Galilee throughout Bible Times

Throughout Bible times, nature and history combined to make the region of Galilee in northern Israel a land of great diversity. Galilee’s mountainous terrain is covered with lush vegetation made possible by the region’s abundant rainfall. Upper Galilee, which was occupied by the tribe of Naphtali, is home to the highest mountains in Israel west of the Jordan River. Further south the terrain gives way to the smaller foothills of Lower Galilee, which was occupied by the tribe of Zebulun. Yet Galilee’s rich diversity was also found in the character of its population, which was shaped by centuries of tumultuous history. Galilee is often characterized as a rural “backwater” region of Bible times, perhaps because of its remoteness from Jerusalem and the apparent disdain some Jews exhibited toward its residents during New Testament times (e.g., John 1:46). But this oversimplification fails to consider Galilee’s promixity to the Great Trunk Road–an international highway connecting Mesopotamia and Anatolia with Egypt–and to the city of Tyre–one of the most internationally connected cities in the ancient Near East during the entire Old Testament period (see Ezekiel 27). Also, over time portions of Galilee were occupied by Aram and then by Assyria due to bribes paid by Judean kings (1 Kings 15:16-22; 2 Kings 16-17; 2 Chronicles 28; Isaiah 7-8), and this led to the population becoming increasingly multi-ethnic–so much so that the prophet Isaiah referred to the region as “Galilee of the nations,” whose people had been humbled and were living in gloom and distress (9:1). Even after the Maccabees reclaimed Galilee for Israel around 104 B.C., its population remained somewhat multi-ethnic throughout the New Testament, and its residents were typically more familiar with Greek than those living in other parts of Judea. Yet by the time Jesus’ family settled in Nazareth the region was also home to a significant population of devout Jews. And it was in this complex amalgam of rural and cosmopolitan, Jewish and Gentile, that Jesus of Nazareth grew up and conducted much of his ministry.

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