south slopes of Mt. Tabor, highest ridge in lower Galilee (1930 feet), 
4 miles east of Nazareth


Hebrew: Gelil ha Goyim ("Circle of the Nations")

A compact hilly region, less than 40 miles long & 30 miles wide, north of the valley of Jezre'el & west of the Jordan river on the northern frontier of Israel. The lack of natural boundaries to the north & west, led to frequent political shifts in the size of the region. To the west lay the maritime city states of Phoenicia [Tyre & Akko (Ptolemaļs)], preventing Israelite Galilee from reaching the Mediterranean coast. The valley of Ramah from Ptolemaļs to Capernaum divides the region into "Upper" & "Lower" sectors. In Upper Galilee mountain peaks rise to about 4000 feet above sea level [Mt. Jermak], while in Lower Galilee few sites exceed 500 feet above sea level except for ridges in the southeast near Mt. Tabor. The hilly terrain of Lower Galilee is magnified, however, by its descent to the Jordan valley which falls to almost 700 feet below sea level at Lake Gennesaret [the "Sea" of Galilee].

view from Megiddo in northwest Samaria 
across valley of Jezreel to hills of lower Galilee

In the early days of Israel Galilee was settled by the tribes of Issachar, Zebulon, Naphtali & Asher. While the first three tribes played a key role in conquering Canaan, Asher was early absorbed into Phoenicia [Judges 5]. Galilee was under Jerusalem's administration during the reigns of David & Solomon (10th c. BCE). But after the fall of the kingdom of Israel (722 BCE) it had no unifying cultural link to Judea, until the region was conquered by Aristobulus I (104 BCE) & subjected to "the law of the Judeans." Still, there is no record of an attempt by Jews to colonize the area or convert the native population to Judaism.

stone staircase (found by author in 1973) at Beth Hanania, 
1st c. center of Galilean pottery industry 

Unlike surrounding regions, Galilee had no major cities prior to Roman times. But it had many hilltop settlements, some of which had been fortified. Gabinius, as governor of Syria (57 BCE), made Sepphoris the administrative center of the region. Roman rule, however, gave rise to a string of independence-minded Galilean bandits who took refuge in the caves that pock-marked the hills. To crush the uprising after Herod's death (4 BCE), Roman armies destroyed Sepphoris. But it was restored as a Roman city as the first step in Antipas' construction projects that culminated in the founding of Tiberias, the largest settlement on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. Thus, at the time of Jesus, with Antipas as governor, the southern tier of Galilee was undergoing a dramatic urbanization, accompanied by economic & cultural changes. By the time of the Jewish revolt (66-70 CE) Galilee was politically divided between firebrand revolutionaries (mostly from Upper Galilee) and an urban population that was more loyal to Rome than Jerusalem.

Galilean pottery shards & Roman glass fragments,
from hundreds found in surface survey at Beth Hanania (1973) 

While there had been religious Jews in Galilee since 100 BCE, the concerted effort to enforce a religious orthodoxy began only in the 2nd c. CE when the rabbinic Academy was moved there from Judea. Thereafter, Galilee became the major center of Jewish learning & culture in Palestine well into medieval times. Most of rabbinic literature except for the Babylonian Talmud was composed there.

cave tombs of rabbis at foot of Mt. Meron (3960 feet) 
3 miles south of Gush Halav (Giscala) in upper Galilee


References: Josephus, Antiquities 5.86-91; 9.235;
                                                       12.331-334, 350, 421;
                                                       13.154-158, 191-192, 322, 337;
                                                       14.158, 169, 342, 394-395, 411-417, 450-452;
                                                       17.188, 254, 271, 288, 318;
                                                       18.23, 27, 36-37, 136, 240;
                                                       20.43, 118-120, 159.
                   _____, War 1.21-22, 76, 170, 203, 210, 290-291, 302-307, 315, 326-329;
                                       2.232-247, 503-513, 568-576, 585-593;
                                       3.30-48, 61-63, 110, 115, 127, 199, 229, 233, 293.

For further recent information about archaeological & historical evidence, see:

  • Horsley, Richard A. Archaeology, History & Society in Galilee. Valley Forge PA: Trinity Press International, 1996.

Other resources on line:

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