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Introduction to Galilee

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Introduction to Galilee

This famous region covers an area some 50 miles from north to south and 25 miles east to west. In the first century, Josephus recorded that this largely gentile area had 204 villages. A reasonable population estimate during that time would be about 350,000, including a large number of slaves and about 100,000 Jews. If that’s true, it means that during the time of Jesus, Galilee was mostly gentile.

Following the death of Solomon, Galilee formed the northern part of the Kingdom of Israel. From then on it was considered non-Jewish, in the sense that it was not part of the southern Kingdom of Judah.

From the time that it was absorbed into the Assyrian Empire in 734 BC it was referred to by the Hebrew word galil, meaning "circle" or "district."


Isaiah (9:1) called the region "Galilee ha-gohim" or "Galilee of the Gentiles", reflecting the fact that from the 8th to the 2nd centuries BC, it was controlled successively by the gentile nations of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Macedonia, Egypt and Seleucia. Over these six centuries the region experienced constant migration as foreigners moved into the area, and freely mixed with the Jews. At the time of Jesus there was so much foreign influence that Galileans could be recognized by their distinctive accent, as in the case of Peter, when he was confronted in the courtyard of the home of the high priest on the night of Jesus' betrayal - "Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away" (Matthew 26:73). This means that Jesus also probably spoke with an accent, unlike the Jews of Jerusalem.


Galilee was not governed by the Jews until 80 BC, when the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) attempted to Judaize the population and reunite it with Judea (Greek for "Judah"). The people of Galilee were given a choice: circumcision or banishment. In response to their compliance, Jewish families were transported to Galilee and given large tracts of land.


In 63 BC the whole of Palestine, with Galilee, came under Roman rule. When the kingdom of Herod the Great was split into three parts at his death in 4 BC, the city of Sepphoris, near Nazareth, became the capital of Galilee, until replaced by Tiberias during the lifetime of Jesus.


Both the religious and civil authorities in Jerusalem looked at Galileans with suspicion. They were widely regarded as yokels, ill-educated in the Mosaic law, and lax in its observance. In fact, in John 7:41 the Jerusalem religious establishment questioned whether the Messiah could even come from Galilee.


The Galileans were probably more aware of the political realities of their day than the religious leaders in Jerusalem, because the great trade routes which traversed the area introduced them to many foreigners from various regions of the Roman empire, the ultimate political power of the time.

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