“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles — the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:14-16, quoting Isaiah 9:1-2).
The region of ancient (and modern) Israel that we call Galilee apparently was originally just a small circle of land (the name means “circuit” or “circle” in Hebrew) round the Canaanite city of Kedesh, which was conquered by Joshua and became part of the inheritance of the tribe of Naphtali (Joshua 20:7). It was in this area that the twenty towns were located that King Solomon gave to Hiram king of Tyre, in payment for the workmen and cedar wood he supplied from Lebanon for building the Temple in Jerusalem (1 Kings 9:11). Perhaps it was then that the area became settled by Gentiles from Phoenicia (Isaiah 8:23), though this may have occurred at a later time, when the Assyrians moved other populations into the area after the captivity of ancient Israel.
In Roman times, and throughout the life of Jesus, all Palestine was divided into three provinces: Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, with Galilee being the largest (Luke 17:11). The area is extremely hilly and rocky, and most people lived in small villages – though the cities such as Tiberias built on the shores of the Sea of Galilee were larger. The Sea of Galilee was, in fact, the central focal point of the whole region. Also called in the Bible the Sea of Kinneret (possibly from the “harp” shape of the lake) or its Greek form, Gennesaret, as well as Ginosar and the Sea of Tiberius, the large lake (today approximately 7 miles wide and 12.5 miles long) was the center of the fishing trade which was Galilee’s main industry.
Many Bible commentaries give a picture of ancient Galilee as a rustic and socially backwards area looked down upon by Jews in Jerusalem and elsewhere, but modern archaeology has shown that although the Galileans may have had a different accent (Matthew 26:73) and may not have had the education of many of the Jerusalem elites (Acts 4:13), they were nevertheless respected for their thriving commerce. The whole area of Galillee was known for its beauty, and the Jewish historian Josephus who lived shortly after the time of Christ (c. AD 37 – AD 100) even wrote that “One may call this place the ambition of Nature.”
The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke,) all give detailed accounts of the ministry of Jesus which was conducted in Galilee. They tell us that it was there that Jesus chose his disciples and where he taught and performed many miracles in the scattered villages and towns. Matthew tells us that he did this to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:
“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned” (Matthew 4:14-16, quoting Isaiah 9:1-2).
Yet why did Jesus spend so much of his earthly life in Galilee? It would have been possible, of course, for him to have grown up anywhere in Judea and to have simply travelled to Galilee to complete his prophesied work there. Most scholars feel that because Galilee was relatively distant from the political and religiously volatile situation in Jerusalem, Jesus’ ministry was more likely to thrive and survive in the more out of the way area.
But there is perhaps another reason why so much of Jesus’ ministry was completed in Galilee – and that was the nature of the Galileans themselves. The common stereotype that paints the Galileans as unsophisticated and “backwoodsy” fails to take into account an important trait for which they were well known. The Jewish historian Josephus also wrote of the Galileans that they were “fond of innovations and by nature disposed to change, and they delighted in seditions.” The latter charge, that they were fond of political seditions, was seen in the revolt against the Romans led by Judas of Galilee in AD 6 and mentioned in the New Testament (Acts 5:37).
However, the fact that the Galileans were socially and temperamentally inclined to innovation and change meant that they were doubtless far more receptive to the seemingly radical new teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Far less constrained in what they believed than the tradition-bound Jews of Jerusalem, the Galileans (apart from Jesus’ own family and those who had known him as a child – Matthew 13:54-58) may have been more open to the message of the Gospel than any other group in ancient Palestine. It was among the Galileans, as Isaiah prophesied, that the light that was to come shone most brightly.