Who Were the Galileans in the Days of Jesus?

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Jesus was a Galilean. That much we know. The question of who exactly the Galileans were during biblical times is a much more complicated matter. The origins and identity of the people dwelling in this northernmost part of Israel at the time of the Second Temple remains an unsolved and fascinating riddle of history—made even more interesting by the fact that the Galilee was the venue for most of Jesus’ ministry.

Easton’s Biblical Dictionary tells us: In the time of our Lord, Galilee embraced more than one-third of Western Palestine, extending “from Dan on the north, at the base of Mount Hermon, to the ridges of Carmel and Gilboa on the south, and from the Jordan valley on the east away across the splendid plains of Jezreel and Acre to the shores of the Mediterranean on the west.”

Palestine was divided into three provinces, Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, which comprehended the whole northern section of the country (see Acts 9:31), and was the largest of the three.

It was the scene of some of the most memorable events of Jewish history. Galilee also was the home of our Lord during at least 30 years of His life. The first three Gospels are chiefly taken up with our Lord’s public ministry in this province. The entire province is encircled with a halo of holy associations connected with the life, works, and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.

It is noteworthy that of His 32 beautiful parables, no less than 19 were spoken in Galilee. And it is no less remarkable that of his entire 33 great miracles, 25 were wrought in this province.

His first miracle was wrought at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, and His last, after His resurrection, on the shore of Galilee’s sea. In Galilee our Lord delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and the discourses on The Bread of Life, on ‘Purity, on Forgiveness,’ and on Humility. In Galilee He called His first disciples.

Among the most interesting debates in the field of biblical studies is the question of who-or rather, of what-those disciples were. That the debate continues with undiminished interest is due to the fact that the more we look into the background and nature of Jesus’ Galileans, the less we can say about them with absolute certainty.

One major question is exactly how “Jewish” the Jews of Galilee really were in the Post-Exile period. For most laymen, the question itself is somewhat surprising. They would ask, “Hasn’t Galilee been Jewish since the Twelve Tribes conquered Israel in the 13 century BCE?” The best answer to this question is, yes and no.

The problem can be traced back to historical developments in Ancient Israel, long before the time of Jesus. The tribes of Zebulon, Naphtali, Issachar and Asher settled Galilee. The region later belonged to David’s kingdom and then to the northern nation of Israel. The situation was straightforward enough until the Assyrians under Emperor Tiglath-Pileser III conquered Israel in 733 BCE, and obliterated the kingdom entirely under his successor Shalmaneser V in 722.

Most historians believe that the victorious Assyrians, as was their custom, evacuated and relocated the entire population out of the Galilee and replaced them with other peoples from their far-flung empire.

Out of Jewish sovereignty for the next 600 years, the Galilee returned to Jewish political control when the Hasmonean rulers conquered the region and added it to their short-lived kingdom—along with Idumea, the ancient kingdom of Edom, east of the Dead Sea.

One school of scholarship says that John Hyrcanus forced the Gentile Galileans and Idumeans to convert to Judaism more or less at sword-point, marking the one and only forced mass conversion to Judaism’s in its 4,000-year history. Thus, in Jesus’ time, the Galilee contained many Jews whose ancestors had only been Jewish for about a century.

Another school of thought, however, says that when the Assyrians conquered Israel and evacuated the Galilee, they left the land virtually empty. Says Religion Today contributor Paul Flesher: “At this moment, Galilee drops out of history for the next 600 years. To be sure, 2 Kings 17 tells of the resettlement of Samaria, but Galilee is not mentioned.”

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