First-Century Galilee

Contextualizing Jesus

by Marc Turnage

Everyone comes from somewhere. And that somewhere affects who everyone becomes. Jesus grew up in the Lower Galilee in the first quarter of the first century; and, likewise, the Lower Galilee served as the primary landscape for most of Jesus' ministry. The Lower Galilee, then, provides the physical context in which Jesus lived and ministered. How we conceptualize this world of Jesus impacts how we understand Him and His ministry.1

People commonly assume that first-century Galilee was a bucolic backwater removed from the Jewish religious and cultural life of Jerusalem. Galileans, by extension, were “hicks from the sticks,” an uneducated mass distanced from the Judaism of Jerusalem. Archaeological excavations in Galilee over the past 30 or so years, however, have added to our understanding of first-century Galilee — the Galilee of Jesus — and have challenged this “common” perception of Galilee as a cultural backwater.2 Recent excavations, furthermore, corroborate the presentation of first-century Galilean society and life portrayed in ancient sources including the New Testament.

After the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C., Galilee became a sparsely populated region. Very little settlement remains exist in the region from the end of the eighth century B.C. to the second century B.C. Phoenician settlements along the Mediterranean coast thrived during this time; but, in the heart of Galilee, little evidence exists for population settlements. At the end of the second century B.C. and the beginning of the first century B.C., the population of Galilee increased in part due to the expansion of the Hasmonean kingdom in Jerusalem. The need for land and population overcrowding led Judeans (Jews) from the south to migrate into Galilee and settle (cf. Matthew 2:22,23). Some settlers took over preexisting villages, like at Yodefat, while other settlements came into existence. These Jewish immigrants joined a small Jewish population already living in Galilee, such that by the end of the first century B.C., Galilee was thoroughly Jewish.3

How do we know the inhabitants of Galilee were Jews? Different archaeological remains identify these inhabitants of Galilee as Jews: coins, stone vessels, Jewish ritual immersion pools (mikva'ot), avoidance of pigs, Jerusalem manufactured lamps, and synagogues.

Coins. From the late second century B.C., the coins minted by the Hasmonean rulers of Jerusalem dominated the currency of Galilee. The use of non-Jewish coins dropped off significantly at Galilean sites from the late second century B.C. onward. The use of Hasmonean money suggests a conscious choice by the inhabitants of Galilee, who typically avoided using non-Jewish money.

Stone vessels. The appearance of stone vessels, which are more difficult to fashion than pottery, derives from issues and adherence to Jewish ritual purity practices (cf. John 2:6). People could repurify and use stone vessels again, while they could not do this with pottery that became impure. Discovering stone vessels at sites dating to the first century B.C. and A.D., together with Jewish coins, suggests the inhabitants were Jews.

Ritual immersion pools. A number of Galilean sites have Jewish ritual immersion pools, mikva'ot (mikveh, singular). Jewish religious practices require ritual purity. In fact, within the literature of the first century, ritual purity was an important issue within Judaism of the period. Ritual immersion pools allow for people to ritually immerse to purify themselves. A Jew contracted ritual impurity through a number of activities, e.g., a woman after her menstrual period, a woman after childbirth, a husband and wife after marital relations, and coming in contact with a corpse. Jewish ritual immersion in general has nothing to do with sin (as none of these actions are sinful); rather, it addresses one's state of purity to enter sacred space. The discovery of ritual immersion pools at Galilean sites, like Sepphoris, Gamla, and Migdal, indicates that the inhabitants of these villages were Jews.

Pig avoidance. The animal bones discovered at first-century Galilean sites demonstrate a marked absence of pig bones. Of course, the Law of Moses prohibits the consumption of pigs, which is why Jews' cuisine lacks pork. Ancient Gentiles, however, ate pigs (cf. Mark 5:1–20), as can be seen in the regions surrounding Galilee. Pig avoidance is another marker of religiously observant Jews.

Jerusalem manufactured lamps. Ancient people used oil lamps to provide light in their homes and in the dark. They made most lamps from clay, and either manufactured lamps locally or imported them. Galilean sites yield imported lamps, as well as locally manufactured lamps. One type of lamp, which archeologists call the “knife-paired” or “Herodian” lamp, is particularly important. Analysis on the clay of these lamps indicates they were made in Jerusalem. Even though Galilean lamp makers knew how to manufacture these types of lamps, these lamps came from Jerusalem, which suggests a religious motivation.4 First, how did these lamps come from Jerusalem to Galilee? The most reasonable explanation, given their wide distribution and the numbers of lamps discovered, suggests that Galilean pilgrims brought these lamps with them when returning from their pilgrimage to Jerusalem and its temple. Second, the most likely reason why Galilean pilgrims brought these lamps home from Jerusalem lies in the connection with Jerusalem, its temple, and the temple's menorah with light. By taking these lamps home, Galileans sought to bring into their homes and daily lives a connection with the light of the temple and their spiritual experience in Jerusalem.

