At this time Judea was known as being supreme in knowledge over Galilee. The Rabbis had a saying “if anyone wishes to be rich, let him go north; if he wants to be wise, let him come south.” The Rabbis were very proud of having superior knowledge over anyone else at that time. It wasn’t very long, though, until they lost that distinction and its colleges wandered northwards, ending in the very city of Tiberias which at one time had been reputed unclean. It seems to be significant that the collection of Jewish traditional law, known as the Mishnah, was conceived from a city that was originally known as heathen and built upon old forsaken graves.
As long as Judea and Jerusalem were the center of Jewish learning, they looked with disdain upon their northern co-religionists. There are several places in the Bible where this is evident. John 1:46 – “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” This was a saying that was quite common at the time. John 7:52 – “Search, and look; for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet,” was pointed by the mocking question, “Art thou also of Galilee?”
It was not that they just merely thought they were superior than everyone else; they spoke with incredible rudeness and offensive contempt against anyone who was not exactly like them. They also had much pious self-assertion. An example would be Luke 18:11 – “God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men”. This seems to be the normal mode of thought at this time. The parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in scripture was told as being characteristic of the whole spirit of Pharisaism in its approach to God. They felt that anyone who did not know the law was cursed. Because of this thinking they felt that they had a right to exclude certain kinds of people from their lifestyle and could treat them any way they chose. When Jesus came, his way of teaching was completely different from theirs.
There is a story in the Talmud that illustrates the extremes that they went to to separate themselves. “A celebrated Rabbi was wont every day, on leaving the academy, to pray in these terms: ‘I thank thee, O Lord and my God and God of my fathers, that Thou hast cast my lot among those who frequent the schools and synagogues, and not among those who attend the theatre and the circus. For, both I and they work and watch – I to inherit eternal life, they for their destruction.'” The other illustration taken from a Rabbinical work was even more offensive. “It appears that Rabbi Jannai, while traveling by the way, formed acquaintance with a man, whom thought his equal. Presently his new friend invited him to dinner, and liberally set before him meat and drink. But the suspicions of the Rabbi had been excited. He began to try his host successively by questions upon the text of Scripture, upon the Mishnah, allegorical interpretations, and lastly on Talmudical lore. Alas! on neither of these point could he satisfy the Rabbi. Dinner was over; and Rabbi Jannai, who by that time no doubt had displayed all the contempt of a regular Rabbinist towards the unlettered, called upon his host, as customary, to take the cup of thanksgiving, and return thanks. But the latter was sufficiently humiliated to reply, with a mixture of Eastern deference and Jewish modesty, “Let Jannai himself give thanks in his own house.” “At any rate,” observed the Rabbi, “you can join with me;” and when the latter had agreed to this, Jannai said, “A dog has eaten of the bread of Jannai.”
The people of Galilee, though, didn’t judge people the same as the Rabbis, and that’s one reason that there was such a gulf between Israel and Judea. The province of Galilee covered the ancient possessions of four tribes: Issachar, Zebulon, Naphtali, and Asher. Its name was derived from a verb meaning ‘to move in a circle’ and therefore it was called a circuit. The Rabbis were the first to distinguish between Upper and Lower Galilee. They seemed to set the boundary between the two at ‘where the sycamores cease to grow’. The sycamore is a species of fig tree. It is not to be confused with our sycamore today. It was a very delicate evergreen, easily destroyed by cold and grew only in the Jordan Valley, or in Lower Galilee close to the sea-coast. Thus we can know the general vicinity of where Nicodemus lived by the fact that he was in a sycamore tree when Jesus saw him. The mention of that tree in Luke 17:6 may also help us to fix the locality where these verses were spoken by our Savior.
The mountainous part in the north of Upper Galilee had magnificent scenery. According to tradition it is here that the scene of the Song of Solomon is partly written. But its caves and marshy ground covered with reeds along its lakes gave shelter to robbers, outlaws, and rebel chiefs. Some of the most dangerous characters came from the Galilean highlands.
