Jesus’ Galilee: A Recent Report

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(Larry Hurtado):  I’ve just finished reading a very informative essay by Mark A. Chancy:  “Disputed Issues in the Study of Cities, Villages, and the Economy in Jesus’ Galilee,” in The World of Jesus and the Early Church, ed. Craig A. Evans (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 2011), 53-67.  Chancy reviews a raft of studies by scholars of different viewpoints and approaches on questions about the economic and social character of Galilee in the early first century CE.  For anyone seeking to “mug up” on these matters, this essay will be very valuable.

Referring to “the view that most rural Galileans suffered severe economic turmoil under Antipas” as in some scholarly quarters “near orthodoxy,” Chancy proceeds to review a number of reasons why some other scholars question that view.  He alleges that the main bases for view that Galilee was a venue of economic turmoil are certain parables in the Gospels and certain anthropological theories, especially the notion that cities are parasitic on rural areas.  I’ll mention only a few of the matters that Chancy discusses.

On taxation:  Citing the study by Fabian E. Udoh, To Caesar What is Caesar’s:  Tribute, Taxes, and Imperial Administration in Early Roman Palestine (63 BCE–70CE) (Providence:  Brown Judaic Studies, 2005), as “by far the most thorough treatment of the subject available,” Chancy judges that “the evidence for regular client king payments to Rome [by Antipas] was mostly lacking,” and so “The Bottom line is that the impact of Rome’s financial expecations of Antipas upon his subjects is extraordinarily difficult to calculate” (p. 60).

Chancy also points out that the heyday of major public building activity was in the second century CE, not the time of Jesus.   As to the makeup of Galilee, “Galilean Jews in the time of Jesus thus had a southern orientation that dated back to the arrival of Judea colonists under the Hasmoneans” (p. 62).  (This works against notions of some sort of serious social divide twixt Galileans and Judeans.)

On claims about monitization having a deleterious effect on Galilean peasants, Chancy concludes, “the suggestion that Antipas’s minting activities radically shifted the methods and amount of tax collection or the processes of debt creation appears inaccurate” (p. 63).

On land ownership, Chancy emphasizes that “the Galilean evidence is more ambiguous than is often acknowledged.”  Although he sees “ample [literary] evidence for large estates at various places throughout Palestine” in the first century CE, Chancy concludes that for Galilee and adjacent areas, “the evidence is more limited” (pp. 63-64).  “Despite the extensive archaeological work in Galilee in recent decades, however, no first-century CE large estates or rurual villas have been discovered there” (p. 65). 

Against assertions of a massive increase in “monocropping” (under pressure, supposedly, from wealthy landowners seeking to make profits), Chancy observes, “It is worth emphasizing that the primary source for the theory of extensive monocropping is neither archeological data nor ancient literary references but anthropological theory” (p. 65).  Granting liteary evidence of large estates, the urges that the same sources attest the continuation of small farms also.

His concluding observations from this survey are that many claims about the social and economic conditions of Galilee in Jesus’ time, which have been used as a basis then for positing what Jesus was really up to, are far less soundly based than supporters seem to realize.  He also warns about the use of anthropological or economic models as “proxy data” that can predetermine the interpretative outcome.  “For all we have learned about Galilee in the third quest [for the historical Jesus], economics and urban-rural relations still pose the most difficult quesetions to answer” (p. 67).

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About larryhurtado

I'm a scholar in New Testament and Christian Origins, currently Professor of New Testament Language, Literature & Theology in the University of Edinburgh (since 1996), and previously Professor in the Department of Relgiion, University of Manitoba.

3 responses »

  1. Re: “Galilean Jews in the time of Jesus thus had a southern orientation…”

    I’ve read this in several sources, and the arguments seem compelling. How then do we view the detection of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem by their accents? And does this clash with Solomon Zeitlin’s assertions (based on Josephus) that “Galilean” = revolutionary?

    • The “southern orientation” expression means that Galilean Jews thought of the Jerusalem temple as the valid place of sacrifice, and saw themselves and their religious orientation as aligned with Judaea. So, e.g., the evidence of “mikvahs” in Galilee, the use of stone vessels, etc., reflect halakhic ideas generated in/among Judean circles. Galilee did, however, apparently have its own accent (of Aramaic) and other cultural features.

  2. The sources I’ve read confirm what you said in reply. My primary take-away from them was that there was far less of the “Galilee VS Judea” split that Christians seem to want to exacerbate. Galilee had been effectively re-judaized in ca 103 BCE by Judean settlers, and there’s evidence that that flow of immigrants continued for years afterward. I believe this is evidenced by Joseph returning to his ancestral home in Bethlehem. It seems that Peter’s accent gave him away as a native Galilean (or of very early Judean settler stock in that he did not code switch his speech in Jerusalem).

    I still find Zeitlin’s assertion about “Galileans” interesting.

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