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Copyright © 2001 Jeanie C. Crain
Last modified: March, 2002

See Back to Galilee (2012)


Nazareth of Galilee


Located on a hill in the Plain of Esdraelon, it was about 365 m (1200 ft) above sea level. From its heights one could see mountains in three directions and view the Plain of Esdraelon on the south. The moderate climate, sufficient rainfall, and fertile soil were favorable for growing fruits, grains, and vegetables. The water supply of the town itself was restricted to one spring, supplemented by cisterns (Oxford Handbook).

Mark says Jesus came from Nazareth: 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  Matthew tells us Jesus is born in Bethlehem and is taken into Egypt by Joseph and Mary; only after danger from the ruler Archelaus is overcome does Joseph take Mary and the baby Jesus to Nazareth:

19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said,  20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”  21 Then Joseph † got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.  22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee.  23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazarean.”

Luke’s narrative presents Mary with news of her pregnancy through an angel appearing to her in Nazareth:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 

John begins the early work of Jesus  with the calling of his disciples in Galilee:

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”  44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.  45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”  46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”


Can any good come out of Galilee?  Are the words “good come out of Nazareth” prophetic?  Consider the Oxford Companion note on Jonah:

The principal figure of this artful story is an obscure Galilean prophet from Gath-hepher who counseled Jeroboam II (786 – 746 b.c.) in a successful conflict with the Syrians  (2 Kings 14.25) and with whom some of the earlier traditional material was probably associated. Its author, however, probably lived in the post-exilic period because he shows the influence of Jeremiah and Second Isaiah, and opposes the type of a narrow sectarianism and exclusivism. Although the linguistic evidence is indecisive, a date sometime in the fifth or fourth century b.c. seems indicated. With skill and finesse this little book calls Israel to repentance and reminds it of its mission to preach to all the nations the wideness of God’s mercy and forgiveness (Genesis 12.1–3; Isaiah 42.6–7; Isaiah 49.6).

One does well to recall that the name "Jonah" means dove and that it is a dove that descends upon Jesus at his baptism by John. 32 And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.  33 I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’  34 And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”

Indeed, can good come out of Galilee?  From Galilee comes this non-status quo Judaism proclaiming communion with God in the individual committed to loving God and neighbor.

While the above reference to Jonah can be used to interpret the proclamation of Jesus as immediately universal in application, this universality must be seen as outcome rather than immediate effect of the message he proclaimed.  Jesus confined his work to his people and his land. He lives his life in Galilee and his mission moves only as far south as Jerusalem. In Mark, the following chronology evolves:

Mark 1.1–13, Opening events of Jesus’ public life (John the Baptist; baptism and temptation of Jesus); Mark 1.14–9.50, Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and healing ministry in Galilee; Mark 10, Journey to Jerusalem; Mark 11–15, The last week, concluding with Jesus’ crucifixion and burial; Mark 16.1–8, The resurrection

Matthew shows a similar pattern of activity:

The accounts of Jesus’ deeds and words, drawn from Christian sources both oral and written, are arranged in a generally biographical order: Matthew 1–2, Birth of Jesus; Matthew 3.1–12, Activity of John the Baptist;  Matthew 3.13–4.11, Baptism and temptation of Jesus;  Matthew 4.12–18.35, Jesus’ preaching and teaching in Galilee;  Matthew 19–20, Journey to Jerusalem;  Matthew 21–27, The last week, concluding with Jesus’ crucifixion and burial;  Matthew 28, The resurrection; Jesus’ commission to his disciples.

Luke deviates only in addressing more completely the evolving Christianity of the first century:

In addition to presenting the story of Jesus’ work in Galilee and his last week at Jerusalem, Luke includes more episodes of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem than do any of the other Evangelists. This special section (Luke 9.51–18.14) also preserves many of the most beloved of Jesus’ parables – such as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.25–37), the Prodigal Son (Luke 15.11–32),

the Unjust Judge (Luke 18.1–8), and the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18.9–14).  

It is obvious from a number of features that the Evangelist envisages a Gentile rather than a Jewish reading public. Thus, he makes comparatively few quotations from the Old Testament, which would have been a strange and almost unknown book to most non-Jews. For the same reason Luke seldom appeals to the argument from prophecy. Furthermore, instead of using the Jewish word “rabbi,” Luke is the only New Testament author who employs the classical Greek equivalent, a word meaning master  (Luke 5.5; Luke 8.24; Luke 8.45; Luke 9.33; Luke 9.49; Luke 17.13).

