By the first century A.D., much of Palestine, the area known to the Israelites as the “land of promise,” was divided under the Romans into five areas of provincial or semiprovincial status: Galilee, Idumea, Judea, Perea, and Samaria. Only Judea was overwhelmingly Jewish, while the other provinces, although mostly Jewish, also supported mixed populations of Jews, Greeks, and Syrians. This ethnic background and many historical factors become significant when one seeks to understand the elements that contributed to Jewish rebellion and to Galilee as a seedbed of revolt, including the Jewish War against Rome.
Galilee in Old Testament Times
Galilee, the northernmost region of Palestine, encompassed villages and small towns made up mainly of Jewish inhabitants, as well as larger towns composed of Jews and many Gentiles, some of whom were remnants of peoples imported by the Assyrians after their conquest of the district around 732 B.C. Galilee’s diverse ethnicity may be the reason Isaiah referred to “Galilee of the nations” as an area filled with a people who “walked in darkness,” but who would see “a great light”—presumably referring to a future time when the region would be repopulated by Jews and the Messiah would arise from that re-Judaized area (Isa. 9:1–2).The name “Galilee” (Hebrew galil) seems to be derived from Northwest Semitic languages (Canaanite or Hebrew) and may have meant something like “circuit,” “circle,” or “ring” and by extension, the “district” that surrounded the great inland sea, the Sea of Galilee. Evidence suggests that the initial appearance of the name in a text comes from Pharaoh Thutmose III’s fifteenth-century B.C. town list. He was the great warrior-pharaoh of the New Kingdom, who first conquered Megiddo in northern Israel in 1468 B.C. and subsequently participated in some twenty campaigns in that region.
Mention of Galilee occurs infrequently in the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) for at least two reasons. First, in Old Testament times the names of the Israelite tribes who had inherited a particular area of the promised land were used to reference that specific geographical locale more often than other designations. The territory of Galilee was divided between Asher, Issachar, Naphtali, and Zebulun. Second, because the Galilee region was so distant geographically from Jerusalem—the legitimate center of religious, economic, and literary activity in the land—Galilean events were not given great space in the Hebrew Bible.However, the term Galilee as a proper name was familiar among scribes and writers relatively early, as indicated by six clear attestations in the Old Testament, including Isaiah 9:1 and other passages mentioning different cities “in the land of Galilee” (see 1 Kgs. 9:11; Josh. 20:7; 21:32; 2 Kgs. 15:29; and 1 Chr. 6:76).
By the close of the Old Testament period, the region of Galilee had long been associated with war and invading armies. The Jezreel Valley (usually included as part of Galilee, though sometimes regarded as simply the border between Samaria on the south and Galilee on the north) was the classic warpath and battlefield of empires in the ancient Near East. Famous non-Israelite warrior-kings who traversed the Jezreel Valley and other parts of Galilee include the Egyptians Amenhotep II, Thutmose III, Seti I, Rameses II, and Necho; the Assyrians Tiglath-pileser III, Shalmaneser V, Sargon II, and Sennacherib; and the Babylonian Nebuchadnezzar II. The list of later, postbiblical military leaders who fought in the area includes the Macedonian Alexander the Great, Seleucid Antiochus IV, Ptolemaic Cleopatra VII, and the Romans Pompey, Antony, Vespasian, and Titus.
Israel also turned Galilee into a battleground. Joshua’s northern campaign took the conquering Israelites right through the heart of Galilee, as the tribes under Jehovah’s direction fought major battles against the great Canaanite coalition (Josh. 11). Later, Deborah and Barak won a stunning victory over Jabin, Sisera, and the Canaanites under the shadow of Mount Tabor (Judg. 4–5). Once the people of Israel had become settled in the region, Galilee was devastated by Benhadad of Damascus (1 Kgs. 15:20) and again by Hazael (2 Kgs. 12:18). It was reclaimed by King Jeroboam II of the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 826 B.C. (2 Kgs. 13:22).
The greatest blow leveled against the region of Galilee in preexilic Israelite times came in 733–732 B.C., when Tiglath-pileser III advanced on the area, struck it with full force, captured it, and turned it into an Assyrian province. According to Assyrian inscriptions and 2 Kings 15:29, all Israelite lands in Galilee and Transjordan were overrun, portions of the population deported, and numerous cities destroyed.