Synagogues. To date, archeologists have discovered two first-century synagogues in Galilee at Gamla and Migdal. These synagogues lack the ornamentation of later synagogues. Nevertheless, their layouts make the center of the building the focal point where Jewish leaders would read the Torah and comment on it, which was the primary activity of first-century synagogues. The collection of these archaeological evidences identify first century Galilee and its inhabitants as religiously devout Jews, with a strong connection to Jerusalem, its temple, and Judaism.

Two sites prove incredibly important for helping to reimagine the Galilee of Jesus: Yodefat and Gamla.5 These sites provide “time capsules” to first-century Galilee because Romans destroyed them during the First Jewish revolt in 67 (Yodefat) and 68 (Gamla) A.D.; and, unlike Capernaum, Nazareth, Tiberias, and Sepphoris, which continued to be settled in subsequent periods, the Jews never rebuilt Yodefat and Gamla, thus encapsulating the life of a first-century Galilean village.6 Both sites yielded finds suggesting a social stratification within Galilean villages.

Archeologists discovered evidence of a very wealthy class of people, whose homes display beautiful frescos and luxurious objects, like gold and jewels. Evidence also exists for industrial manufacture of products like olive oil. The industrial oil presses at Gamla indicate a lifestyle of business owners and exporters. Also, at both sites, archeologists found evidence for an artisan class of people — potters and weavers. We can also assume that poor people inhabited Galilee, but they do not typically leave evidence of their existence in the archaeological record. If we assume, then, that Yodefat and Gamla present a fairly typical picture of first-century Galilean village life, we find that first-century Galileans were not mostly poor peasants.

The picture that emerges from the archaeological discoveries of Galilee depicts a region composed of the wealthy, the business owner, the artisan, and the peasant. The discoveries also depict a region of religiously observant and devout Jews. This is the archaeological context of first-century Galilee, and it mirrors what we find in the ancient literary sources.

Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, described some Galilean homes as beautiful as those of Tyre, Sidon, and Beruit (War 2:504; cf. Life 204), which parallel the discoveries at Yodefat and Gamla. So, too, Josephus, the New Testament (cf. Luke 2:41; John 2:13; 5:1), and rabbinic literature attest to the Galilean practice of pilgrimage to Jerusalem and its temple. Of the sages from the first century of whom we know their origin, many came from Galilee and taught their disciples in Galilee. Most of the Hasidim, the pious wonderworkers, came from Galilee. People particularly knew the Galileans for their strictness in observing the Torah. Quite often the sages of Jerusalem and Galilee agreed together against the sages from other parts of the country. The Gospels likewise attest to the devout religious observance of the local, common Galileans. At the close of the Sabbath, when the sun was setting, Galileans brought those who were sick to Jesus for Him to heal (Matthew 8:16; Mark 1:32; Luke 4:40) — the same Galileans who used stone vessels and ritual immersion pools, who studied Torah in the synagogues, and brought the memory of the light of Jerusalem and its temple back with them from their Jerusalem pilgrimage.

Contextualizing Jesus ensures that we understand Him and His message. Failure to do so properly, at best, leads to fragmentary results. By understanding where He came from, we can better understand Him, and the results of recent archaeological activity in Galilee demonstrate that He was no “hick from the sticks.” But, then again, the ancient sources never depicted Him in that manner either.


1. Cf. Jonathan Reed, Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus: A Re-examination of the Evidence (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2000).

2. Mark Chancey, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (SNTMS 118; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); idem, “Galilee and Greco-Roman Culture in the Time of Jesus: The Neglected Significance of Chronology,” in Society of Biblical Literature Seminar Papers 2003 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003), 173–88.

3. For a fuller treatment of this history, see Mordechai Aviam, “The Hasmonean Dynasty's Activities in the Galilee,” in Jews, Pagans, and Christians in Galilee (Land of Galilee 1; Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 2004), 41–50; and Uzi Leibner, Settlement and History in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Galilee (Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 127; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009).

4. Aviam, “People, Land, Economy, and Belief in First-Century Galilee and Its Origins: A Comprehensive Archaeological Synthesis,” in The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus (Early Christianity and Its Literature 11; ed. D.A. Fiensy and R.K. Hawkins; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 5–48.

5. Although the Gospels do not mention either of these sites, Jesus most likely would have been aware of them. Yodefat sits north of Nazareth across the Beit Netofa Valley, and from the plain of Beitsaida, one can see Gamla.

6. Aviam, 5–48; idem, “Socio-economic Hierarchy and Its Economic Foundations in First-Century Galilee: The Evidence from Yodefat and Gamla,” in Flavius Josephus: Interpretation and History (ed. J. Pastor, P. Stern, and M. Mor; Leiden: Brill, 2011), 29–38.