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Yeshua in Context » Background to Gospels, Geography » Galilee: Jewish or Gentile Place?

Galilee: Jewish or Gentile Place?

Galilee in Yeshua’s time has gotten a bad reputation as a place of Greek cynics and Roman officials, with a weak Jewish culture. There are two sources, one biblical and one a trend in archaeological thought, that have led to this misunderstanding. But the evidence is overwhelming: Galilee was a Jewish region, fiercely loyal to the Torah, and which had only pockets of Greco-Roman settlements.

The biblical verses which have lent credence to the gentile Galilee view are in Isaiah 8:23 (9:1 in Christian Bibles) and Matthew 4:15, which speak of “Galilee of the gentiles.” In Isaiah’s prophecy, this is looking ahead to the days when Assyria will deport foreign peoples to Galilee. In Matthew, there may be some sense in Yeshua’s time that Galilee still was thought to have a higher concentration of gentiles than Judea.

But the gentile Galilee theory, which asserts that Yeshua was heavily influenced by wandering cynic philosophers (Burton Mack and John Dominic Crossan suggest Yeshua patterned his traveling and teaching after these cynics), goes too far. Craig Evans provides overwhelming evidence of the Jewish character of Galilee in Yeshua’s time (see The Cambridge Companion to Jesus):

(1) Sepphoris, a town very near Nazareth, was thought to be very Greco-Roman, but in the pre-70 CE layers researchers have found almost no pig bones (whereas these make up 30% of the remains after 70 CE).

(2) Jewish items including stone vessels (important for purity regulations) have been found in quantity in Sepphoris as well as mikvahs (Jewish ritual baths for purification).

(3) Coins in Sepphoris from pre-70 layers do not have the image of emperors or pagan gods (but these are very much present in 2nd Century coins).

(4) There are no Greco-Roman baths, coliseum, hippodrome, etc., in the pre-70 period.

(5) Jewish objects such as oil lamps with a menorah decoration and a fragment of Hebrew writing have been found here from the pre-70 period.

(6) Throughout Galilee, Jewish pottery is widespread, but non-Jewish pottery exists only in Greco-Roman settlements. Jews avoided gentile pottery due to concerns about impurity. This shows that Galilean Jews practiced the dietary laws.

(7) Revolts in Galilee in 4 BCE, 6 CE, and Galilean participation in the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE) show that Galilee was fiercely Jewish and resented gentile domination.

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