Galilee in the Time of Christ

Galilee, a name well-known and much loved by many around the world. But in Christ’s time, the rabbis and religious leaders looked on Galilee with disdain. They viewed Judea proper, with its traditional lore and academic excellence, as far superior. The Galileans, they felt, were nothing but hot-headed country bumpkins.

Israel’s northernmost region

This nothernmost region of Israel lies south of Lebanon.

It was originally assigned to the tribes of Naphtali and Dan. The Hebrew word Galilaea means “the heathen circle or district” because it had many Gentile inhabitants even as far back as Isaiah’s time. It is also where Jesus was raised and spent much of his life.

Galilee was divided into two sections

Both the Talmud (Judaism’s main text) and Josephus (a 1st century Jewish historian) divided Galilee into two main parts, upper and lower, which refer as much to their terrain as their geographical positions.

Upper Galilee, with its more mountainous landscape, lies just above the Sea of Galilee, with Lower Galilee to the west of it. Upper Galilee is characterized by higher mountains and deeper valleys than those of the Lower portion. Its tallest peak, Har Maron, reaches 1208 meters (3963 feet) above sea level, while Lower Galilee’s highest peaks lie below 600 meters (1970 feet).

Upper Galilee

This mountainous area with its magnificent scenery and bracing air, is in part, the scene for the Song of Solomon (7:5). But its caves and strongholds also formed ideal shelter for robbers, outlaws, and rebel chiefs. Some of the most dangerous characters came out of these highlands.

Lower Galilee

Although its landscape is less dramatic than that of Upper Galilee, it is greener and more accessible. Much of Isreal’s produce comes from farms located here. And it is also home to Scripture’s Sycamore tree. A delicate fig tree, easily destroyed by cold, which only grows here and in the Jordan Valley, where Zaccheus climbed that ever famous Sycamore.

Lower Galilee was Galilee proper

Lower Galilee was known as Galilee proper. And it was in this section, from the crowded shore to the great inland caravan road, Galilee teemed with activity. Caravans passed through all day, bringing riches from the East and returning home with western luxuries.

Connecting Damascus in the east and the great Ptolemaic market on the Mediterranean shore, this road passed through Nazareth (Christ’s hometown) and Bethsaida (the house of fishes), where Andrew and Peter were born. Then continued on through Capernaum, where Matthew manned his tax booth, and Magdala (the cloth dyeing city) and home of Mary Magdalene. A city known for both its great wealth and great wickedness. And on to Tiberias, a splendid but heathen city.

Many foreigners settled there, and with the constant trade and intercourse with foreigners, the narrow-minded bigotry found to the south in Judea would have been nearly impossible.

Galilee: a beautiful, fertile region

The Rabbis spoke of olive oil flowing like a river and rich, generous wine. And in this fertile region of abundant corn, flax, and fruit, living was easier and less expensive.

Josephus spoke of the region in ecstatic terms, perhaps while viewing from the Galilean heights, the merchant ships lining the sea’s harbors. Or the sailing vessels dotting the sea, carrying goods from the potteries, dye works, and glass furnaces along its shores.

At the southern tip of Lake Galilee we come upon Cana, Nathanael’s birthplace, where Christ performed both his first and second miracles. Firstly turning water into wine (John 2:1-11), and secondly when the new wine of the kingdom was first tasted by Gentile lips (John 4:46-47).

Jewish recollections of the early Christians center chiefly around Galilee and its people

People whom Josephus described as warm-hearted, impulsive, and generous. Intensely national in the best sense, and conscientious. And with more earnestness in practical piety and strictness of life than the Pharisees, but without their religiosity.

Their hot blood made them quarrelsome, and they were in constant rebellion against Rome. Yet according to Josephus, they were hard-working, manly, and brave. And even the Talmud  (Jer. Cheth. iv. 14) admits that they cared more about honor than money.

Galilee, with it’s beautiful vegetation, fertile orchards, and deep blue sea, have often been describe.

Yet, when most of us think of Galilee, we don’t think of the fertile fields and orchards. Nor of the beautiful azure water, nestled among rolling hills and busy towns. We don’t see, in our mind’s eye, the white sails furling on the waters.

We only think of one man

Galilee was a beautiful place, even in Christ’s time. Yet the thing that made it both famous and most special was that Man who walked its shores and calmed it storms. He made it even more beautiful!

The man from Galilee whose feet walked those shores. We envision him there teaching, working, and praying for us all. In our minds, we see the One who walked on those shores and calmed its storms.

That same One who, after his resurrection, met his disciples there once again. Speaking words, his last on earth, that still resound with great meaning. And that even today, in our turbulent times, carry great significance.

Jesus said to him, If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!

John 21:22 ESV

And still today he is asking the same question: ‘Why should you care about what could or might happen? Just follow me.’

Source: Sketches of Jewish Social Life, Chapter 3 “In Galilee at the time of our Lord.” By Alfred Edersheim.

Images from Christ on shore by | Sea of Galilee by David Padfield | Mountains on Sea of Galillee by heathertruett;
Maps: Galilee by Daniel Barànek | Upper/lower Galilee derived from Israel Location Ma.

8 thoughts on “Galilee in the Time of Christ

  1. And yet one of the most challenging statements ever made, living in a world where we want to follow our own ways, our own paths, our own decisions. Thanks for this beautiful and thorough picture of the region. Everything Jesus touches–and touches–makes it more special.


    1. Thanks Dayle, but the credit really goes to Alfred Edersheim with his “Sketches of Jewish Social Life.” I have learned so much from him.
      Follow me. Such simple words, but so hard to practice full-heartedly. And you’re right. Galilee is special because of Christ’s touch!


  2. Steve and I had the privilege of visiting Galilee about twenty years ago. What a thrill to stand on a Galilean hillside and imagine Jesus teaching the crowds and healing their sick, to sail across the Sea of Galilee and imagine Jesus and his disciples criss-crossing its waters, and visiting Nazareth, Capernaum, and Cana–and imagine the miracles He performed there. God did indeed bless the land of Zebulun and Naphtali–the land of hot-headed, country bumpkins (!)–when Jesus ministered there (Isaiah 9:1)!


    1. Yes Nancy, he did indeed bless that land abundantly. We’ve never been to Israel, but I can understand how you felt. We have walked some of Paul’s paths here in Italy – The Three Taverns, Via Appia, Puteoli, etc. And it does give you a thrill to be there. Helps one feel and understand a little more of the Bible stories and passages. Special little blessings, indeed!


    1. Yes Ron, that really is what it all comes down to. Why are we sometimes foolish enough to set our eyes and hearts on other things? Good thing the Lord is so patient with us!!

      Liked by 1 person

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