Not a great deal is known about Galilee during the Assyrian and Persian periods that followed the final capture of Samaria and the deportation of thousands more Israelites by the successors of Tiglath-pileser III. At Megiddo structures manifesting clearly discernible Assyrian characteristics have been unearthed, indicating that those buildings were part of an administrative capital. In fact, in Assyrian documents the area was called the satrapy of Megiddo. Artifacts found at the village of Cana, north of Nazareth, have provided additional evidence of a strong Assyrian presence in Galilee. Through the Persian period, apparently Galilee and Samaria were a single district.
Galilee in Hellenistic Times
Galilee came under the control of Alexander the Great following his conquest of Jerusalem in 332 B.C. Upon Alexander’s death, his empire was carved up among his generals and their families. The Ptolemies inherited Egypt and Palestine, including Galilee, while the Seleucids received Syria and Mesopotamia. Royal agents of the Ptolemies traveled far and wide in search of commodities desired by Egypt. One such official was Zenon, whose personal archives, discovered at Philadelphia in the Fayum, tell of his travels to Galilee in 259–258 B.C. and of the competent rule of the Ptolemies in that region.
However, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid factions constantly warred over control of Palestine during the third century B.C., and several of the campaigns were conducted in the Galilee region.After a seventy-five-year period, events in upper Galilee arrived at a point of crisis in 198 B.C. At Panias (Banyas) near Dan, the area in the north near Caesarea Philippi of the New Testament, the Seleucid Greek rulers of Syria led by Antiochus III (the Great) soundly defeated the Ptolemaic Greek rulers of Egypt, who were led by Scopas. Domination of the entire region, including Galilee, passed to the intensely Hellenizing Greeks of Syria. This set the stage for the conflict between Hellenism and Judaism that eventually resulted in a revolt of the Judean Jewish priestly family named the Hasmoneans (also known as Maccabees). The Hasmoneans, using the issue of Hellenization as a pretext, inaugurated a war against the Seleucids not only to free the Jews from Hellenistic influences by seizing power, but also to establish themselves over their previous rivals among the Jewish nobility. Under the leadership of the third son of the Hasmonean family, Judah Maccabee, the Jews began to throw off the shackles of Seleucid domination and rededicated their once-desecrated temple at Jerusalem in 165 B.C.
As the war proceeded, a Seleucid general named Bacchides was dispatched to Judea with an army to quell the revolt. On his march from Damascus, he passed through Galilee, wreaking vengeance on the Jewish citizens and the inhabitants of Arbela, located immediately west of the Sea of Galilee.More than one hundred years later, the caves of Arbela would again become the site of great carnage, only this time at the hands of one of the Jews’ own leaders—Herod the Great.
Several more costly battles, led by Judah Maccabee’s brothers and successors, ultimately won independence for the Jews. One of the more famous of these campaigns occurred in western Galilee. It is significant not only because it cost the life of Jonathan Maccabee, leader of the revolt after Judah, but also because it shows that major Jewish resettlement had begun in Galilee by 143–42 B.C.
After Jonathan’s brother Simon was treacherously slain in 134 B.C., rule in Palestine devolved to Simon’s son John Hyrcanus I. He set about to bring all of Palestine under Hasmonean Jewish control. Hyrcanus succeeded in connecting Galilee with Judea (thus further opening up Galilee to Jewish resettlement) by conquering an intermediate string of Hellenized cities that had prevented such a union. Hyrcanus’s successors, Aristobulus and Alexander Janneus, completed the conquest of almost all of Palestine. Under Janneus, the Hasmonean (or Maccabean) state reached its apogee.
Jewish independence came to an abrupt end when Pompey (later a member of Rome’s first triumvirate) annexed Palestine to Syria in 63 B.C. In Judea, Perea, Idumea, and Galilee, the Romans continued the local Jewish administration then in place, under the jurisdiction of the Roman governor of Syria. The Samaritans became independent, and the Jezreel Valley (plain of Esdraelon as it is known in Greek) was detached from Galilee.
