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Background to the New Testament #3

Galilee at the time of Christ

                      BACKGROUND TO THE NEW TESTAMENT


CHAPTER 3


IN GALILEE AT THE TIME OF OUR LORD.



"IF any one wishes to be rich, let him go north; if he wants to
be wise, let him come south." 

     Such was the saying, by which Rabbinical pride distinguished
between the material wealth of Galilee and the supremacy in
traditional lore claimed for the academies of Judaea proper.
Alas, it was not long before Judaea lost even this doubtful
distinction, and its colleges wandered northwards, ending at last
by the Lake of Gennesaret, and in that very city of Tiberias
which at one time had been reputed unclean!  Assuredly, the
history of nations chronicles their judgment; 1  and it is
strangely significant, that the authoritative collection of
Jewish traditional law, known as the Mishnah, and the so-called
Jerusalem Talmud, which is its Palestinian commentary, 2  should
finally have issued from what was originally a heathen city,
built upon the site of old forsaken graves.  But so long as
Jerusalem and Judaea were the centre of Jewish learning, no

......

1 "The history of nations is the Nemesis of nations" ("Die
Weltgeschichte ist das Weltgericht"), writes Schiller.
2 There are two Talmud--the Jerusalem and the Babylonian--to the
text of the Mishnah. The Babylonian Talmud is considerably
younger than that of Jerusalem, and its traditions far more
deeply tinged with superstition and error of every kind.    For
historical purposes, also, the Jerusalem Talmud is of much
greater value and authority than that of the Eastern Schools.

......


terms of contempt were too strong to express the supercilious
"hauteur," with which a regular Rabbinist regarded his northern
co-religionists. The slighting speech of Nathanael (John i.46), 
"Can there any good thing come out oŁ Nazareth?" reads quite like
a common saying of the period; and the rebuke of the Pharis to
Nicodemus (John vii. 52), "Search, and look: for out Galilee
ariseth no prophet," was pointed by the mocking question, "Art
thou also of Galilee?" It was not merely self-conscious
superiority, such as the "townspeople," as the inhabitants of
Jerusalem used to be called throughout Palestine, were said to
have commonly displayed towards their "country cousins" and every
one else, but offensive contempt, outspoken sometimes with almost
incredible rudeness, want of delicacy and charity, but always
with much pious self-assertion. The "God, I thank Thee that I am
not as other men" (Luke xviii. 11) seems like the natural breath
of Rabbinism in the company of the unlettered, and of all who
were deemed intellectual or religious inferiors; and the
parabolic history of the Pharisee and the publican in the gospel
is not told for the special condemnation of that one, prayer, but
as characteristic of the whole spirit of Pharisaism, even in its
approaches to God. "This people who knoweth not the law (that is,
the traditional law) are cursed," was the curt summary of the
Rabbinical estimate of popular opinion. To so terrible a length
did it go that the Pharisees would fain have excluded them, not
only from common intercourse, but from witness-bearing, and that
they even applied to marriages with them such a passage as Deut.
xxvii. 21. 1

......

1 Every one who is curious to see the lengths to which
Pharisaical pride could go in its contempt of the country people
should read Pes.49, a and b.

......


     But if these be regarded as extremes, two instances, chosen
almost at random - one from religious, the other from ordinary
life - will serve to illustrate their reality. A more complete
parallel to the Pharisee's prayer could scarcely be imagined than
the following. We read in the Talmud (Fer. Ber. iv. 2) that a
celebrated Rabbi was won every day, on leaving the academy, to
pray in these terms: "I thank Thee, O Lord my God and God of my
fathers, that  hou hast cast my lot among those who frequent the
schools and synagogues, and not among those who attend the
theatre and the circus. For, both I and they work and watch - I
to inherit eternal life, they for their destruction." The other
illustration, also taken from a Rabbinical work, is, if possible,
even more offensive. It appears that Rabbi Jannai, while
travelling by the way, formed acquaintance with a man, whom he
thought his equal. Presently his new friend invited him to
dinner, and liberally set before him meat and drink. But the sus-
picions of the Rabbi had been excited.  He began to try his host
successively by questions upon the text of Scripture, upon the
Mishnah, allegorical interpretations, and lastly on Talmudical
lore. Alas! on neither of these points could he satisfy the
Rabbi. Dinner was over; and Rabbi Jannai, who by that time no
doubt had displayed all the hauteur and contempt of a regular
Rabbinist towards the unlettered, called upon his host, as
customary, to take the cup of thanksgiving, and return thanks.
But the latter was sufficiently humiliated to reply, with a
mixture of Eastern deference and Jewish modesty, "Let Jannai
himself give thanks in his own house." "At any rate," observed
the Rabbi, "you can join with me;" and when the latter had agreed
to his, Jannai said, "A dog has eaten of the bread of Jannai!"


