"The Myth of a Gentile Galilee"

The available evidence suggests that Galilee in the time of Jesus was a mostly Jewish region. 

By Mark A. Chancey
Dept. of Religious Studies
Southern Methodist University
February 2003

    A perusal of articles on Galilee in Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias reveals that the belief that Galilee's population in the time of Jesus included a large number of gentiles—perhaps even a majority—is common. This view is certainly not universal, as an examination of the writings of scholars like Sean Freyne, Eric Meyers, and E. P. Sanders shows. It is, however, widespread, and one frequently encounters it in works on the Historical Jesus or in studies that assign a Galilean provenance to Q. What is less frequently acknowledged, however, is just how little data there is to support such a claim. The overwhelming majority of our literary and archaeological evidence suggests just the opposite: Galilee's population was predominantly Jewish, with gentiles forming a small and relatively uninfluential minority. In this essay, I'll outline the currently available evidence, summarizing some of the findings of my book, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 118, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002).

    The city of Sepphoris provides an excellent example of the gap between popular perceptions and the actual, published evidence. Sepphoris was rebuilt after 4 BCE by Herod Antipas, a client king appointed by the Romans to rule Galilee and Perea. Antipas renamed the city Autocratoris, probably to honor the Roman emperor, since Autokrator was the Greek equivalent of the Latin imperial title Imperator. Sepphoris was one of the biggest towns in Galilee, with between 8000 and 12000 inhabitants. At times in the first century CE, it served as the region's administrative capital. Because of the city's proximity to Nazareth (less than four miles), Jesus would have been very familiar with it, though whether and how often he visited it are entirely unknown.

    Some scholars have pointed to the inhabitants of Sepphoris as an example of Galilee's ethnically diverse population. They have claimed that Greeks, Romans, and other pagans played a substantial role in the city; some have suggested that perhaps Jesus' open-minded, accepting disposition can be attributed in part to the contacts with gentiles he would have had there. One can understand the logic of the claim that cities might be prone to have more diverse populations than villages, and that the bigger the city, the greater the diversity.

    The actual evidence for gentiles at first-century CE Sepphoris is extremely limited, however. There are no first-century inscriptions that record vows, offerings, or dedications to deities, no grave inscriptions that identify the backgrounds of the interred. No figurines or other cultic objects have been found in first-century contexts, save one bronze plaque depicting a winged figure (and the exact function of this plaque is unknown). There is no sign of a pagan temple dedicated to a local deity, an Olympian god, or the emperor. Almost all of our archaeological evidence for pagans at Sepphoris comes from later centuries, and even then there is not as much of it as one might suspect—mid-second century coins that depict temples; figurines such as Pan and Prometheus; cultic items like a bronze bowl, altar, and bull; the fabulous Dionysos mosaic depicting a drinking contest between the god of wine and the strong-man Hercules (the winner is predictable). At some point in the second century, the city was renamed Diocaesarea, a name that honored the emperor as Zeus. The chronological dimension of this evidence is crucial because Galilee's cultural ethos changed dramatically after the defeat of the Jews by the Romans in the first revolt (66-70 CE) and the stationing of a Roman legion near and in Galilee c. 120 CE. Our evidence for paganism at Sepphoris and elsewhere in Galilee increases dramatically after the arrival of Roman troops and support personnel. To take this evidence from the second and third centuries CE, a very different period in Galilee's historical development, and draw conclusions about the first century -- especially the early first century when Galilee was ruled by a client king, not a Roman governor -- would be terribly anachronistic.

    When we look for signs of Jews at first-century Sepphoris, however, we find ample evidence. Jewish ritual baths (mikvot) reflect an interest in ritual purity, as do the fragments of stone vessels (which at least some Jews believed could not convey impurity to their contents). An analysis of the animal bones excavated on the western side of the city's acropolis revealed a surprisingly low proportion of pig bones, a food commonly eaten by gentiles but prohibited by Jewish dietary laws. Fragments of ceramic incense shovels, similar to those depicted in later Jewish art, probably also reflect a Jewish ethos.

