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Yeshua in Context >> Background to Gospels , Beginners , Galilee , General , Preachable Points , Temple and Torah >> Yeshua the Galilean

Yeshua the Galilean

Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?
-Acts 2:7

The miracle of that special Shavuot (Pentecost) at the Temple was something very human: the appearance of the Spirit of God in individual theophanies on the disciples. Many onlookers seem to have missed the tongues of fire that Luke says rested on the disciples. What they noticed was the strange speech. Humble Israelites were speaking languages from far away lands. And it occurred to the onlookers as more than strange that these powerfully endued speakers were Galilean.

It was the Judeans, not the Galileans, who emphasized scribal education. If anyone might be expected to have such learning of languages, and possibly if anyone were to be chosen as a prophet, most would expect this to happen to Judeans and not Galileans.

What is the nature of being a Galilean in Yeshua's time? How had the history of Galilee shaped the people there? Were these Galileans descendants of foreign converts? Were the relocated Judeans? Or were they descended from the northern tribes of Israel who had long ago settled in Galilee? How separate and independent was Galilee from Judea? Did Galileans have a different outlook than Judeans on matters of Temple and Judaism? How did being a Galilean impact the personality and methods of Yeshua?

Background: Galilee from Deborah's Time to Yeshua's

A great resource for understanding Galilee is Richard Horsley's Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee .

To begin to understand the Galileans, go back to Judges 5 and the days of Deborah the prophetess. Egyptian power is crumbling and their control of Canaan is slipping. The Canaanite city-states have been here for a long time. They are the old order. They tax the surrounding agricultural lands. Their wealth and power derives from the land, but their military might is Egypt.

The Israelites moved in during this phase of crumbling power. In many cases, and the hints of this scenario show through in Joshua and especially in Judges, the Israelites did not cast off the Canaanite powers all at once. Instead, the Israelites settled on less valuable land, terracing hillsides and eking out a difficult agricultural living. They stayed out of the normal realms of Canaanite power, so that the cost to the Canaanites to make war on them was often too high to be worth the fight. You could say that Israelites got their start in Canaan living in the shadows of the crumbling city-states.

Galilee was a prime area for this sort of avoidance. The hills and rugged terrain included many places where agriculture was difficult but possible. And when Deborah the prophetess presided over a war with a major Canaanite power, Jabin the king of Hazor and his general Sisera, the people of Naphtali and Zebulon fought valiantly. They were Galileans. And we read of them:

They shall recount the righteous deeds of the Lord . . . for his peasantry in Israel . . . The people came down to me as warriors . . . Zebulun was a people who despised their lives even to death, and Naphtali also in the high places of the field.

They despised their lives to the point of death, a trait Galileans would be known for more than once in history. Galileans have been called "fiercely independent." And they occupied "high places in the field," which Horsley suggests may describe terraced agriculture on the hills.

After the time of Yeshua, when the Jewish war with Rome broke out in 66 CE, Josephus said of the Galileans, who were under his command, "they had always been numerous and warlike" (Jewish War 3:41-43).

The Question of Identity: Who Were the Galileans?

Misinformation abounds about the identity of the Galileans and the phenomenon of the so-called "Lost Tribes." You may have heard either that the Galileans were gentiles, forcibly converted in the days of the Maccabean rulers known as the Hasmoneans. Or you may have heard that the Galileans were actually peoples from Judea who settled in Galilee, so that the people of Galilee and Judea really came from the same handful of tribes.

Adding to the confusion is the well-known label from Isaiah 9, which we will say more about later, referring to Galilee as Galilee of the gentiles. Furthermore, as the city of Sepphoris was being discovered in recent times, many made irresponsible claims about how a big Greco-Roman city dominated Galilee and how the people of Galilee were so enthralled with Greek and Roman culture. Some were teaching that Jesus the carpenter probably did most of his work in nearby Sepphoris. Some scholars with massive audiences have been portraying Jesus in the image of a Greek wandering philosopher, Jesus the Cynic Sage.

Horsley goes back to the biblical accounts of the Assyrian conquest of the northern tribes of Israel and also to Assyrian descriptions of the fighting in Israel and the deportation of Israelites. His conclusion? The Assyrians only took the skilled artisans, military leaders, scribes, and ruling elite. Horsley dismisses language in both the biblical account and Assyrian accounts about "all the people" being taken away. This kind of language is not to be taken literally, he says. A more detailed examination of Assyrian methods and the numbers of deportees suggests that the only valuable deportees were the ones who could be of use to the Assyrians.

Furthermore, the Assyrians immediately sent in their own administrators to take control of Galilee after conquering it in 732 and Samaria in 722. The reason they would send in administrators is to tax the agricultural land. This they could only do if the peasantry was still there, working the land as they had always done, but now for new masters.

This means that the Galilee of Yeshua's time was populated with Israelites, with peoples who had occupied this land for over a thousand years. They had never formed their own aristocracy but had served rulers in Samaria, Judea, and foreign overlords. Yet their lives were governed by agriculture and they got along just fine whoever was in charge.