     Impartial history, however, must record a different judgment
of the men of Galilee from that pronounced by the Rabbis, and
that even wherein they were despised by those  leaders in Israel.
Some of their peculiarities, indeed, were due to territorial
circumstances. The province of Galilee - of which the name might
be rendered "circuit," being derived from a verb meaning "to move
in a circle " - covered the ancient possessions of four tribes:
Issachar, Zebulon, Naphtali, and Asher. The name occurs already
in the Old Testament (compare Josh. xx. 7; 1 Kings ix. 11; 2
Kings xv. 29; 1 Chron. vi. 76; and especially Isa. ix. 1). In the
time of Christ it stretched northwards to the possessions of Tyre
on the one side, and to Syria on the other; on the south it was
bounded by Samaria - Mount Carmel on the western, and the
district of Scythopolis (in the Decapolis) on the eastern side,
being here landmarks; while the Jordan and the Lake of Gennesaret
formed the general eastern boundary line. Thus regarded, it would
include names to which such reminiscences attach as "the
mountains of Gilboa," where "Israel and Saul fell down slain;"
little Hermon, Tabor, Carmel, and that great battle-field of
Palestine, the plain of Jezreel. Alike the Talmud and Josephus
divide it into Upper and Lower Galilee, between which the Rabbis
insert the district of Tiberias, as Middle Galilee. 1  We are
reminded of the history of Zaccheus (Luke xix. 4) by the mark
which the Rabbis give to distinguish between Upper and Lower
Galilee - the former beginning "where sycomores cease to grow."
The sycamore, which is a species of fig, must, of course, not be
confounded with our sycamore, and was a very delicate evergreen,
easily destroyed by cold (Ps. lxxviii. 47), 

......

1 Shev. ix. 2.

......


and growing only in the Jordan valley, or in Lower Galilee up to
the sea-coast. The mention of that tree may also help us to fix
the locality where Luke xvii. 6  was spoken by the Saviour. The
Rabbis mention Kefar Hananyah, probably the modern Kefr Anan, to
the north-west of Safed, as the first place in Upper Galilee.    
Safed was truly "a city set on an hill;" and as such may have
been in view of the Lord, when He spoke the Sermon on the Mount
(Matt.v. I4). In the Talmud it is mentioned by the name of
Zephath, and spoken of as one of the signal-stations, whence the
proclamation of the new moon, made by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem,
1  and with it the beginning of every month, was telegraphed by
fire-signals from hill to hill throughout the land, and far away
east of the Jordan, to those of the dispersion.
     The mountainous part in the north of Upper Galilee presented
magnificent scenery, with bracing air.  Here the scene of the
Song of Solomon is partly laid (Cant. vii. 5). But its caves and
fastnesses, as well as the marshy ground, covered with reeds,
along Lake Merom, gave shelter to robbers, outlaws, and rebel
chiefs. Some of the most dangerous characters came from the
Galilean highlands. A little farther down, and the scenery
changed. South of Lake Merom, where the so-called Jacob's bridge
crosses the Jordan, we come upon the great caravan road, which
connected Damascus in the east with the great mart of Ptolemais,
on the shore of the Mediterranean. What a busy life did this road
constantly present in the days of our Lord, and how many trades
and occupations did it call into existence! All day long they
passed--files of camels, mules, and asses, laden with the

......