Though the Romans reinstated Hyrcanus II as high priest in Jerusalem, under Hyrcanus much political influence was eventually gained by a man named Antipater. He was the son of a rich Idumean also named Antipater, who had been appointed stratēgos (a type of governor) by the Hasmoneans in the days of Alexander Janneus (103–76 B.C.). Apparently, the younger Antipater’s political career began as governor of Idumea under the tutelage of his father. But his own power base was greatly strengthened when he aided Julius Caesar with additional troops during Caesar’s occupation of Alexandria. In 52 B.C., Cassius captured Tarichaeae (southwest shore of the Sea of Galilee) and put Peitholaus to death for rallying partisans against Antipater. Cassius then enslaved thirty thousand Galileans.By 47 B.C., Antipater was effectively in control of Judea, and he gave his sons Phasael and Herod (later Herod the Great) the tasks of governing Jerusalem and Galilee respectively. Soon another vivid lesson “in what the consequences would be of opposing Roman rule” came in 43 B.C., when Judea was slow in paying tribute to Rome; Jewish city officials and villagers were sold into slavery. Beginning his administrative career in Galilee, Herod eventually established a powerful monarchy that exercised tight control over the entire country until his death in 4 B.C.
Herod’s Impact on Galilee
The name of Herod the Great and the district of Galilee are intricately intertwined. Virtually each time mention is made in the sources about the early life of the Idumean-born ruler, Galilee is also mentioned. When Herod was appointed governor (stratēgos) of Galilee, he was twenty-five years old.He immediately began to establish his reputation as an aggressive ruler who would tolerate no challenge to his authority. Inheriting a Galilee known for its brigands and rebels who occupied numerous caves in the region, Herod moved against them swiftly and ruthlessly. The first to be captured was one Hezekiah, a Jewish bandit-chief operating between Galilee and Syria and the father of Judas the Galilean, who later led a revolt against the Roman-backed regime after Herod’s death in 4 B.C.
Herod’s execution of Hezekiah and his rebel followers without due process, based solely on his own authority, was greatly admired by the Syriansbut led to his arraignment before the Sanhedrin. Herod intimidated and manipulated the Jewish senate by appearing with a heavily armed guard. Ultimately, he escaped to Syria, was given added authority from the Roman governor of Syria, and returned with great zeal to Judea to exact heavy taxes from the Jews. In 43 B.C., Herod’s father was murdered by a Jewish opponent of the family. The following year found Herod again engaged in military action in Galilee against Antigonus II, a rebellious Hasmonean leader who challenged the authority of the ruling Hasmonean Hyrcanus, whom Herod supported. After this time, Herod’s goal of imposed unification became all the more difficult due to the opposition of some Galileans.
The Antigonid faction continued their rivalry with Hyrcanus by enlisting the aid of Parthians to invade Judea and support their cause. Herod escaped from the invaders and fled to Masada and subsequently to Rome, where, on the recommendation of Marc Antony, he was appointed by the Roman senate a client king for Judea and surrounding territories, even though the area was still in the hands of his rival, Antigonus. When he returned to consolidate his rule in Palestine, he began his campaign in Galilee. From there he proceeded to capture Joppa on the Mediterranean coast, continued on to Masada where he freed his family, and tried to besiege Jerusalem but had to break off the attack when his Roman support left for their winter camp on the coast.
In the winter of 39–38 B.C., Herod went back to Galilee and set out for Sepphoris in a driving snowstorm, only to find that Antigonus’s soldiers had abandoned the city. Herod then turned towards the task of eliminating some of his other opponents at the village of Arbela, which stood below the caves of a mountain precipice to the west. Josephus tells us Herod stormed their strongholds and “pursued them, with slaughter, to the Jordan and destroyed large numbers of them; the rest fled across the river and dispersed. Thus was Galilee purged of its terrors, save for the remnant still lurking in the caves, and their extirpation took some time.”
In a very famous incident, Herod completed the task of cleaning out the caves by devising a brilliant, but ruthless and gruesome strategy. He had his soldiers lowered in cages from atop the cliffs (rather than attacking from below), where they used grappling hooks to extract the enemy and then hurled them to their deaths on the valley floor far below.