The Galilean Spirit

How did Galileans relate to Judaism, to the Temple in Judea, to the religious powers vying for control? Were they loyal to the Sadducees and High Priest? Were they interested in the Essene or Pharisaic movements seeking to renew Israel under a different vision of Torah living?

We should suspect that Galileans were never loyal to Judea or Samaria in particular. The power of the chief priests mattered little to Galilean farmers. Galilean piety was a matter of pilgrimage to the Temple, of giving tithes, of education in the Torah in village schools. Their attitude to the Temple, which we see perfectly in the teaching of Yeshua the Galilean, would be reverence for what the Temple was supposed to represent, obligation to the laws of tithe and sacrifice, but resentment toward the false priests who were not from the legitimate priestly lines and resentment toward the power-plays of the leaders in Jerusalem.

To the Galileans, the "Jews," meaning Judeans, were corrupting the place of God's dwelling. Yet they were obligated to tithe and make pilgrimage to the Temple in spite of such corruption. At least, this summarizes Yeshua's feelings as represented in the gospels and fits well with the situation of Galilee. Galileans would have more naturally emphasized the aspects of tithing that were about redistribution to the needy in the local towns while Judeans emphasized the tithe as a sort of tax to make the leadership powerful and wealthy.

The developing traditions of the elders, promoted by the Pharisees and some of the Judean scribes, were a foreign notion to Galilee. The small but in some ways popular movement of Pharisaic and scribal teachers was a Judean phenomenon. The Galilean holy man best known in the Talmud is Hanina ben Dosa, who is represented as separate from the Judean schools, but reluctantly respected by Yohanan ben Zakkai due to his effectiveness in prayer. As Geza Vermes depicted Hanina in his book Jesus the Jew , so we might think of Yeshua as a pious man with Torah learning, but not in the traditions of the Judean scribes.

Matthew 22 as Galilean vs. Judean

One place where the Galilean vs. Judean ideas about God and Torah show up is Matthew 22. For more details, see my article, " Galilean vs. Judean in Matthew 22 ."

Some Judeans try to trap Yeshua at the Temple into making either an unpopular statement in support of Caesar's tax or a statement that could get him arrested if he publicly opposed Caesar's tax. Yeshua, the Galilean, out does his opponents with a simple rebuke. He says, "Show me the coin used for the poll-tax."

How is this a Galilean rebuke against the Judeans? The answer is simple. No Galilean would have on their person a coin which has an image of Caesar and that proclaims Caesar the filius divius , or son of god. In other words, these Judeans have been corrupted by their power games and they have become too much like Rome.

Similarly, the other stories in Matthew 22 show a Galilean Yeshua answering Judeans. The Sadducees do not have proper faith in the afterlife and are defeated in debate with a mere Galilean. A Judean Pharisee is surprised at Yeshua's insight into the greatest commandment of Torah. And Yeshua castigates the Judean Pharisees for making themselves out to be teachers and yet they do not understand the basics of the promise of Messiah.

Yeshua is a Galilean. He reveres the Temple, but denounces the corruption of the Judean Temple-state. He reveres Torah, but denounces the authoritative stance of Judean self-proclaimed authorities. He accuses them of overruling God's commandments and misinterpreting Torah. Yet he also teaches his disciples to respect their teaching, apparently looking for the good and throwing out the bad.

And, when the first followers of Yeshua gather for Shavuot at the Temple, there are doubtless some Judeans among them. But overall as a group, they are Galileans. Jerusalem is the holy city and the announcement of Yeshua must take hold in Jerusalem and go out from there.

But is a message about a Galilean, first believed by a group of Galileans. It is as Isaiah had said:

In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
-Isaiah 8:23-9:1 or 9:1-2 in Christian Bibles

As Horsley explains it, "Galilee of the Nation" translates galil hagoyim , which literally means "circle of the nations." And Galilee gets its name from the word for circle. It is not that Galilee is gentile, but that it is ringed all around by gentile cities.

And as we see when we examine the Galilean nature of Yeshua's first followers and his own Galilean attitudes and ways, truly the light did come to Galilee. The fiercely independent Galileans saw a great light and the man of Galilee did become known to all the nations.

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Filed under: Background to Gospels , Beginners , Galilee , General , Preachable Points , Temple and Torah

3 Responses to "Yeshua the Galilean"

  1. louise says:

    Helpful synopsis of the Galileans. Appreciate your research and thought, and sharing of this information. It ends up being really useful to those like me who are in churches and circles where the Jewish perspective is still not well understood. The more people like myself can share, the better. Have printed this off for future reference. Thanks, Derek.

  2. Where would be a good resource to obtain more information about Galilee? It seems rather important in a Halachaic sense to Messianic-Gentiles.

  3. yeshuain says:

    Sean Freyne, Galilee: From Alexander the Great to Hadrian

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