1 See my book on "The Temple: its Ministry and Services at the
Time of Jesus Christ," pp. 170, 251

......


riches of the East, destined for the far West, or bringing the
luxuries of the West to the far East. Travellers of every
description-Jews, Greeks, Romans, dwellers in the Eastwere seen
here. The constant intercourse with foreigners, and the
settlement of so many strangers along one of the great highways
of the world, must have rendered the narrow-minded bigotry of
Judaea well-nigh impossible in Galilee.

     We are now in Galilee proper, and a more fertile or
beautiful region could scarcely be conceived. 1  It was truly the
land where Asher dipped his foot in oil (Dent. xxxiii. 24). The
Rabbis speak of the oil as flowing like a river, and they say
that it was easier in Galilee to rear a forest of olive-trees
than one child in Judaea! The wine, although not so plentiful as
the oil, was generous and rich. Corn grew in abundance,
especially in the neighbourhood of Capernaum; flax also was
cultivated. The price of living was much lower than in Judaea,
where one measure was said to cost as much as five in Galilee.   
Fruit also grew to perfection; and it was probably a piece of
jealousy on the part of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, that they
would not allow it to be sold at the feasts in the city, lest
people should forsooth say, "We have only come up in order to
taste fruit from Galilee." 2  Josephus speaks of the country in
perfectly rapturous terms. He counts no fewer than 240 towns and
villages, and speaks of the smallest as containing not less than
15,000 inhabitants! This, of course, must be gross exaggeration,
as it would make the country more than twice as thickly populated
as

......

1 See also, generally, an interesting paper on "The Fertility of
Ancient Palestine" in the Quarterly Statement of the Palestine
Exploration Fund for July, 1876, pp.120-132. 
2 Pes. 8 b.

......

     
the densest districts in England or Belgium. Some one has
compared Galilee to the manufacturing districts of this country. 
This comparison, of course, applies only to the fact of its busy
life, although various industries were also carried on there -
large potteries of different kinds, and dyeworks. From the
heights of Galilee the eye would rest on harbours, filled with
merchant ships, and on the sea, dotted with white sails.    
There, by the shore, and also inland, smoked furnaces, where
glass was made; along the great road moved the caravans; in
field, vineyard, and orchard all was activity. The great road
quite 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. This was one
advantage that Nazareth had - that it lay on the route of the
world's traffic and intercourse. Another peculiarity is strangely
unknown to Christian writers. It appears from ancient Rabbinical
writings 1  that Nazareth was one of the stations of the priests.
     All the priests were divided into twenty-four courses, one
of which was always on ministry in the Temple. Now, the priests
of the course which was to be on duty always gathered in certain
towns, whence they went up in company to the Temple; those who
were unable to go spending the week in fasting and prayer for
their brethren. Nazareth was one of these priestly centres ; so
that there, with symbolic significance, alike those passed who
carried on the traffic of the world, and those who ministered in
the Temple.
     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, 

......

1 See the reference in Neubauer, p.190.

......


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; 1  also Bethsaida, 2 the name, "house of fishes,"
indicating its trade. Capernaum was the station where Matthew sat
at the receipt of custom (Matt. ix. 9). South of Capernaum was
Magdala, the city of dyers, the home of Mary Magdalene (Mark xv.
4o; xvi. 1; Luke viii. 2; John xx. 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 (John vi. 1,23; xxi. 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
(John xxi. 2), where Christ performed His first miracle (John ii.
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 (John iv. 46,47). Cana lay about three
hours to the northnorth-east of Nazareth. Lastly, Nain was one of
the

......

1 Men. 85 a.
2 There were two places of that name, one east of the Jordan,
Bethsaida Julias, referred to in Luke ix. 10; Mark viii. 22; the
other on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee, the birthplace
of Andrew and Peter (John i. 44). See also Mark vi. 45; Matt. xi.
21; Luke x. 13; John xii. 21.

