Galilee (Heb., galil, “circle”) is the region to the North of Israel. In ancient times the boundaries of the region were vague, but by the beginning of the Christian era, Galilee was a Roman province comprising all of what was then Northern Palestine West of the River Jordan and Lake Tiberias. The region is generally mountainous and is divided geographically into Upper Galilee in the North and Lower Galilee in the South. Peaks in Upper Galilee attain heights of about 900 m (3,000 ft) above sea level, with Mount Meiron rising 1,208 m (3,963 ft); the terrain in the South is more level. The entire region is well watered; the mountain slopes are covered with shrubs, and grain is cultivated on the large plains. Upper Galilee was long famous for the cultivation of olives and grapes. During ancient times the area contained numerous towns and villages and was heavily populated with Syrians, Phoenicians, Arabs, Greeks, and Jews.
In AD 70, Tiberias, one of the important cities in Galilee, became a centre of rabbinical learning after the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem. In 1516, Galilee was included in the area that became the Turkish province of Syria. After World War I, the League of Nations assigned the mandate for Palestine to Great Britain. In 1947, when the General Assembly of the United Nations partitioned Palestine into an Arab and a Jewish state, Galilee was included in the Jewish sector and subsequently became part of Israel. In 1952 the Beit Natufa Dam, part of an irrigation system, was constructed here. (11)
At Jesus’ time Galilee was a separate country, politically, geographically and religiously. Whereas Judea is an arid country in springtime, Galilee is a most startling green agricultural place and very fertile too even then. The inland lake known as the Sea of Galilee is the base of a rich fishing industry that helped to feed the local population including Jerusalem. It was one of the richest region of Palestine and also the most independent province having very little to do with the Romans compared to Judea and Jerusalem. During Jesus’ lifetime it was administered by the Herodian Tetrarch Antipas (4 BC – 39 AD) followed by Agrippa (39 – 44 AD). It had a kind of autonomous government in religious as well as in political affairs. It even had a religious Parliament or Sanhedrin that met from time to time. There were few Pharisees in Galilee and, if only for this reason, Galilee was said to be lax in religion.
The mountainous North of Galilee beyond Capernaum was infected with bandits of all kinds but it was also the centre of political disturbance. Most of the Jews who rose against the Romans were the “Galilean brigands” known as Zealots. The Judeans were more passive and had to be forced to act by their Northern neighbours. All these rebellions were severely punished by the Romans and their leaders were usually crucified.
In addition Galilee is also known for producing many holy men called Hasidin. These were healers as well as wonder and miracle-workers and, if only for this, they were very popular among the local people. They were very religious, but at the same time more casual towards ritual observance, and lived in great simplicity.
It is out of this Galilee of religiously independent people, healers, revolutionaries, freedom-fighters, rich farmers and fishermen that Jesus came from and more precisely from Nazareth, a small hill town. Later on he moved with his family to Capernaum at the Northern end of the Sea of Galilee as the result, as Luke said, of proclaiming himself the Anointed one after reading a page of the Scriptures in the Synagogue. At the beginning Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him and they tried to restrain him thinking that he was mad. They did agree with his choice of companions that included swindlers, drunkards, prostitutes and even some who conspired to overthrow the power of Rome by armed insurrection. Even if he preached monogamy he encouraged his followers to leave their own family, including their wives and children, to follow him. This confirms that he was in conflict with his family and perhaps with his wife if he had one. Only in the end was his family supporting him as, for instance, when he was crucified, only his mother stood at the foot of the cross after that all his friends and followers had escaped. In addition, following Jesus’ death, it was his family who kept the message alive (in a form completely different with that of the Gentile church of Paul) and the early church was presided by his brother, James. This does not necessarily mean that they thought that Jesus was the Messiah but that he had an important role to play in the religion of Israel.
After following John the Baptist in the desert Jesus disappointed him by failing to live up to his Messianic promises. It looks like Jesus himself decided to replace the austere call to repentance, as preached by John, by the announcement that he had good news for the poor. Useless to say that this change was not accepted easily by his family as well as by John. It is only after his death that his family was able to carry on the message the way they wished it to be told. If it is true that he was trained from an early age to become a religious leader and that he was for a time an austere follower of John the Baptist in the Judean desert, then he would have missed the direct contact with the poor people that he loved above all and to whom he chose to preach later on. If he was well versed in the Law, as all the evidences suggest, Jesus does not appear to be a very practical man. His knowledge in agriculture, carpentry, trade and fishery is, to say the least, limited. On the other hand Paul was a tentmaker and Peter, Andrew and John, the sons of Zebedee, were fishermen.
The present Gospels are not too clear on the subject of the relations between Jesus and his family. We must remember that our Gospels find their origin in Greek books written for Gentile audiences with all the editing and alterations that were required by the Gentile church who had no direct knowledge of Jesus’ life and family.
Nazareth was probably a small place at that time but the shores of the Sea of Galilee and Capernaum were highly populated whereas to-day it is almost deserted. Capernaum, for instance, is now an archaeological site, full of ruins. At that time it was an important place for the Romans as it marked the limit between the tetrachy of Herod Antipas and the territory assigned to Philip. The inhabitants traded mainly with the Northern countries (Upper Galilee, Golan, Syria, Phoenicia, Asia Minor and Cyprus) rather that with Palestine at the South. Josephus who was Governor of Galilee thirty years after Jesus’ death wrote that the land was rich, fertile and fully cultivated.
Jesus chose to settle in Capernaum because his first followers Simon Peter, Andrew and John were living there working as fishermen on the lake. There was already a synagogue in the first century and Jesus preached in it. Jesus was much in demand as an exorcist and this, in addition to his ability to heal the sick, contributed a lot to his reputation in this area even if he was not the only miracle-worker there. It was to the poor or “lost sheep of the house of Israel” that Jesus talked too. However in addition to curing the sick he also tried to cure the ills of Israel.