    The literary evidence is also clear about who was living at Sepphoris. The city is never mentioned in the Gospels, a surprising omission given its importance and how close it was to Nazareth. Josephus, however, a late first-century CE Jewish historian who commanded the Jewish forces in Galilee against the Romans, frequently refers to it, particularly in his books, The Jewish War and Life. Josephus describes the city as pro-Roman in the Revolt; it refused to support the Jewish rebels and twice admitted Roman garrisons (War 2.511, 3.31; Life 394, 411). Nowhere, however, does he attribute this pro-Roman stance to the influence of gentiles in the city. To the contrary, he describes the Sepphoreans' support for the Romans as an action against the "allies of their tribe" and a betrayal of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem "common to us all" (War 3.32, Life 348). When two wartime refugees from Trachonitis arrived at the city, Josephus claims that he had to intervene to prevent the Sepphoreans from forcibly circumcising them. Rabbinic traditions from later centuries also preserve memories of Sepphoris' earlier Jewish population, referring to priests from Sepphoris like Joseph ben Elim, Arsela, and ben Hamsan (Tosefta Yoma 1:4, Tosefta Sotah 13:7, Mishnah Yoma 6:3).

    In short, while it is reasonable to assume that there were some gentiles in first-century CE Sepphoris, there is nothing in the archaeological or literary record to suggest that there was an especially large number. All signs point to a predominantly Jewish population.

    When one turns to Galilee's other principal city, Tiberias, the situation is similar. Antipas built Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee as his new capital c. 20 CE, naming it in honor of the current emperor (Tiberius). It has not been extensively excavated because most of it lies underneath modern Tiberias, a lakeside resort city. As a result, our archaeological evidence is very limited. As at Sepphoris, there are few first-century inscriptions, and the ones we have (on coins and market weights) do not give us much information on the population issue. One of the weights, made around 31 CE, provides a good example of the ambiguity of such evidence. It demonstrates that the city's chief market official, the agoranomos, had a Latin name, Gaius Julias. Does such a name suggest that a Roman or other gentile held this position? Or does it merely reflect a preference for Latin names among the city's Jewish elites? Without more information, such questions are impossible to answer. First-century coins minted by Antipas at Tiberias don't name or depict deities, though coins of the second and third centuries depict both gods (e.g., Hygeia, Zeus, Poseidon, Tyche) and temples. A bone figurine of a female may date to the first century, but its purpose is unclear. As for archaeological evidence for Jews, fragments of stone vessels and of ossuaries used for Jewish secondary burial may be from the first century, but possibly from the second.

    Josephus' writings again provide a helpful supplement to our limited archaeological data. In one passage (Life 276-303), Josephus' description of his own arrival in Tiberias near the beginning of the Revolt suggests that much of the community was Sabbath-observant; a rival leader (John of Gischala) asked that Josephus billet his forces outside Tiberias so that the city's population would not have their Sabbath disturbed. Following Josephus' arrival, the community gathered to discuss their options in the Revolt, and the place of their gathering is significant: the town's proseuche, a word literally meaning "prayer building" that was used in reference to synagogues. In contrast to his references to Sepphoris, Josephus' comments about Tiberias also contain explicit references to gentiles or, as he calls them, "Greeks." These Greeks were massacred by one of the city's Jewish factions at the beginning of the Revolt (Life 65-67), a fact implying that they were a minority there.

