Spaces of ancient Galilee: How Judaism created Galilee and Galilee created Judaism in the time of the Hasmoneans

The importance of removing impurity can be seen in the shaping of space. Objects and installations were used in ancient Judaism to deal with impurity (or achieve purity). As such, we see in specific sites, such as Jerusalem and Qumran (where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) the giving over of large areas to washing facilities. This use of space reflects ideologies and practices, and subsequently shapes how people understand the space around them. 

See also Galilean Spaces of Identity (Brill, 2024).

By Joseph Scales
Department of Religion
University of Agder
May 2024

The word space means lots of things. People position themselves in relation to what has come before, what we can call a temporal horizon where things make sense in a sequence. Our history shapes culture, how we understand the world around us, and our sense of ourselves. It is reasonably straightforward to think about how a famous event creates identity. This could be personal, a moment in your life that defines who you are, and expand in scope to national moments which define an aspect of a country’s character. It’s reasonably straightforward to understand how time functions as such. Space operates in a similar way. When we think about who we are, as individuals, communities, or larger identity groups, certain spaces are important and often loaded with meaning. A hometown can create this sense of identity, and can remain as an influence over oneself, regardless of physical distance. A national identity is also rooted in the sense of a physical place creating meaning. This sense of space does not end at the borders of a country but is exerted around the world and in people’s lives. A person’s lived experience lies right at the heart of this sense of space. The way our bodies exist in the world and society shape our experiences. Different bodies can access places differently, and this creates both an impression of one’s body and the spaces through which one moves.

This approach to space has been generated in scholarship by critical geographers and widely adopted across the humanities. Often termed “the spatial turn,” scholarship that puts space in the centre of analysis draws from the work of many different thinkers. For my own work, the French geographer Henri Lefebvre has been particularly important. Lefebvre offered that there are three aspects of space fruitful for analysis, which overlap and mutually influence one another: spatial practice, representations of space, and spaces of representation.[i] Spatial practice concerns the physicality of space, how spaces are created through boundaries and how bodies move through them, shaping as they go. My office is a spatial practice. I work within a particular set of walls, located in a particular building, and use a standing desk. This shapes my working day and how I engage with work in the first place. Representations of space concern how we talk and write about spaces. Maps can be understood in this way. They represent something in the world but are selective in what they represent. Not everything about a place can be included on a map, and choices are made about what is important or significant about a place. When we consider the famous underground map of the subway system in London, we can immediately see how physical space can be distorted to create a system of meaning. The arrangement of the stations creates order and accessibility but sacrifices measures of distance. Spaces of representation are social constructions. This is most apparent with places where multiple meanings become overlaid. To use a particularly relevant example for my research, Jerusalem both shapes and is shaped by such social realities. Metaphors of going up to Jerusalem rely on the physical geography of the area surrounding the city and go on to impact how we understand pilgrimage practices or the relation of significant spaces to ourselves. Jerusalem also has become a symbol of a vast range of ideas. The New Testament deploys the idea of New Jerusalem to convey specific social ideas of what an eschatological space might be, drawing from lived realities in ancient Jerusalem and representations of Jerusalem in textual ideologies (by which I mean the presentation of Jerusalem in ancient literature).[ii]

All this is to say that there is a lot to think about concerning the meaning of space. Moving forward, it is important to bear in mind how spaces shape our thought and how spaces are shaped by our thought. This ongoing process opens possibilities for meaning and can present limitations. Another important example in my own work is the meaning of water rituals. Washing for purification is an ancient practice. By analogy, washing to remove dirt and washing to remove impurity can be understood to have a similar effect, and as such it is easy to see how many cultural traditions have come to view impurity as something negative which must be removed. The importance of removing impurity can be seen in the shaping of space. Objects and installations were used in ancient Judaism to deal with impurity (or achieve purity). As such, we see in specific sites, such as Jerusalem and Qumran (where many of the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) the giving over of large areas to washing facilities. This use of space reflects ideologies and practices, and subsequently shapes how people understand the space around them.