......


southernmost places in Galilee, not far from the ancient Endor.
It can scarcely surprise us, however interesting it may prove,
that such Jewish recollections of the early Christians as the
Rabbis have preserved, should linger chiefly around Galilee. Thus
we have, in quite the apostolic age, mention of miraculous cures
made, in the name of Jesus, by one Jacob of Chefar Sechanja (in
Galilee), one of the Rabbis violently opposing on one occasion an
attempt of the kind, the patient meanwhile dying during the
dispute; repeated records of discussions with learned Christians,
and other indications of contact with Hebrew believers. Some have
gone farther,' and found traces of the general spread of such
views in the fact that a Galilean teacher is introduced in
Babylon as propounding the science of the Merkabah, or the
mystical doctrines connected with Ezekiel's vision of the Divine
chariot, which certainly contained elements closely approximating
the Christian doctrines of the Logos, the Trinity, etc.     
Trinitarian views have also been suspected in the significance
attached to the number "three" by a Galilean teacher of the third
century, in this wise: "Blessed be God, who has given the three
laws (the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Hagiographa) to a
people composed of three classes (Priests, Levites, and laity),
through him who was the youngest of three (Miriam, Aaron, and
Moses), on the third day (of their separation - Exod. xix. 16),
and in the third month." There is yet another saying of a
Galilean Rabbi, referring to the resurrection, which, although
far from clear,

......

1 See generally the learned volume of M. Neubauer, "La Geog
raphie du Talmud," p.186, etc. Compare, also, Derenbourg,
"L'Histoire et la Geogra phie de la 1 Palestine," pp. 347-365.

......


may bear a Christian application. Finally, the Midrash applies
the expression, "The sinner shall be taken by her" (Eccl. vii.
26), either to the above-named Christian Rabbi Jacob, or to
Christians generally, or even to Capernaum, with evident
reference to the spread of Christianity there. We cannot here
pursue this very interesting subject farther than to say, that we
find indications of Jewish Christians having endeavoured to
introduce their views while leading the public devotions of the
Synagogue, and even of contact with the immoral heretical sect of
the Nicolaitans (Rev. ii. 15).
     Indeed, what we know of the Galileans would quite prepare us
for expecting, that the gospel should have received at least a
ready hearing among many of them. It was not only, that Galilee
was the great scene of our Lord's working and teaching, and the
home of His first disciples and apostles; nor yet that the
frequent intercourse with strangers must have tended to remove
narrow prejudices, while the contempt of the Rabbinists would
loosen attachment to the strictest Pharisaism ; but, 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. The Rabbis detail
certain theological differences between Galilee and Judaea. 
Without here mentioning them, we have no hesitation in saying,
that they show more earnest practical piety and strictness of
life, and less adherence to those Pharisaical distinctions which
so often made void the law.   The Talmud, on the other hand,
charges the Galileans with neglecting traditionalism; learning
from one teacher, then from another (perhaps because they had
only wandering Rabbis, not fixed academies); and with being
accordingly unable to rise to the heights of Rabbinical
distinctions and explanations. That their hot blood made them
rather quarrelsome, and that they lived in a chronic state of
rebellion against Rome, we gather not only from Josephus, but
even from the New Testament (Luke xiii. 2; Acts v. 37). Their
mal-pronunciation of Hebrew, or rather their inability properly
to pronounce the gutturals, formed a constant subject of
witticism and reproach, so current that even the servants in the
High Priest's palace could turn round upon Peter, and say,
"Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee"
(Matt. xxvi. 73)- a remark this, by the way, which illustrates
the fact that the language commonly used at the time of Christ in
Palestine was Aramaean, not Greek. Josephus describes the
Galileans as hard-working, manly, and brave; and even the Talmud
admits (Fer. Cheth. iv. 14) that they cared more for honour than
for money.
     But the district in Galilee to which the mind ever reverts,
is that around the shores of its lake. 1  Its beauty, its
marvellous vegetation, its almost tropical products, its wealth
and populousness, have been often described. The Rabbis derive
the name of Gennesaret 2  either from a harp - because the fruits
of its shores were as sweet as is the sound of a harp

......

1 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).
2 The Biblical name Chinnereth or Chinneroth (Numb. xxxiv. 11,
and in other places) is derived by the Rabbis from "harp"
(chinnor); and its post-biblical form, "genessar," is represented
as extracted from "gener sarim," gardens of the princes. The
Biblical name is really "a basin," so that it can scarcely be
derived from the town of Genussar, as M. Neubauer suggests (ut
supra, p.25, and in other places).

......


or else explain it to mean "the gardens of the princes," from the
beautiful villas and gardens around. 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" (John xxi. 22).

                            ..................


To be continued


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