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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Alfred Edersheim :: Sketches of Jewish Social Life

Alfred Edersheim :: Chapter 3. In Galilee at the Time of Our Lord

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"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; 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,[11] 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 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 1:46), "Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?" reads quite like a common saying of the period; and the rebuke of the Pharisees to Nicodemus (John 7:52), "Search, and look: for out of 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 "towns-people," 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 18:11) 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 Deuteronomy 27:21.

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 (Jer. Ber, iv. 2) that a celebrated Rabbi was wont every day, on leaving the academy, to pray in these terms: "I thank Thee, O Lord my God and God of my fathers, that Thou 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 suspicions 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 this, 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 possession of four tribes: Issachar, Zebulon, Naphtali, and Asher. The name occurs already in the Old Testament (compare Josh 20:7; 1 Kings 9:11; 2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chron 6:76; and especially Isa 9:1). 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. We are reminded of the history of Zaccheus (Luke 19:4) by the mark which the Rabbis give to distinguish between Upper and Lower Galilee-the former beginning "where sycomores cease to grow." The sycomore, 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 (Psa 78:47), 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 17:6 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 5:14). 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 Sanhedrim in Jerusalem (see The Temple), 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 7:5). 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 camel, mules, and asses, laden with the 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 East-were 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. It was truly the land where Asher dipped his foot in oil (Deu 33:24). 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" (Pes. 8 b). 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 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 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, 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; also Bethsaida,[12] the name, "house of fishes," indicating its trade.

Capernaum was the station where Matthew sat at the receipt of custom (Matt 9:9). South of Capernaum was Magdala, the city of dyers, the home of Mary Magdalene (Mark 15:40, 16:1; Luke 8:2; John 20:1. 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 6:1, 23, 21:1). 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 21:2), where Christ performed His first miracle (John 2:1-11); significant also in connection with the second miracle there witnessed, when the new wine of the kingdom was first tasted by Gentile lips (John 4:46-47). Cana lay about three hours to the north-north-east of Nazareth. Lastly, Nain was one of the 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-Exo 19:16), and in the third month." There is yet another saying of a Galilean Rabbi, referring to the resurrection, which, although far from clear, may bear a Christian application. Finally, the Midrash applies the expression, "The sinner shall be taken by her" (Eccl 7:26), 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 2:15).

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 13:2; Acts 5:37). 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 26:73)-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 (Jer. 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.[13] Its beauty, its marvellous vegetation, its almost tropical products, its wealth and populousness, have been often described. The Rabbis derive the name of Gennesaret either from a harp-because the fruits of its shores were as sweet as is the sound of a harp-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 21:22).


[11]There are two Talmuds-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.

[12]Three were two places of that name, one east of the Jordan, Bethsaida Julias, referred to in Luke 9:10; Mark 8:22; the other on the western shore of the Lake of Galilee, the birthplace of Andrew and Peter (John 1:44). See also Mark 6:45; Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13; John 12:21.

[13]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).

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