In my own work I have sought to explore the intersection of certain key themes that give shape to and are shaped by ancient Jewish experiences of space.[iii] To approach ancient Galilean space, I have considered spatial horizons related to the individual human body, bodies in community, and the region of Galilee as a whole. For each of these spatial “levels,” certain ideologies can relate to spatial experience and construction. These are deliberately selective, and do not tell a complete story of ancient Judaism in Galilee but each offer something interesting towards our understanding of ancient Judaism.

Before turning to these three levels, it is helpful to briefly sketch out a short history of Galilee in the first millennium BCE. Galilee (or Ha-Galil meaning the circle) as a region was part of the Israelite Northern Kingdom. In the wake of Assyrian invasions, many settlements were depopulated, the people removed in exile. This practice was a common form of Neo-Assyrian imperial control. A major deportation is reported to have happened in the last third of the 8th century BCE under the king Tiglath-pileser III (2 Kgs 15:29). After this point, there seems to have been a population decline in the region; Galilee became a hinterland for the cities of the coast such as Ptolemais-Akko and Tyre. Little is known about life in this period, and there are scant records which attest to affairs. Following the conquests of Alexander the Great and the splitting of his empire into the successor kingdoms, Galilee (and the larger area of the southern Levant) were caught between the warring Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms. Around 200 BCE, the Seleucids had gained territorial control, and within decades, the fraught circumstances that gave rise to the Maccabean Revolt began to shape politics in the wider region. As Seleucid power waned, the emerging power of the Hasmoneans based in Jerusalem began to make war and exert influence in the territories surrounding Judea. By 100 BCE (and perhaps decades earlier), Galilee came under the influence of Jerusalem, and the material culture of the region underwent significant changes.

The significance of Galilean material culture has been prominent in scholarship of ancient Judaism for many decades. More than 100 years ago, the typology of Galilean synagogues was first described in scholarly publication, and in the century since, there has been many shifts in archaeological understanding and focus.[iv] An important shift in this time has been the concentration on material finds related to every-day life.[v] While monumental remains can show a lot about the ancient world, what can appear incidental (pottery discards, faunal remains, etc) has the capacity to reveal a lot about how ancient people lived and the kinds of things that were important to them. The results of this research has made an impact on the study of the early Jesus movement but can offer much more towards understanding ancient Judaism before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE.[vi]

Of particular interest to archaeologists, there are some material phenomena which characterises Galilee as distinct from the immediate surrounding regions, these being the coastline dominated by Phoenicia cities like Ptolemais and Tyre, northern Iturean territories around Damascus, the Decapolis region south and east of the Sea of Galilee, and Samaria to the south. Aspects of this material culture include the preference for locally made ware (whereas before the 1st century BCE, imported ware was much more commonly used), the use of stepped pools, likely for ritual immersions, vessel forms made from limestone, certain types of oil lamps, coins minted in Judea, ossuaries (boxes for the secondary burial of bones) and a specific dietary culture. These features first appear towards the end of the second century BCE or the beginning of the 1st, and continue to appear through the remainder of the Second Temple period and beyond.[vii] These finds, combined with their association with settlements well-known to be populated by Jews has led to a situation where many of these finds, when discovered together, are used to identify a site’s population as Jewish.

While we cannot know if every person who used a stone vessel or an immersion pool was Jewish and did so for particularly Jewish reasons, such material remains reveal the ways in which Jewishness could be expressed. These two phenomena are particularly interesting insofar as there are scant references to such vessels or installations in the written record. The earliest clear mention of stone vessels comes from the Gospel of John (2:6) where they are mentioned in passing, while not a single text before the collection of the Mishnah alludes to anything approaching a purpose-built immersion pool for ritual bathing. Without such finds, our appreciation of Jewish life in the late Second Temple period would be severely diminished.