The various Jewish sects of that time were very exclusive and choosy, the disciple required from their members was thought to be too hard for ordinary people. The Essenes and Sadducees felt that the salvation of Judaism and Israel required orthodox solutions. The New Testament also tells us that the Pharisees were also very exclusive. They were influenced in their ideas by the presence of the Romans soldiers in Palestine. The Qumrân community thought to solve the problems of Israel by withdrawal, in opposition to the Zealots who wanted to solve them by armed insurrection. Most Jews thought that they could not expel the Romans and accepted to compromise. This led in some cases of open collaboration as with the “Publicans”, or tax collectors, who were well hated by their fellow Jews. If Jesus had chosen to become a member of such a community as in Qumrân he would have been protected of the day to day problems of the people of Israel. On the other hand he could have become a member of one of the numerous sects and behave like the other members. He did not and he was not a Zealot, an Essene or a Pharisee but he was mad enough to go on his own.
All the Gospels agree that Jesus chose twelve disciples, twelve being the number of the Old Tribes of Israel. They were representatives of Israel at that time as he wanted his Kingdom to be and not an exclusive sect: there was Simon the Zealot, Judas Iscariot was a member of the violent band of the “Sicari”, fishermen, an ex-tax collector Matthew,… Josephus tells us that the zealots were the more active in armed struggle against the Romans; even after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD they retreated to the fortress of Masada where they fought for three more years. When the end came they would not surrender and, after killing their family, they committed a mass suicide. They were men of violence albeit for a noble cause. The “Sicari” specialised in assassinating enemies by hiding in crowds to stab them and then escaping detection. Jonathan, the high priest, was their first victim followed by many others. The composition of the group tells us that Jesus was involved in Jewish patriotic actions and that his disciples were a group of armed rebels (Galileans, says Josephus, are fighters from the cradles). Jesus’ Twelve disciples became for Jesus a substitute for his family. He went as far as saying that they, the twelve disciples and all his followers, were his true family. If this is true or not, it is difficult to say. It could have been written in the Gospels to please the Gentile Church that was not too happy with the family-dominated Church of Jerusalem as it could be what Jesus said. On many occasions he took leave of his family, but also of his followers as when he rejected Capernaum later on.
During his Galilean Ministry he did not preach only in Capernaum but he visited many of the local towns and villages on both sides of the lakes. He even preached from a boat while his listeners stood on the shore. The war against the Romans also included some naval engagements on the lake where the Jews were also defeated. He soon got tired of Capernaum where he thought that he was not understood, although his following grew with the number of healing and exorcisms. To-day most men are interested in Jesus’ teaching (or what we have been told it was) but at that time they were more interested in Him as a healer and a miracle-worker. As Jesus never wrote a book he took the risk of his sayings being mis-remembered or misrepresented. The Gospels contain words attributed to Jesus but we are not certain of their accuracy. However these four books, written at different times and places, by different Evangelists and for different audiences, are coherent between them and this is a strong argument to say that they are reporting Jesus’ words. There is no blueprint for a new religion in the Gospels. Jesus did not write the equivalent of the Koran. He always believed in the Jewish Scriptures that he did not want to change or suppress; all he wanted was to be a good Jew, and to persuade his people to be the same. This has some universal significance that goes over the confine of Judaism and has a universal appeal. Judaism, too, is an exclusive religion meant for those who were born in it, but it is also universalist in that it worships the Maker of Heaven and earth and the dispenser on universal moral law. Jesus can be seen as a new Moses that gives the new Torah to his twelve disciples representing the twelve tribes of Israel. These disciples, and later the bishops, are then obliged to transmit the message to the crowd that is not present to Jesus’ preaching. Jesus, like John the Baptist, was a defender of monogamy and, like the Qumrân community, he felt that the Jewish laws were too lax, that it was not correct to divorce and remarry. But he did not introduce a new Law. He believed that it was not enough just to follow the Torah, but that more is required and each of us must also follow his own conscience and moral feelings.
Many scholars think that when Jesus was preaching about his Kingdom he was looking at the end of time when his Kingdom would be fulfilled. Jesus is also credited with teaching his disciples a first version of the Pater Noster that was foreseeing that God would soon establish a special Kingdom on earth. Kingdom can have different meaning as the Covenant between God and Moses on Sinai, or the individual Jew’s covenant to live as a true child of God. Jesus told his disciples that the Kingdom would come very soon, probably within their lifetime, and, if only for this reason, they had to believe in the Creator. The Jews were, in his opinion, a special people close to God, a kind of light of the world that he was supposed to make it shine brighter. However his Kingdom was admitting also the sinners in contradiction with the orthodox Jewish faith.
John the Baptist and the Pharisees said that people must first repent and then turn to God. The community of Qumrân were more exclusive. Jesus was more open and accepted men in his Kingdom even before they repented. God was the final judge and, often, arbitrary accepted non-virtuous and poor people. His “Christian” followers, like we read in the “Acts of the Apostles” and in St Paul’s Epistles, were not so generous and they expelled sinners out of the Church and, sometimes, killed them. For the Jews, man can decide how much to follow God’s Holy Laws but if he follows the Torah he will please his Creator and will be saved. For Jesus observance alone was not enough: all the people had to be saved and this included the untouchable, the impure, the outcasts and the sinners. This message was, of course, very popular and crowds of people were always following him in his journeys in Galilee. When he spoke his preaching was regarded as revolutionary for he talked with authority, and not as a scribe. (18)