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).
The 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.