Bible Background: The Galileans

This people group produced more of Christ’s disciples than any other.  They rejoiced when He cleansed the temple.  They appreciated His teaching.  They respected His power.  So, why did they try to kill Him?

Throughout the gospels, we read about different people groups that played a significant role in the land of Palestine during the first century.  These people influenced the culture in which Christ ministered, and He tailored His messages in order to both reach and respond to these groups.  Learning more about these people can add greater detail and deeper understanding to our study of the gospels.  What follows is a thumbnail sketch of one of these groups–the Galileans.

Identity

  • The term Galileans refers to the Jews and Gentiles who inhabited the region of Palestine, that lays north of the Plain of Esdraelon and the Valley of Jezreel.
  • The region spread east along the shores of the Sea of Galilee to the Jordan River, and west to the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Though Galilee was a prosperous region during the time of Christ, wealth was unevenly distributed.  There existed a small upper class and a slightly larger middle class, but the majority of the population was composed of lower class tenant farmers and day laborers.
  • Many among the population labored to generate the region’s chief exports of wheat, olives, and wine.  A great number also worked as herders and as part of the Sea of Galilee’s fishing industry.
  • The vast majority of Galilee’s population was Jewish.
  • Because of the region’s Gentile heritage, Galilee’s native tongue was Aramaic.  Nevertheless, spreading Hellenistic influences made knowledge of the Greek language commonplace.
  • It would seem that the Galileans primarily used an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.
  • Galileans rejected the authority of the Roman ruling class, not only on religious grounds, but also on the grounds of social and economic need. This attitude made the region a hotbed for revolutionary sentiment and activity, and gave Galileans a reputation for fearlessness.
  • The Pharisees had a strong following among the peoples of Galilee.  Pharisaism primarily attracted those of the middle class in the larger Galilean towns.
  • Those in Jerusalem thought of Galileans as backward and unsophisticated. This was due in part to the peculiar dialect of the Galileans.

Historical Development

  • The Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom resulted in the destruction of the Jewish population and an influx of pagan foreigners. As a result, the region came to be known as “Galilee of the Gentiles” or “The District of the Gentiles” (2 Kings 17:6).
  • The region was resettled by the Jews following their return from exile.
  • Though many Jews were evacuated from the region during the Maccabean Revolt of the inter-testamental period, Galilee was later conquered by John Hyrcanus and his successors, and integrated into the Jewish state.
  • The Hasmonean king, Aristobulus I, forced the Gentile population to convert to Judaism.
  • Herod the Great and his son Herod Antipas ruled Galilee from 40 B.C. to 39 A.D.  Under their governance, Galilee enjoyed prosperity.
  • According to Josephus, Galilee was heavily populated during the time of Christ (with between two and three hundred thousand inhabitants.)

Reaction to Christ

  • Jesus was largely, but not wholly, received with favor by the Galileans.
  • Most of Jesus’ disciples were Galileans (Matthew 4:18-22; Luke 1:16-20, 5:1-11).
  • The performance of his first miracle, at the marriage in Cana, marked a division in how people would respond to the witness of Christ’s words and works.  Some embraced Him (his disciples) and others rejected Him (his brothers) (John 2:11-12).
  • Jesus received a hero’s welcome in Galilee after clearing the temple in Jerusalem (John 4:45).
  • Many Galileans evidenced faith in Christ.  Such individuals included, among others, a Roman official of Capernaum whose son was ill (John 4:46-54), a paralytic, whom Jesus healed, and his friends (Mark 2:1-12), a centurion whose servant was ill (Luke 7:1-10), a woman suffering a hemorrhage who touched Jesus’ garment (Mark 5:25-34), etc.
  • When Jesus claimed to be the Messiah in Nazareth, the Galileans responded in anger, unbelief, and rejection.  They attempted to murder Him (Luke4:16-31; Matthew 4:13-16).
  • Some Galileans were impressed with Jesus, recognizing that He taught with authority (Mark 1:22).
  • After hearing of His miracles, many Galileans came to Jesus for healing (Mark 1:29-34).
  • The Pharisees of Galilee believed Jesus to be a sinner and plotted to destroy Him for what they believed to be His violation of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5; Matthew 12:9; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11).
  • Religious leaders rejected His methods, practices, and claims of Messiahship (Mark 2:5-12; Matthew 12:22-45)
  • Galileans probably comprised a large percentage of the triumphal entry crowd.

Resources for Further Study

  1. Evans, C. and Porter, S. (eds.) Dictionary of New Testament Background (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 2000)
  2. Green, J., McKnight, S., and Marshall, I.H. (eds.) Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1992)
  3. Tenney, Merrill C.  The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1975)
Trey GarnerTrey Garner
Trey Garner is the Pastor of Children's Ministries at Faith Church. He has been married to his wife Deb since 2001. They have two children named Noah and Lauren. Originally from Texas, Trey appreciates barnwood, armadillos, and Blue Bell Ice Cream.