Josephus refers to these cave-dwelling resistance fighters as brigands or bandits. But the deaths of entire families who were holed up in the caves, including women and children, makes the episode seem excessively vicious and unrestrained, a point not irrelevant to the thoughts of the men, women, and children later at Masada. Josephus also describes a closely related subsequent action undertaken by Herod against certain rebels who had overwhelmed the contingent of troops Herod had left stationed in the area after the Arbela incident. This group of bandits fled to marshes and fortresses around Lake Huleh. Herod dealt with them and subsequently fined some nearby towns that were believed to have been supporting bandits.Herod rounded out his Galilean campaign of 38 B.C. by quelling a revolt of Galileans who had attacked nobles and Herodian supporters and had drowned them in the Sea of Galilee.
In 37 B.C., Herod gained de facto military power over the land when he captured his Hasmonean rival, Antigonus. He then destroyed the political power of the Sanhedrin by executing forty-five of its members who had supported this faction of the divided Hasmoneans. The heavy hand of Herod’s control then came to Galilee as it did elsewhere in Palestine, but evidence indicates that Galilee appears to have become relatively stable after Herod’s successes. In 20 B.C., Augustus Caesar came to Syria and met with Herod. As a result of this meeting, certain districts in the Huleh Valley (Paneas and Ulatha) were transferred to Herod’s vast kingdom.
In the years that followed, Herod turned his attention to building programs. Therefore, it is surprising that there was little monumental Herodian construction in Galilee, considering that Herod’s early career and reputation were made there. As pointed out, he might have called attention to his military prowess and his “glory days” in Galilee through the construction of monuments and buildings at noteworthy sites. He did not. Even Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee during the first century, benefited little, according to the literary and archeological records. Thus some have argued that the common view of Galilee as a hotbed of dissent requiring tight control through constant enforcement is contradicted by the fact that there is no evidence of great fortresses or major fortifications being built there.For whatever reason, Judea and Samaria received almost all of Herod’s attention and money, while Galilee received little or nothing and remained relatively impoverished.
Galilee in New Testament Times
As events immediately following the death of Herod demonstrate, underneath the surface Galilee was anything but calm. The picture provided by the New Testament fits well the notion of a whole class of socially and economically disadvantaged Galileans, disinherited and disenchanted, who had lost lands and livelihood under Herod’s Roman-backed overlordship. Soon after Herod’s burial, several popular outbreaks occurred in virtually every quarter of the land. These uprisings included demands for tax reductions, relief from economic and political oppression, and cries for religious reform.
The most significant revolt during that time of transition came in Galilee where one Judas, son of Hezekiah, raised an army to attack the royal arsenal at Sepphoris and sought to become king. There was almost certainly an element of personal vengeance in these actions, since years earlier (47 B.C.) Herod had first made a name for himself by launching a fierce attack on Hezekiah, who was waging a guerrilla war in the north of Galilee—part of Herod’s early stewardship.At this point, Varus, governor of Syria, entered Palestine with two powerful Roman legions and four regiments of cavalry to crush the revolt decisively. Galilee was the first to be subdued because many of its Greek inhabitants had been murdered by rebeling Jews. Although the Romans treated friendly provinces benevolently, “they became unusually brutal” in putting down repeated rebellions and, if necessary, “maintained the pax Romana by terror.” After Varus’s successful action, the emperor Augustus divided the country among Herod’s sons; they were each to oversee much smaller districts than their father had ruled, and they “ruled” under the jurisdiction of Rome. Herod Antipas governed Galilee and Perea from 4 B.C. to A.D. 39.
One of the most famous residents of Galilee during this period was Jesus of Nazareth. He set a number of his parables in Galilean surroundings (for example, Matt. 20:1–15 and Mark 12:1–11). Some of the characters in the parables are large landowners. On the basis of evidence from the Mishnah and from archaeology, it has been argued that individual ownership of small tracts of land gave way at this time to ownership of large tracts of land by a wealthy few. Whole villages sometimes came to be owned by one person. Farmers and their sons became dayworkers.This situation was nowhere more keenly felt than in Galilee, where agriculture was always the mainstay of existence. “The impoverishment of the farmers resulted in an enormous exodus from the country. Galilee was particularly affected by this because most of the villages were there.”
Galilee in New Testament times was apparently viewed by some as being filled with “unlearned” men who clashed with Jewish leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 4:13). This was another source of tension in Galilee and Judea that took its toll on the peace of the Jewish nation.