    Understanding Galilee requires more than understanding its cities; however, one must also look to the smaller towns and villages. In my research, I considered the first-century CE remains of twenty-seven sites, including well-known places like Capernaum, Magdala, and Nazareth, as well as lesser-known communities. A consideration of these settlements shows results similar to our consideration of the cities: evidence for Jewish inhabitants at several sites and very little evidence for gentiles. Fragments of stone vessels—an indicator of Jews—have been found at Reina, Nazarath, Asochis, Jotapata, Capernam, Kefar Hananyah, Meiron, Nabratein, Ibelin, and Bethlehem (of Galilee, not the Bethlehem of Judea where Matthew and Luke say Jesus was born). Jewish ritual baths were used at Jotapata. Secondary burial, a distinctively Jewish custom, was practiced at Kafr Kanna, Qiryat Tiv'on, Meiron, and around Nazareth. Such finds at a given site do not necessarily suggest that the whole community was Jewish, but they do prove that at least some of the population was. One wishes that we had more epigraphic references to Jews to supplement this data, but, contrary to popular perceptions, we have very few inscriptions prior to the second and third centuries. Similarly, archaeological remains of synagogues would be indisputable indicators of Judaism, but most such remains are from the third through the seventh centuries, not the first. One exception may be a basalt building that lies unexcavated beneath the famous fourth-fifth century limestone synagogue at Capernaum, though we'll never know for sure because excavating it would require damaging the well-preserved later synagogue.

    Obviously, many of the cities adjacent to Galilee were predominantly gentile, such as Scythopolis, located just to the southwest; other cities of the Decapolis, several of which were located to the east of the Sea of Galilee; Caesarea Philippi, to the northeast; Tyre and Sidon, to the northwest. On and just beyond the northern fringes of Upper Galilee, there were indisputably pagan settlements, such as the settlement at Tel Anafa and the village of Kedesh (a Tyrian community). Even further to the north, at Jebel Balat, stood a temple.

    Indicators of pagan practices are extremely rare at Galilean sites themselves, however. One possible exception is Bethsaida, located near the Sea of Galilee where Galilee and the Golan meet. There, excavators have claimed to find the remains of a temple of the imperial cult. To support their identification, they have pointed to the fact that the town was renamed Julia, in honor of a member of the imperial family; they also point to certain discoveries: the head of a clay figurine that they say resembles Julia; the architectural lay-out of the building; and bronze incense shovels which they claim are cultic implements. Virtually every aspect of their interpretation, aside from the name of the city, has been contested, so whether or not the imperial cult was represented there is still a matter of debate. There is a little more evidence of pagan cultic practices at a greater variety of Galilean sites from the second through fourth centuries (though not as much as some scholars suppose)—but, as already pointed out, using such finds to understand earlier periods is methodologically suspect, given the changes that Galilee underwent.

    Josephus and the Gospels also suggest that the region as a whole was predominantly Jewish. In contrast to his frequent references to Galilean Jews, Josephus rarely mentions pagans. This absence of references is particularly notable since he discusses at length the Jewish-gentile conflicts in Palestine that broke out at the beginning of the Revolt; aside from Tiberias, none happened in Galilee. In the Gospels, the context for Jesus' ministry is clearly Jewish. Given that each of the Gospels' authors held a positive view of the early church's mission to the gentiles, the lack of references to interaction between Jesus and gentiles in Galilee is striking. Instead, the Gospels record only one specific encounter in Galilee between Jesus and a pagan: that at Capernaum with a centurion (Matt. 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10), probably an officer in the army of Antipas. Presumably, if dialogue with gentiles had been a major part of Jesus' ministry, more traditions recording that dialogue would have been preserved.

    In conclusion, the available evidence suggests that Galilee in the time of Jesus was a mostly Jewish region. While gentiles were present there (as in all areas of Palestine), nothing suggests that they were especially numerous. They are practically invisible in the archaeological record, and they are not prominent in literary discussions of Galilee, either. Most of our evidence for gentiles dates not to the first century but to the second century and later, after the arrival of large numbers of Roman troops in 120 CE. If we are to understand Jesus in his Galilean context, we must always keep in mind the Jewishness of that context.

Article Comments

Submitted by Abebe Abraham on Fri, 11/06/2020 - 23:51


Hi. Very insightful this. However I am curious as to why Galilee was referred to as of Gentiles in the time of Christ. Please can you throw more light?

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.