A little farther down the scenery changed. Where the so-called Jacob’s bridge crossed the Jordan, there was the great caravan road. It connected Damascus in the east with the great cities of the Mediterranean. This road was constantly busy with camels, mules, and donkeys, laden with the riches of the East, and destined for the West, or vice versa. Travelers of every description were seen on this road. There would have been constant intercourse for Jews with the foreigners which was the main thing that rendered the bigotry of the Jews in Judea pretty much impossible in Galilee.
The region of Galilee was very fertile and beautiful. It was truly the land where Asher dipped his foot in oil. (Deut. 33:24) The olive trees grew in abundance here and oil was very plentiful. They also had a generous amount of rich wine. Corn grew in abundance, and flax was also cultivated. The price of living here was also much lower than Judea. Fruit also grew to perfection there. In fact it was so good that they would not allow it to be sold at the feasts in the city of Jerusalem so that people could not say that the only reason they came was to taste the fruit that came from Galilee.
Galilee was a very busy place. There were large potteries of different kinds, and dye works. There were great harbors filled with merchant ships and fishing boats with white sails dotting the sea line. There were smoked furnaces where glass was made; along the great road moved the caravans. There were fields, vineyards and orchards. The great road went through a good portion of Galilee. Nazareth was one of the cities that it passed through, and that was one great advantage that it had as a city. Also from ancient Rabbinical writings it appears that Nazareth was one of the stations of the priests. All the priests were divided into twenty-four courses, one of which was always on ministry in the Temple. The priests that were taking a certain course always gathered in certain towns and went up together to the Temple. Those who were unable to go spent the week in prayer and fasting for their fellow priests. Nazareth was one of the priestly centers where they gathered.
There were other cities in Galilee which were mentioned in the Bible. Capernaum was a large city, and was the station where Matthew sat at the receipt of custom talked about in Matthew 9:9. Chorazin was well-known for its grain. South of Capernaum was the city of Magdala, the city of dyers, and was the home of Mary Magdalene. The Talmud mentions some of the shops in the city and speaks of its great wealth, but also speaks of the corruption of its inhabitants. Tiberias, which had been built shortly before Christ is also mentioned. At the time it was mentioned in John, it was a splendid city with magnificent buildings, but was also a city that was chiefly heathen. At the southern end of the Sea of Galilee was Tarichaea, the great fishing village. From here preserved fish were exported in casks. It was also here that a great naval battle was fought which ended in terrible slaughter so that the lake was dyed red with the blood of the victims and the shore stank with all the dead bodies there. Cana was the place where Jesus performed his first miracle. It lay about three hours to the northeast of Nazareth.
With everything we know of the Galileans it would be fairly easy to believe that the gospel would have received a ready hearing from many of them. They are described as being a warm-hearted, impulsive, generous race. This was the great scene of Jesus’ working and teaching, and the home of His first disciples and apostles. They were very conscientious and earnest people. It seems to reason that Jesus chose this area because He knew that Israel to the north would not have been open to hearing the truths that he had to give. They were too set in their own ways and living their own laws.
We can gather from the New Testament itself and also from Josephus, that their hot blood made them rather quarrelsome, and that they lived in a chronic state of rebellion against Rome. Their inabilities to pronounce Hebrew correctly led to constant criticism and fun-making. An example of this would be Matthew 26:73 – “Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee “. The Galileans were described as hard-working, manly, brave, and they cared more for honor than money.
Most of the time when we think of Galilee, though, we think of the towns that were situated around its lake. Its beauty and marvelous vegetations that were alike to tropical surroundings have often been described. It also had great wealth and was heavily populated. But the one thing that reminds us of this great place is the fact that our Savior walked on these very shores, walked on its waters, and calmed its storms. He taught along the shores and spent precious times teaching the disciples how to carry on after He was taken back to His Father.