The volatile atmosphere of Galilee now intensified even more. It seems clear from the New Testament that during this period there were many debtors, many beggars, and numbers of slaves whose situation was dire. This seems to be verified by Josephus, who reports that during the time of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 67–70), Simon bar Gioras, a leader of one of the rebel factions, demanded the freeing of all Jewish slaves as part of his plan.
Jewish resistance to Herodian and Roman rule is extremely complex, but it seems clear that Galilee was a critical focal point of this resistance from 4 B.C. to A.D. 66. In fact, Josephus traces the origins of the Zealot movement (or “Fourth Philosophy”) in A.D. 6 to Saddok the Pharisee and Judas the Galilean—a man from Gamla. They called for armed revolt, saying that such heavy tax assessments amounted to slavery and that only God was master of the Jewish people.It is possible that Jesus was tarred in some minds by the reputation of his native area.
After the death of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12:20–23), Emperor Claudius made the whole of Palestine a Roman province and appointed Cuspius Fadus (A.D. 44–46) as governor. During the governorship of his successor, Tiberius Julius Alexander (46–48), the sons of Judas the Galilean were crucified.In 46 they had emerged to initiate some program of resistance against Rome in Galilee and the Transjordan.
In 52 a conflict erupted between Galileans and Samaritans when Galileans were murdered in Samaria while on their way to a festival in Jerusalem. When the Roman governor Cumanus failed to take action, Galilean instigators promoted a punitive expedition into Samaritan territory by appealing to the Zealot watchwords of “freedom from foreign control.” Hostility broke out and spread to Jerusalem. It was resolved by Claudius.
Cumanus was succeeded by Antonius Felix (52–60), Porcius Festus (60–62), Albinus (62–64), and Gessius Florus (64–66), under whom the first revolt against Rome began. An example of their venality is found in Acts 24:24–27, which recounts Felix’s attempt to extort a bribe from the Apostle Paul, who was under house arrest at Caesarea.
The Jewish War was sparked by the perceived injustices of Florus in Caesarea,and soon hostilities were unleashed. By 66 the Sanhedrin had been invested with executive powers for the Jews, and they appointed Flavius Josephus as one of the commanders of Jewish troops in Galilee. His assignment was to fortify the cities in Galilee including Jotapata, Tarichaeae, Tiberius, Sepphoris, and Gischala. He reports that he was able to mobilize one hundred thousand men and train them for battle. This seems an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that Josephus performed a difficult task. It was made more so by opposition from another Galilean leader of a rebel faction, John of Gischala. Josephus also says that there was additional opposition in Galilee stemming from intense disagreement between the Jewish population living in the countryside and those in the larger towns. In his writings, the country folk are cast as far more nationalistic than the city dwellers.
All of this played into the hands of the Roman general Vespasian, who was sent by Nero to crush the revolt and who advanced first on Galilee. Strategically, this was probably a wise move, since from the point of view of Galilean geography many of the important rebel areas were clustered in Galilee, especially upper Galilee.
If we look at Upper Galilee as an excellent area of refuge set apart by reasons of topography . . . then we can better understand why certain events took place there and not elsewhere. For example, it was in these rocky hills that Jesus the brigand chief was hired to wrest the Galilean command from Josephus; that John of Gischala plundered much of Galilee; that Varus sent troops from Ptolemais to subdue rebellious groups; that Cestius, governor of Syria, marched into the area.
In the face of Vespasian’s expected onslaught, the main part of Josephus’s army fled to the fortress of Jotapata, where Josephus himself took personal charge of its defense. Vespasian laid siege to the fortress for forty-seven days, after which it fell into Roman hands through treachery. All the inhabitants were either killed or taken into slavery, and the city razed to the ground. With this victory, the Romans gained one of the most important strongholds in Galilee. Soon thereafter the Romans conquered Tarichaeae, Gamla, and Mount Tabor. By the end of 67, the Romans had the entire Galilee region under their control. Thus, the Jewish War that ended at Masada began in Galilee, where the dissatisfactions that led to the Jewish rebellion were more seriously exacerbated than in Judea itself. In light of the historical character of this region, it is not surprising that strong feelings, toward war on the one hand, but also for peace on the other hand, should emerge onto the world’s stage from the land called Galilee.