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R. T. France, in his very fine commentary on The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT, 2007), laments:

Modern readers of the NT often know little about the geopolitical world of first-century Palestine. It is commonly assumed that “the Jews” were an undifferentiated community living amicably in the part of the world we now call “the Holy Land” united in their resentment of the political imposition of Roman rule to which all were equally subject.

But, he says, “this is a gross distortion of the historical and cultural reality.”

The northern province of Galilee was decisively distinct--in history, political status, and culture--from the southern province of Judea which contained the holy city of Jerusalem.

Admitting that the following is a drastic oversimplification but hoping that it’s not a complete caricature, Professor France summarizes seven differences:

  1. Racially the area of the former Northern Kingdom of Israel had had, ever since the Assyrian conquest in the eighth century B.C., a more mixed population, within which more conservative Jewish areas (like Nazareth and Capernaum) stood in close proximity to largely pagan cities, of which in the first century the new Hellenistic centers of Tiberias and Sepphoris were the chief examples.
  2. Geographically Galilee was separated from Judea by the non-Jewish territory of Samaria, and from Perea in the southeast by the Hellenistic settlements of Decapolis.
  3. Politically Galilee had been under separate administration from Judea during almost all its history since the tenth century B.C. (apart from a period of “reunification” under the Maccabees), and in the time of Jesus it was under a (supposedly) native Herodian prince, while Judea and Samaria had since A.D. 6 been under the direct rule of a Roman prefect.
  4. Economically Galilee offered better agricultural and fishing resources than the more mountainous territory of Judea, making the wealth of some Galileans the envy of their southern neighbors.
  5. Culturally Judeans despised their northern neighbors as country cousins, their lack of Jewish sophistication being compounded by their greater openness to Hellenistic influence.
  6. Linguistically Galileans spoke a distinctive form of Aramaic whose slovenly consonants (they dropped their aitches!) were the butt of Judean humor.
  7. Religiously the Judean opinion was that Galileans were lax in their observance of proper ritual, and the problem was exacerbated by the distance of Galilee from the temple and the theological leadership, which was focused in Jerusalem.

The result, he says, is that

even an impeccably Jewish Galilean in first-century Jerusalem was not among his own people; he was as much a foreigner as an Irishman in London or a Texan in New York. His accent would immediately mark him out as “not one of us,” and all the communal prejudice of the supposedly superior culture of the capital city would stand against his claim to be heard even as a prophet, let alone as the “Messiah,” a title which, as everyone knew, belonged to Judea (cf. John 7:40-42).

This may at first blush sound like interesting background material that is not especially helpful for reading and interpreting the gospels. But Mark and Matthew have structured their narratives around a geographical framework dividing the north and the south, culminating in the confrontation of this prophet from Galilee and the religious establishment of Jerusalem.

Professor France writes: “To read Matthew in blissful ignorance of first-century Palestinian sociopolitics is to miss his point. This is the story of Jesus of Nazareth.”


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8 thoughts on “7 Differences Between Galilee and Judea in the Time of Jesus”

  1. Sandy Grant says:

    Thanks Justin, certainly one to point congregation members to, for an enriched understanding of the regional issues in reading the Gospels.

    Downunder (in Australia), we sophisticated Sydney-siders (in the state of NSW), would probably think of the Galileans in terms of the “banana-benders” to the north in Queensland (especially North Queensland)! (Ducking from cover, actually I’m from Wollongong these days, not Sydney!)

    On a more serious note, I’m thinking of the recent TGC video discussion between Piper and Carson about how much you need background historical information external to the text of Scripture to aid understanding the Scriptures. Here’s my question:

    How much of these regional differences you listed above do you think can be discerned from within the text of the NT itself by the careful and attentive reader? And how much definitely requires outside information?

    I am thinking for example, of the prejudice we see hinted at in John 7:41 and John 7:52 and Acts 2:7. Also consider the way we discover, by comparing the parallel questions that led to Peter’s denial, that those accused Peter of being a Galilean associate of Jesus (Mark 14:70 and Luke 22:59) could do so by his accent (Matt 26:73)? I think a very careful NT reader will also work out that Judea is under direct Roman rule, whereas the Herodian rulers had some sort of (quasi?) Jewish background (e.g. from Agrippa in Acts 26).

    Just thinking aloud.

  2. Jon Rising says:

    Sean Freyne has a helpful chapter in The Face of New Testament Studies: A Survey of Recent Research (Baker Academic, 2004). It is entitled, Galilee and Judea: The Social World of Jesus.

  3. I’ve always thought France hit a home run here–one of the most original points I’ve seen in a commentary introduction. From what I remember, he tries to “bring it home” in the commentary proper, showing the significance of this geographical divide for Matthew.

    I’ve wondered if this line of thought supports translating “Judeans” rather than (as usually rendered) “the Jews” in John’s gospel.

  4. Timothy says:

    The difficulty described by Sandy Grant and apparently also by the Piper/Carson video is an extreme form of what is actually a very wide problem. Do we need to know everything there is to know about ancient Jewish culture for God to speak to us through the scriptures? Put like that we instinctively answer “No”. And rightly so. The understandable fear is that all these pesky New Perspective on Paul scholars are removing the scriptures from everyone but themselves. But equally, do we need to be as learned as Piper and Carson for God to speak to us? Well it would be nice but I would like to think far from necessary. We all need good scholars to help us to read the scriptures rightly and some of their expertise will be expertise located very much in the scriptures but some of it will be located in historical or linguistic studies. However it is surely a common experience for Christians, baby Christians, to hear the voice of God in the Bible. Expertise is desirable, not necessary.
    Thus the fear of Piper and Carson seems to be an academic version of a fear open to us all but which is overstated. We would be better just to treat it as a call to humility.

  5. Lynn Rutledge says:

    Interesting!

  6. Derek Leman says:

    Justin,

    France’s comments on Galilee are slightly off, but not totally. Some of this he is getting from rabbinic lit written much later (the rabbis moved into Galilee, especially after the 2nd Jewish Revolt).

    There were gentile cities, yes, but the population was Israelite/Jewish overwhelmingly. See Richard Horsley, Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee. At my Yeshua In Context blog, I recently posted “Yeshua the Galilean,” with some ideas drawn from Horsley (it’s under the Galilee category).

    Blessings and peace.

    Derek Leman

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Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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