Galilee of the Gentiles?by Duane Patterson on 05/25/11
Much has been made of the phrase Galil-of-the-Goyim (Galilee of the Nations) in Mathew 4:15. Mathew quotes Isaiah 8:23-9:1 as a prophecy which was fulfilled by Jesus as he began his ministry in the Galilee proclaiming "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near!" Based on this scripture many New Testament scholars have viewed the Galilee in Jesus' time as being an area with a predominant gentile population. Thus Jesus' Galilean ministry foreshadows the future ministry of the church to the gentiles. This idea of a gentile Galilee has led to proposals such as a non-Jewish Jesus, Jesus as a social reformer, Jesus as a Mediterranean peasant, and a wondering cynic. Most recently we have claims by the liberal left that Jesus was the first socialist.
So the question becomes: Was the ethnicity of the Galilee during the time of Jesus predominantly gentile or was it Jewish? Over the last 30 years the accumulation of archaeological evidence is giving us a completely different picture of the ethnicity of the Galilee during the early first century CE. The archaeological evidence which has been accumulated at such sites as Capernaum, Bethsaida, Nazareth, Cana, Gamla, Sepphoris, and Tiberias, as well as by several archaeological surveys of the Galilee have provided a wealth of information about the ethnicity of the people of the Galilee in the first century. Archaeologists have identified several ethnic markers which have enabled them to determine which towns and villages throughout Syria-Palestine can be identified as Jewish. These Jewish markers include stone vessels carved from limestone, lack of decorated imported pottery, stepped pools for ritual bathing called miqvaoth, lack of pig bones in the bone profile, and the burial practice of secondary burial with ossuaries in loculi tombs. These artifacts and features which are found together consistently in Judah, Galilee, and the Golan are not found in Samaria, the Decapolis, or the area of Tyre and Sidon. Based on this information provided by archaeology it now appears that the Galilee during the time of Jesus was predominantly Jewish, but was surrounded by gentile areas of the Decapolis, Samaria, Tyre and Sidon, and the Hula Valley. Even the major cities of the Galilee, Tiberias and Sepphoris, were Jewish even though they were built as capital cities by Herod Antipas and certainly much more metropolitan than the rural villages and towns of the Galilee..
Understanding the ethnicity of the Galilee during the time of Jesus helps us to better understand stories of the Gospels. First of all Jesus' ministry in the Galilee was conducted almost entirely in the towns and villages which we now know were certainly of Jewish ethnicity. When Jesus states that He was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel in Matthew 15:24 we now know this statement was supported by his actions. Although Jesus' travels took him briefly into some of the surrounding gentile areas where he had minimum contact with gentiles, His message and ministry was to the Jewish people to repent and believe in the good news, the Kingdom of God has come near. The ideas such as a non-Jewish Jesus, Jesus as a social reformer, etc. which have been proposed based on a gentile Galilee can no longer be considered valid hypothesizes. Our understanding of Jesus and His ministry must be based on His being a part of the first century Jewish Galilee.