To analyse these artefacts spatially, we must ask how they were shaped by the social space of ancient Judaism. That is, what needs did such materials serve? In the same vein, we also can question how such artefacts shaped Judaism in turn. During the 1st century BCE and into the 1st century CE, more and more immersion pools were constructed in Galilee, and stone vessels began to be produced and marketed. Both types of artefacts can assist in the maintenance of ritual purity. In ancient Judaism, purity was a required state for people wishing to access the Jerusalem Temple or undertake other kinds of activities. Purity can perhaps be understood as getting into a state of readiness for specific practices. Impurity is also conveyed to people through various interactions. While there were some texts which described impurity and purity in terms of moral failing or uprightness, this was not how purity was thought to typically function. In fact, all kinds of appropriate and necessary behaviours resulted in one becoming impure. Procreation, tending to the dead, even handling the Torah, were variously thought to impart impurity on people. It is usually presumed that purity was a desirable state for someone to be in. Whether this was the case, ritual immersion pools could easily facilitate the removal of impurity through washing rituals and stone vessels could act as a preventative device to limit the spread of impurity. To understand how this may have functioned, we must turn to the books of the Torah.

Throughout the Torah and particularly in Leviticus, many forms of impurity require removal via certain ritual actions. In the most complex cases, such as the removal of impurity contracted through corpse contact, the process of becoming pure required multiple immersions in water, the washing of clothes and waiting a period, in addition to visiting a priest to be sprinkled with a mixture made from the ashes of a red cow (Numbers 19). Whether this was applied in every case is questionable, given the fact that ritual immersion pools have been found near the entrances to cemeteries. These would seem to be unnecessary according to Numbers 19, where the first application of a water ritual is done on the 3rd day rather than the first. In any case, we are aware of a wide variety of ancient Jewish literature which attests to discussion and debate about proper procedures around purification. Whatever the users of these ancient immersion pools thought, we can be reasonably confident that at least some of the time, they used these pools to purify themselves.

Stone vessels can likewise be explained through Leviticus 11. In the list of items which must be cleansed following contact with a source of impurity, there is no mention of stone vessels. This led to later rabbinic interpretation which thus determined that vessels made of stone must be insusceptible to impurity. If this notion can be traced back earlier (although not in any text as far back as the first archaeological evidence of these vessels), then we can see how stone vessels would be useful as tableware, able to be used without worry that they might be passing on any impurity. As such, in the ritual immersion pools and with stone vessels, we can see how purity conceptions in ancient Judaism shaped the material culture of Galilee.

Moving beyond spaces which are created to facilitate body-practice, one can consider spaces which give meaning to communities. In early Judaism, such communal spaces often took the form of the synagogue. While the origins of the institution are difficult to reconstruct, generally by the 1st century, across the ancient mediterranean, Jewish communities gathered in purpose-built structures for a variety of purposes. The evidence for Galilean communal spaces comes from textual and archaeological sources. For textual sources, there are some references in the New Testament Gospels to “synagogues of Galilee” and specific settlements where such places are mentioned. Josephus also mentions meeting places in Tiberias, and further afield in Caesarea Maritima. At present, not a single structure attested in a textual source of the 1st century CE or earlier has been identified in the archaeological record (with the possible exception of some identified walls of a large structure at Capernaum). This is complicated by another difficulty. Of the many identified and proposed meeting places of Hasmonean and Herodian Galilee, not a single structure has any associated inscriptional evidence, or clear textual association. As such, these are generally called “synagogues” in much of the literature due to their compelling similarity with structures that begin to become prevalent in late Antiquity. At the earliest stage of this structural development, there are no clear terms specifically associated with these specific structures, but a good case can be made for their use by communities to facilitate political, social, and religious needs of the local community.

There are at least four structures that show differences in social standing, two located in the settlement of Magdala and two in Gamla. While other structures have been tentatively identified as being synagogues of the Second Temple period, further evidence will likely make better cases for the inclusion of such structures in discussions of Second Temple period community spaces. Further excavations will likely also uncover more structures for this discussion, but at present my own work has focused on three buildings (the second Magdala structure only being reported in late 2021 and further details of the excavation await publication). A structure uncovered in Magdala in 2009 was richly decorated and relatively small, perhaps allowing for only a small percentage of the settlement’s population access at any one time. Compared to a similar structure at Gamla, this building appears to have been much more restrictive, at least insofar as how many of the town’s population may have participated in the activities therein at any given gathering. In Gamla, a structure with a similar layout has prompted much discussion, but a second structure, termed the “basilica,” has received much less attention. Due to the significantly different layout of this second building, it has usually not been considered as a venue for communal practices, yet it is perhaps as worthy of discussion given the potential things for which such a structure could have been used.