The major divisions are: Luke 1–2, Births of John and Jesus; the boy Jesus in the temple;  Luke 3.1–22, Activity of John the Baptist; baptism of Jesus;  Luke 3.23–38, Genealogy of Jesus;  Luke 4.1–13, Temptation of Jesus;  Luke 4.14 -  Luke 9.50, Jesus’ activity, chiefly in Galilee;  Luke 9.51–19.27, Journey to Jerusalem;  Luke 19.28–23.56, The last week, concluding with Jesus’ crucifixion and burial;  Luke 24, The resurrection; commissioning the disciples. (Oxford Annotated)

John emphasizes the spiritual nature of Jesus:

The fourth Gospel explains the mystery of the person of Jesus. Like others among his contemporaries, yet also unlike them, he stands above them in unique, solitary grandeur. Whence this uniqueness? The Evangelist takes us behind the scenes of Jesus’ ministry, giving us a glimpse into his eternal origin and divine nature. He was unique because “he was in the beginning with God,” active in creation, the source of light and life (John 1.2–4). Hence, when he became incarnate in human flesh, he made known the eternal God, whom “no one has ever seen” (John 1.14; John 1.18).


Jesus concentrates his ministry to Galilee and Jerusalem.

For individuals seeking to know more of both Galilee and Judea, I would urge them to read  Alfred Edersheim's Sketches of Jewish Social Life. Readers can find an online version at under Extras. Here, I want partially to summarize and partially to quote Edersheim. Traditionally, the academic Jerusalem regarded the northern Galilee with contempt. Recall Nathaniel's "Can any good come out of Galilee?" (John 1.46) and the Pharisees' rebuking Nicodemus, "Search and look. For out of Galilee ariseth no prophet: (John 7.52) followed by a mocking question, "Are you also a Galilean?" 

Galilee, stretching northwards to Tyre and Syra, on the south to Samaria, bounded by Mount Carmel on the western and Scythopolis on the eastern, covered the ancient possession of the tribes of Issachar, Zebulun, Napthali, and Asher. Galilee was divided into the upper and lower Galilee, as well as the middle Galilee of Tiberias. Upper Galilee was moujntainous with "magnificent scenery, with bracing air." Its caves and marshy, reed-covered ground along Lake Merom harbored robbers, outlaws, and rebels. A caravan road connected Damascus in the east with the port of Ptolemais on the Mediterannean. Here passed daily the diversity and richness of the East destined for the West.

Galilee proper was, according to Edersheim, fertile, beautiful, a place where corn grew in abundance, as did olive trees, and wine was "generous and rich." Fruit grew to perfection. "The great road traversed Galilee, entering it where the Jordan is crossed by the so-called bridge of Jacob, then touching Capernaum, going down to Nazareth, and passing on to the sea coast." Nazareth had the advantage of laying on the route of world traffic. Edersheim also says that Nazareth was one of the priestly centers. He explains that the priests were divided into twenty-four courses, one of which was always on priestly duty in the Temple. The others were assigned towns where, if unable to go to Jerusalem, they spent the week fasting and praying for their brothers.

We have spoken of Nazareth; and a few brief notices of other places in Galilee, mentioned in the New Testament, may be of interest. Along the lake lay, north, Capernaum, a large city; and near it, Chorazin, so celebrated for its grain, that, if it had been closer to Jerusalem, it would have been used for the Temple; also Bethsaida, * the name, "house of fishes," indicating its trade.

* Three were two places of that name, one east of the Jordan, Bethsaida Julias, referred to in Luk_9:10; Mar_8:22; the other on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee, the birthplace of Andrew and Peter (Joh_1:44). See also Mar_6:45; Mat_11:21; Luk_10:13; Joh_12:21.

