "Galilee ha-gohim" or "Galilee of the gentiles" (NIV) or "Galilee of the nations" (KJV), reflecting the fact that from the 8th to the 2nd centuries BC, it was controlled successively by the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, Egyptians and Seleucids. Over these six centuries the region experienced constant migration as foreigners moved into the region and freely mixed with the Jews. At the time of Jesus (1st century AD) there were so much foreign influence that Galileans could be recognized by their distinctive accent, as in the case of Peter when confronted in the courtyard of the home of the high priest Caiaphas on the night of Jesus' betrayal: "Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away" (Matthew 26:73). Bet you never thought of Jesus speaking with an accent!!!

The Jewish population of Galilee was a minority among the dominant Gentiles and it remained small as late as Maccabean times and was reduced still further when the Gentile forces of Galilee were defeated by Simon, brother of the great hero, Judas Maccabee, and many Jews were evacuated to Judea for security reasons. Galilee was not governed by the Jews until 80 BC, when the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) attempted to Judaize the population and reunite it with Judea (Greek for "Judah"). Its people were given a choice: circumcision or banishment. Jewish families were transported to Galilee and given large tracts of land. It was also during Hasmonean times that Galilee assumed more definite boundaries.

In 63 BC the whole of Palestine, with Galilee, came under Roman rule. When the kingdom of Herod the Great was split into three parts in 4 BC, Sepphoris, near Nazareth, became the capital of Galilee, until replaced by Tiberias around 25 AD, during the lifetime of Jesus.

Galilee is sharply divided into two sections, Upper Galilee and Lower Galilee, by a tremendous fault cutting west to east across the country between the Mediterranean port city of Akko/Ptolomais to Capernaum on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

Upper Galilee (below left) to the north is largely mountainous, with elevations ranging from 1,500 to 3,963 feet high.

Lower Galilee (below right, looking toward the Sea of Galilee), the principal area of settlement to the south, ranges from 500 feet above sea level to around 700 feet below sea level at the Sea of Galilee (except for the mountains in the southeast which do not exceed 2,000 feet). Jesus' boyhood home of Nazareth is located in Lower Galilee, adjacent to the triangular Jezreel Valley (also called the Plain of Megiddo or Plain of Esdraelon), one of the region's most fertile areas. Quite a number of villages were located in the area, but very few are mentioned in the Gospels. We get the impression, though, that Jesus visited many more on his journeys about the area.

Jesus was never far from the busy comings and goings of merchants and traders as he traveled the roads between towns and villages: men like the "merchant looking for fine pearls" (Matthew 13:45), the "man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them" (Matthew 25:14), and "the younger son (who) got together all he had, (and) set off for a distant country" (Luke 15:13).

These parables short allegorical stories evoked the fields, skies and humble dwellings of Galilee: the tiny mustard seed growing into a great tree, the birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the vineyard, the fig tree. Here is where Jesus spoke of stony places and good ground, of sowing and reaping, of wheat and weeds. He likened the joy in heaven at the saving of a soul to that of a father rejoicing at the return of his "lost" son, or that of a shepherd finding his lost sheep. "With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand" (Mark 4:33). His listeners had only to look around them and understand.

Today the green patchwork of Galilee's cultivated fields crowns the highlands above the Sea of Galilee. Grain nods in the breeze and all the earth seems an endless harvest. It is easy to envision Jesus and his disciples walking through cornfields one long-ago Sabbath, plucking and eating ears of corn. Chastised by Pharisees for violating strict Sabbath laws, Jesus answered, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." (Mark 2:27).

(Below left) small boat on the Sea of Galilee; (Below right) plowing a rocky field

At the time of Jesus, Galilee though largely Gentile had a significant Jewish population. Each town or village Nazareth, Cana, Magdala and Capernaum had at least one synagogue. Here the faithful came three times a day to recite the shema ("hear"), facing Jerusalem:

"Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all soul and with all your strength..." (Deuteronomy 6:4).

The synagogue

Synagogue, from the Greek sunagoge (pronounced "soon-ag-o-gay"), meaning "a bringing together." Synagogues may have originated in the 6th century BC with the Jews exiled in Babylon, far from the Temple in Jerusalem, but by the time of Jesus they had become important institutions. However, scholars have debated the nature of synagogues in the 1st century AD. Did they consist of special structures built as synagogues, or were they just multipurpose buildings and adapted to worship purposes? Josephus states that "the Jews that dwelt at Caesarea (Maritima) had a synagogue" (Wars of the Jews, book 2, chapter 14:4); he mentions another at Antioch in Syria (Wars of the Jews, book 7, chapter 3:3). Synagogues are mention several times in the book of Acts in connection with the early church and the apostle Paul's ministry. Yet, to date, no 1st century synagogue-as-building has been excavated in Galilee. This doesn't mean they didn't exist; they may have been homes converted for use as a synagogues.

Regardless if synagogues were specially-built structures (like this re-creation at Nazareth Village in modern Nazareth (right), or ordinary buildings used for worship, on the Sabbath everyone met there for prayers, Scripture reading and preaching. For public worship, a minimum of 10 adult males had to be in attendance. The five-part service included prayers, psalm-singing, blessings, reading from the Scriptures and commentaries, but there were no sacrifices or standard liturgy. There was no official clergy; a man could be recognized as a leader because of his teaching and thereafter addressed as rabbi (from Hebrew rhabbi "my great one"). The synagogues also served as schools and halls for civic functions where its leaders administered the community's financial affairs and settled differences between members.

Both the religious and civil authorities in Jerusalem looked on Galileans with suspicion. They were widely regarded as yokels, ill-educated in the Mosaic law, and lax in its observance. This attitude is reflected in John 7:49, where Pharisees described Jesus' followers as "this mob that knows nothing of the law there is a curse on them." In John 7, the Jerusalem religious establishment questioned whether the Messiah could come from Galilee:

"Others said, 'He is the Christ.' Still others asked, 'How can the Christ come from Galilee?'" (John 7:41).

The Galileans, however, were probably more aware of the political realities of their day than the religious leaders in Jerusalem, because the great trade routes which traversed the region introduced them to many foreigners from various regions of the Roman empire, the ultimate political power of the time.

The most significant period in the history of Galilee was the thirty-year-plus lifespan of Jesus of Nazareth, and especially his short "active ministry" during which he proclaimed the Gospel of salvation. Except for recorded journeys north to Caesarea Philippi and the district of Tyre and Sidon, east of the Jordan river into the Decapolis region and south to Jerusalem for major festivals, most of Jesus' career took place there, and it effected humanity more than all the centuries of earlier conflicts in this small "galil of the nations."

Jesus' Life Home n Rejection in Nazareth