The final spatial idea I approach in my work is the regional. This is more diffuse and nebulous, distinguished by boundaries between material cultures over time, and around a changing concept of the toponym. In ancient Galilee, the material culture began to mirror that of Judea from around 100 BCE. Such distinctive features are termed by Andrea Berlin as markers of “household Judaism.”[viii] Archaeological phenomena which can be included under this label consist of coins, tableware, and oil lamps, among other things. When compared with the material culture of the surrounding regions, Galilee is distinct. This mirroring between Galilee and Judea suggests that Judean life was an important model for Galilean behaviour and sense of identity. This began in the Hasmonean period and continued until at least the period of the First Jewish War against Rome.

In summary, spatial analysis has much to offer in intersectional analysis of archaeological and textual material which can shed light on everyday practices in ancient Judaism. Specific attention to regional differences, temporal periods and the limits of imaginative reconstruction are all key issues in my ongoing research.


[i] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Blackwell Publishing, 1991), 33.

[ii] An overview of key thinkers in spatial theory and their use in biblical studies can be found in Matthew Sleeman, “Critical Spatial Theory 2.0,” in Constructions of Space V: Place, Space and Identity in the Ancient Mediterranean World, eds. Gert Prinsloo and Christl Maier (Bloomsbury, 2013), 49–66.

[iii] This discussion will focus on some elements I have uncovered in my research, although the focus will be more on the archaeological evidence and how this intersects with Jewish identity expression in ancient Galilee. The findings of my research have been published as Joseph Scales, Galilean Spaces of Identity: Judaism and Spatiality in Hasmonean and Herodian Galilee (Brill, 2024).

[iv] Heinrich Kohl and Carl Watzinger, Antike Synagogen in Galilaea (Hinrichs, 1916). The chronology of synagogues presented herein has been subject to an ongoing debate, particularly since more recent excavations beginning in the 1970s.

[v] There are many studies worthy of inclusion in a list of important archaeological work with a view towards Galilean (and Gaulanitian) daily life in the Second Temple period. Here I will list only a very select few: David Adan-Bayewitz, Common Pottery in Roman Galilee (Bar-Ilan University Press, 1993); Mordechai Aviam, Jews, Pagans and Christians in the Galilee (University of Rochester Press, 2004); Andrea Berlin, Gamla I (IAA, 2006); Rafael Frankel et al., Settlement Dynamics and Regional Diversity in Ancient Upper Galilee (IAA, 2001); Uzi Leibner, Settlement and History in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Galilee (Mohr Siebeck, 2009); Eric Meyers, James Strange, and Dennis Groh, “The Meiron Excavation Project: Archeological Survey in Galilee and Golan, 1976,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 230 (1978): 1–24; Danny Syon, Small Change in Hellenistic-Roman Galilee (Israel Numismatic Society, 2015). A great many studies are collected in David Fiensy and James Riley Strange, eds., Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods. Volume 2 (Fortress, 2015).

[vi] Examples of scholarship which engages with archaeology and the gospels include Mark Chancey, Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (Cambridge University Press, 2005); Jonathan Reed, Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus (Trinity Press International, 2000). Studies which focus on Judaism in the period after the fall of the temple (in addition to those listed above) include Rick Bonnie, Being Jewish in Galilee, 100–200 CE (Brepols, 2019); Stuart Miller, At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015).

[vii] Indeed, ossuary finds post-date the destruction of the temple in Galilee.

[viii] Andrea Berlin, “Household Judaism,” in Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods. Volume 1, eds. David Fiensy and James Riley Strange (Fortress, 2014), 208–215.

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