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.

Israel 2012, Day 8 – Following Jesus in Galilee

Galilee.  We spent today traveling around Galilee, beginning with a drive up to Mount Arbel.  Part of the “Horns of Hattin” the summit is 390 meters above the Sea of Galilee and provides an overall view of the north and west corner of the lake.  There are signs at the top near the Carob Tree lookout which point  out important towns and villages long the shoreline. There are quite a few spectacular photo opportunities at the summit, I have taken group photos at the Carob Tree several times.  Actually, I set the all time record for group photos, using every camera in the group, some twice.

From Arbel we drove through Tiberias to the Jordan River.  It was very quiet there, no other tour busses and few people were at the baptismal site.  We had a chance to stand by the river and talk about about the more likely locations for the baptism of Jesus, then I read from Matthew 3, beginning with John’s preaching and the account of Jesus’ baptism.  Since we had just driven through Nazareth, it was easy to picture Jesus walking from his hometown after he was rejected in the Synagogue to Capernaum.

(As a somewhat oddball aside, there is a small olive tree with a plaque dedicating it to Glenn Beck as a “friend of Israel.”  I decided next time I come to the Jordan I am going to sneak in a plaque with my name on it and stick it some place so I too can have a dedicated tree or bush.  Possibly a shrubbery.)

Since we were on the south end of the lake, we continued north around the east side of the lake (passing Ma’agan, my favorite place to stay in Galilee) and visited Kursi.  This is a little 6th century Byzantine church built near the place Jesus cast out the demon into a herd of pigs.  There are many problems with this tradition, not the least of which is that the cliff the guides point out as “the cliff” is so far from the Lake that the pigs would have to fly several hundred feet to hit the water and drown.  To my knowledge there is no evidence of a cemetery there either.  Still, the location is on a natural road to the Golan Heights, so there may be more to the tradition than meets the eye.  We took a few minutes to read Luke 8:26-39 and I talked a bit about why it is important that the demons knew exactly who Jesus was, while the disciples witnesses the calming of the sea and could only ask, “who is this man?” (Luke 8:25).

We continued around the lake to Capernaum.  The major attraction for most people the site of Peter’s house.  There is a large Catholic church looming over the remains of a house from first century Capernaum and there is very old tradition that this was Peter’s house.  I suppose that this might be true, but that does not matter as much to me as the fact that there is a large fourth century synagogue quite near the house, which appears to have a first century synagogue underneath it. I would love to see more work done on the back corner to determine if that room is in fact the first century synagogue, but it would also be a shame to destroy the beautiful later building.

We took a few minutes to read Mark 2:1-12, another passage where people wonder who Jesus is.  In this case, Jesus claims to forgive sin, prompting a charge of blasphemy in the minds of the teachers of the Law.  Since Jesus did not immediately heal the man, how could he claim to forgive sin!  Yet Jesus does heal the man in order to show that the Son of Man has authority to forgive.  As a bonus, we were able to walk right down to the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where I read John 20, a resurrection appearance of Jesus on the shore of Galilee.  If we assume Peter’s house was on that edge of Capernaum, then it is likely that the beach where Jesus met his disciples was in that area.

After lunch in Nof Ginnosaur, we finished the day at the Mount of the Beatitudes. Like all the sites we visited this day, it was extremely quiet, no tour busses were in the garden when we arrived.  We spent a few minutes quietly inspecting the church and garden and then gathered for a time of reflection in one of the pavilions normally reserved for eucharist.  Another advantage of the January tour is that the place was deserted – usually reservations are required to use those areas (and raging Protestants like me are not likely to get that reservation!)   I read from Matthew 5 and reflected a bit on Jesus and the Law.  Since it was our last time together as a group before some of us split off to go to Petra, we had a time of sharing some of the “highlights” of our short tour.

We are off early tomorrow to cross the border into Jordan.  We have a day of touring on our way down to Petra.  It is hard to believe that this tour is just about over, or that I have to return to the frozen tundra of Michigan in just a few days.

John 4:46-54 – The Second Sign

After spending a short time in Samaria, Jesus returns to Galilee where he was welcomed by the Galileans (4:45). The journey from Sychar to Cana is about 40 miles, about three or four days journey.  We do not know how long Jesus remained in Jerusalem, but this is likely about a week after the encounter with the Samaritan woman. An official from Herod Antipas’ government approaches Jesus in Cana and asks Jesus to heal his son, who is near death in Capernaum.

jesus healing the centurionThe Galileans had attended the Passover feast witnesses his sign at the temple and perhaps other miracles.  “All that he had done at the feast” seems to imply more activity than just the Temple action, but it is Jesus’s words and actions in the Temple which likely attracted their attention.  Galilee has a reputation for rebellion against Rome, in A. D. 6 Judas the Galilean led a movement which refused to pay taxes to Rome.  There was a great deal of animosity between the ultra-poor of Galilee and Rome, represented by the Herodian dynasty.

John was very selective in Gospel. When he chooses to tell us about a miracle or sign, it is for a theological reason. In this case, the faith demonstrated by the official in this sign stands in contrast to the crowd of Galileans who welcomed Jesus – they welcomed him but only because he had done miracles and stirred up the Temple aristocracy.  The Greek verb  δέχομαι (“welcome”) has the sense of being open to another person or idea, perhaps even approving of that idea. For example in Matthew 11:14, Jesus says that if one was willing to accept the idea, John the Baptist was in fact Elijah. We even use the word this way in American English, we can be “open” to ideas in the same way we open our home and offer hospitality.

John knows that later Jesus will be rejected his hometown of Nazareth and in Galilee in general.  Usually it is thought that the main reason is this crowd was interested in Jesus is his miracles.  But perhaps the Galileans witnessed his Temple action and were interested in him as someone who stirs up trouble in Jerusalem. (Galilee was the 99% in the first century!)   The Herod Antipas was not a popular king, The crowd of Galileans may very well have thought that Jesus would continue his protest against wealth and power by pronouncing judgment on this Herodian official who came to beg a healing for his son. The “shock” of the story is that Jesus heals the sick child, but does so in a way that the Galileans do not witness it, despite their preoccupation with seeing a messianic sign.

The point of the signs in John’s gospel is to support the theme for the whole book, Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. He has demonstrated that He is the Messiah in a private sign at a wedding and a public sign at the temple. Now He has healed a person in a way which highlights His power – He was not even present for the child to be healed. The story of the gentile’s belief stands in contrast to 5:31-47, the unbelief of the Jews after a similarly spectacular healing. A clue to the point of the miracle is the three-fold repetition of the phrase, “your son lives” (vv. 50, 51, 53). This is balanced by a three-fold repetition of the developing official’s faith (vv. 48, 50, 53). Beasley-Murray compares this to the theological statements in (5:21, 25-26, 28-29), which are also three-fold. In 5:21 Jesus says that the Son can give life to whomever He wants, including the son of this official.

The official who comes to Jesus moves from pragmatic belief in Jesus to a real faith which effects his whole family as a result of this miracle. This stands in contrast to the Galileans who are interested in a sign, but eventually shift to unbelief and eventually antagonism toward Jesus.