Socio-Economics in First-Century Galilee

I recently reviewed Sean Freyne’s The Jesus Movement and Its Expansion, and I found it to be a stimulating book that challenged some popular ideas about Jesus and his time in Galilee. Freyne was a well-known expert on Galilee and he began this new book with three chapters on the history and culture of the region in the first century. He challenges the common assumption that Galilee was a Gentile region in comparison to Judea. While the region was encircled by Gentile cities, a strong Judean presence was in Galilee with “a long-standing and deep attachment to the symbols of Jerusalem and its Temple” (48). From the Hasmonean period on there was a “steady growth” in the number of settlements with a distinctive Judean ethos (18). Evidence for this comes from the presence of miqva’oth throughout the region and a few traces of pre-70 C.E. synagogues (Khirbet Qana and Magdala, for example).

GamlaThe synoptic Gospels do in fact portray Jesus as frequently teaching in synagogues in Galilee. There are leaders in those synagogues who challenge Jesus on Sabbath traditions or other important symbols of Judaism. If Galilee were predominately Gentile, it would seem strange to find a synagogue in the small, poor villages. One problem is perhaps the frequent publication of photographs of the fourth to fifth century Capernaum synagogue in textbooks about Jesus. In Four Portraits, Strauss proper identifies it as a late synagogue in the caption to the photo on page 129, but by placing the image on a page describing early Jewish synagogues, it gives the read the impression a first-century Galilean synagogue was an impressive building. That is likely not the case. The synagogue at Gamla is a better example of the size of a pre- A. D. 70 structure. Nevertheless, even Galilean Jews were concerned with their traditions.

Freyne also challenges the usual description of the economic and social conditions of Galilee. This is ground Freyne has covered elsewhere in more detail. He begins with the economy of the Hasmonean state, suggesting that Galilee experience some growth as Judeans moved into the region for economic reasons. While Herod is sometimes characterized as an oppressive ruler for the “ordinary people,” Freyne insists the Herodian period not necessarily characterized by oppression and extreme poverty. He cites several examples of Herod providing for the people in times of drought or famine (118). Even under Antipas, the ruler functioned as a Roman benefactor.

Here Freyne is reacting to the work of Crossan and others who tend to overplay poverty as a factor for describing the culture of Galilee during the ministry of Jesus. He lists a number of items drawn from Mark’s gospel and Josephus indicating a more robust economy than usually granted. For example, In Mark 6:56, people could be expected to have money to provide food for themselves; in Mark 1:20 fishermen hired servants; in Mark 5:26 (cf., Life, 403) people who provided medical services expected to be paid (132).

The bottom line here is simply that Galilee was not an economic backwater nor was it less “Jewish” than Judea. (An important resource for the archaeology of the Period is collection of essays, The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus, follow the link for a PDF version of the book.) As far as we know in the Gospels, Jesus does not go to the major centers of Gentile population (Sepphoris and Tiberius). The Galilee we know from the Gospels is more or less Jewish and those Jews are interested in the symbols of Jewish identity. For the most part Jesus interacts with common Jewish people, but occasionally a Pharisee or well-placed leader in a synagogue. While there is certainly some prejudice against Galileans in Acts 4:13 and other texts, the region should not be thought of as backwater populated primarily with poverty-stricken uneducated Jews.

8 thoughts on “Socio-Economics in First-Century Galilee

  1. This post was very interesting to me, Professor Long. I was especially intrigued at how you pointed out we cannot assume all the people Jesus ministered to and especially pertaining to this post, those who lived in Galilee, were poor. I think sometimes we read through the scriptures and compare the people then with our current way of living and imagine them barely making it by each day. However, in Four Portraits, Strauss describes many trades on pages 157-159 that the people were involved with. They were not poor in their own lives. This is a concept I came to understand having lived in Tanzania several years. Their standard of living may be different than ours but their essential needs are worked for and met, it is the way of life they know and thrive in. This is a good thing to remember as we read the Bible and go about our lives, God provides for our basic needs (Philippians 4:19).

  2. This was a great read and I think it is definitely true that Jesus did not only interact with the poor. In fact I am thinking of the Rich Ruler who comes to Jesus and asks how he can enter the kingdom of God. Jesus replies that the man must sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor (acknowledgement that there are poor still), then follow Him. The rich ruler chooses not to follow Jesus because he is wealthy and does not want to give up all of his possessions (Luke 18:15-25). Perhaps we think of the poor being the only interactions Jesus’ had in Galilee because those were usually the ones that chose to follow him. Aside from say, Zacchaeus and Mathew who were tax-collectors. Jesus emphasized that is was easier for poor men to enter the kingdom of God than rich men, which is why I relate more to hearing about the poor more than the rich. That being said, I am extremely wealthy in regards to the world, so I find this challenging because like the rich ruler, God calls me to give of myself and the blessings he has given to me, but rarely do I give sacrificially. It is interesting to think through Jesus’ teaching to the poor and the rich and the contrast found there.

  3. This is definitely an interesting thing to think about. Because of the way that people generally think of Galilee, that has always been the way I think about it. Also, if we watch the ‘Jesus’ movies, all of society that is not in a big city is portrayed as being poor and poverty stricken. By saying that it is the opposite, it definitely changes my perspective. We were discussing David Hume in class a few weeks ago and one of the arguments he had about Jesus’ miracles was that He only did them around un-educated Jews who were not reliable to listen to. It’s good to have this confirmed false from another person’s perspective who obviously knows what he is talking about. Personally I have found it to be easy to come to my own judgments of an idea and to stick with it no matter what other people say. But Freyne’s new perspective of Galilee is a reminder that we shouldn’t grow complacent with what we learn. There is always something else out there that we can read or learn about. And we should always be willing to listen.

  4. I think this was a great post to be able to really get me thinking about knowing what exactly we are reading, who Jesus is talking to and where are important things to find out. It is important for us to get out of this that those people who were living in Galilee were not more Jewish or less Jewish than the people of Judea. Jesus interacted with different types of people, Jews and non Jews, Jesus spoke in towns all over, we need to recognize who Jesus is speaking to each time he talks and that will help us understand even more.

  5. I reading Mark 3:1-6, I have been attempting to form a realistic vision in my mind that would accurately portray the dynamics of those moments. Just reading this little article has given my some material from which to construct something of an accurate view. Since Jesus was being followed by a mix of Jews from about the region, it is evident that some Jews had enough to not be working daily.

  6. I reading Mark 3:1-6, I have been attempting to form a realistic vision in my mind that would accurately portray the dynamics of those moments. Just reading this little article has given my some material from which to construct something of an accurate view. Since Jesus was being followed by a mix of Jews from about the region, it is evident that some Jews had enough to not be working daily.
    Thank you for the information, it was helpful.

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