Capernaum was the station where Matthew sat at the receipt of custom (Mat_9:9). South of Capernaum was Magdala, the city of dyers, the home of Mary Magdalene (Mar_15:40, Mar_16:1; Luk_8:2; Joh_20:1). The Talmud mentions its shops and its woolworks, speaks of its great wealth, but also of the corruption of its inhabitants. Tiberias, which had been built shortly before Christ, is only incidentally mentioned in the New Testament (Joh_6:1, Joh_6:23, Joh_21:1). At the time it was a splendid but chiefly heathen city, whose magnificent buildings contrasted with the more humble dwellings common in the country. Quite at the southern end of the lake was Tarichaea, the great fishing place, whence preserved fish was exported in casks (Strabo, xvi,2). It was there that, in the great Roman war, a kind of naval battle was fought, which ended in terrible slaughter, no quarter being given by the Romans, so that the lake was dyed red with the blood of the victims, and the shore rendered pestilential by their bodies. Cana in Galilee was the birthplace of Nathanael (Joh_21:2), where Christ performed His first miracle (Joh_2:1-11); significant also in connection with the second miracle there witnessed, when the new wine of the kingdom was first tasted by Gentile lips (Joh_4:46-47). Cana lay about three hours to the north-north-east of Nazareth. Lastly, Nain was one of the southernmost places in Galilee, not far from the ancient Endor.

Not surprisingly, Galilee would have been a good place for the gospel of Jesus to be proclaimed. Edersheim says of the Galileans, "as the character of the people is described to us by Josephus, and even by the Rabbis, they seem to have been a warm-hearted, impulsive, generous race--intensely national in the best sense, active, not given to idle speculations or wire-drawn logico-theological distinctions, but conscientious and earnest." Granting theological differences between Galilee and Judea, Edersheim describes Galileans as showing "more earnest practical piety and strictness of life, and less adherence to traditionalism; learning from one  teacher and then another... rather quarrelsome and [living] in a chronic state of rebellion against Rome." He says they were also prone to mal-pronunciation of Hebrew, unable to pronounce the gutturals, and formed a constant subject of witticism and approach. The reader will recall that Peter was identified as a possible Galilean due to his speech. Edersheim  ends chapter three of his Sketches of Jewish Social Life by reminding us that Galilee will be remembered for the one who walked the shores of the Lake of Galilee:

But the district in Galilee to which the mind ever reverts, is that around the shores of its lake. * Its beauty, its marvellous vegetation, its almost tropical products, its wealth and populousness, have been often described. The Rabbis derive the name of Gennesaret either from a harp--because the fruits of its shores were as sweet as is the sound of a harp--or else explain it to mean "the gardens of the princes," from the beautiful villas and gardens around.

* The New Testament speaks so often of the occupation of fishers by the Lake of Galilee, that it is interesting to know that fishing on the lake was free to all. The Talmud mentions this as one of the ten ordinances given by Joshua of old (Baba Kama,80 b).

But we think chiefly not of those fertile fields and orchards, nor of the deep blue of the lake, enclosed between hills, nor of the busy towns, nor of the white sails spread on its waters--but of Him, Whose feet trod its shores; Who taught, and worked, and prayed there for us sinners; Who walked its waters and calmed its storms, and Who even after His resurrection held there sweet converse with His disciples; nay, Whose last words on earth, spoken from thence, come to us with peculiar significance and application, as in these days we look on the disturbing elements in the world around: "What is that to thee? Follow thou Me" (Joh_21:22).


One other picture of Galilee may be helpful as the reader thinks about Jesus of Nazareth; this picture is the one described by Craig Evans, "Context, family and formation" in The Cambridge Companion to Jesus (Editor Markus Bockmuehl, Cambridge Press, 2001). Evans makes the case that Galilee is profoundly Jewish and that Jesus grew up and developed in a thoroughly Jewish environment:

Galilee of the early first century AD was profoundly Jewish, though a thin veneer of Graeco-Roman culture was present. Agriculturally rich and strategically situated, Galilee was a region over which the Roman Empire maintained firm political control, alternately through client rulers (viz. the Herodian dynasty) or through the direct administration of Roman governors. Galilee measures some 69 km from north to south, and some 49 km from east to west. Although most of this territory ranges in elevation from 600 m to 1200 m above sea level, Lake Gennesaret (or popularly Sea of Galilee) some 21 km in length (north to south) and 5-11 km wide, is situated about 215 m below sea level. In the time of Jesus the lake supported (and still supports) a thriving fishing industry..."  (11). 

Evans goes on to point out that the major cities at Tiberias and Sepphoris lead some to exaggerate the extent of the Hellenisation of Galilee. Archaeological data, he contends, however do not support this. He points to there being no pig bones in Sepphoris prior to 70 CE  with a 30 percent faunal remains after 70 CE.  He also says that coins minted at Sepphoris do not bear the images of emperors.  Lamp fragments have been discovered bearing the image of the menorah. Further, prior to 70 CE, the discovered pottery is Jewish. His conclusion then is that Galilee was not overly Hellenized during the life of Jesus.



See Mission to Galilee in Mark.