The name “Galilee” comes from the Hebrew word galil which means “circle” or “region”. The region of Galilee in the first century CE was encircled by Syro-Phoenicia stretching along the eastern Mediterranean coastline and northwards, by Gaulanitis to the north-east, by the Hellenistic settlements of Decapolis to the south-east, and by Samaria to the south which separated Galilee geographically from Judea (cf. Matt. 4:15; Isa. 9:1-2).
Right: Map of first-century CE Galilee and surrounding territories.
It was not only geography that separated Galilee from Judea. Since the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, Galilee had mostly experienced its own history, political status, and culture, distinct from Judea. An understanding of this social history is important for those who want to better comprehend the beginnings of normative Judaism. It also provides a context for the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth (circa 30 CE), as Galilee is the setting for much of the ministry of Jesus.
This essay discusses three aspects of the social history of Galilee. First, it discusses the difficult question of the origin of the Galilean population. Second, it comments on the Roman rulers of Galilee and their impact on society. Then it looks at the settlements in Galilee and their populations. While this essay briefly covers the Galilee of the first century CE, much of the discussion is about Galilee during the reign of Herod Antipas who ruled until 39 CE.
Who were the Galileans?
After the Assyrian conquest, the region of Galilee was relatively uninhabited for several centuries. A few scholars suggest, however, that some Northern Israelites remained. Richard Horsley argues the possibility of “some continuity of [an] Israelite population into Persian, Hellenistic and Roman times, with a sizeable portion of the Galileans at the time of Jesus and the rabbis being descendants of the former Israelites, but not necessarily Judeans.”
Right: Map of Judah and Israel in the eighth century BCE.
Horsley also writes,
“On the basis of the very limited historical evidence, it appears that the Galileans . . . were descendants of Northern Israelites. [Moreover] because imperial rulers in the ancient Near East tended not to interfere with the traditional way of life of their subject peoples, it seems that local Galilean community life must have been guided by Israelite customs and traditions . . .”
Precisely because there is limited literary and archaeological evidence, many scholars are sceptical of Horsley’s view and they posit a different scenario. James Dunn, for example, states that archaeological data which dates to the Hasmonean period clearly points “to a wave of Judean settlements spreading over a depopulated territory.” Milton Moreland, however, maintains that these Judean immigrants were a minor sector of the Galilean population. Moreland and others argue that the Galileans of the Hellenistic period consisted mostly of gentiles of various ethnicities. There seems to be no scholarly consensus on the origins of the population.  Whatever their number and ethnicity in the early and middle Hellenistic periods, however, their number was bolstered, at least to some degree, by Judeans who moved to Galilee after the region was annexed by the Hasmoneans in around 103 BCE. Furthermore, the Hasmoneans forcibly converted non-Jewish people in the lands they had annexed (e.g., Idumea and possibly Iturea), and they may have done the same to any gentiles living in Galilee.
While their origin is uncertain, it is apparent that during the first centuries BCE and CE many Galileans held to similar religious beliefs as the Judeans. Their regard for the Jerusalem Temple is well attested in literary sources such as the New Testament and the writings of Josephus. Archaeological evidence also attests to the fact that many Galileans held to Jewish beliefs: evidence such as architecture, including mikvaot, pottery, including discus clay lamps with Jewish symbols, limestone vessels, a few ossuaries, Hasmonean coins, plus the absence of non-kosher animal bones. Furthermore, no pagan shrines have been discovered in first century CE strata.
Most scholars concur that the literary and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that first century CE Galilee was occupied primarily by people who had economic and political ties with Jerusalem, and who identified with Judaism. Thus they were Jewish. A discussion on what “Jewish” precisely means is beyond the scope of this essay. Nevertheless, Shaye Cohen’s argument that a shift in the meaning of the Greek word Ioudaios—from ethno-geographical “Judean” to religious “Jew”—which happened during the Hasmonean period, is helpful here. It should also be noted that pre-70 CE Judaism was generally sectarian, with most strands being influenced, to some extent, by Hellenism. Pre-70 Judaism is very different to the Judaism which began developing from the late first century CE onwards and which is typically referred to as normative or mainstream Judaism.
The Roman Rulers of Galilee
As well as having ties to the religious authority of Jerusalem, after 63 BCE and throughout the first century CE, Galileans were under the political authority of Rome. In 63 BCE, the Roman general Pompey took control of Galilee and then Jerusalem, effectively ending the rule of the Jewish Hasmonean dynasty. The Romans made Herod I governor of Galilee in 47 BCE, and later appointed him as king of all Judea, which included Galilee and other regions. Herod I ruled as a client king of Rome from 37 BCE until his death in 4 BCE, at which time his kingdom was divided. He bequeathed Galilee, as well as Perea, to his son Herod Antipas. This bequest was ratified by Caesar Augustus, and Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea as tetrarch for forty-two years until 39 CE.
James Callis plays Herod Antipas in the mini-series A.D. The Bible Continues.
Herod Antipas was not as cruel or capricious as his father. He was an able leader and sought the good will of the Galileans. Antipas’ reign appears to have brought a period of peace and calm since we do not know of acrimonious or violent conflicts between him and his subjects. Nevertheless, he is not presented in a positive light in the canonical Christian gospels. Jesus of Nazareth as well as his closest disciples were Galileans (cf. Acts 2:7). In Luke 13:32, Jesus refers to Antipas critically as “that fox.” In Luke 23:6-12, Antipas ridicules Jesus. The gospels also recount that Antipas was responsible for the beheading of the prophet John the Baptist (Mark 6:14ff; Luke 3:1ff; Matt. 14:1ff). Unfortunately, despite over sixty references to Galilee, the gospel writers do not provide any descriptions of the region. Still, Luke frames Jesus’ ministry within the rule of Antipas.
For most of the first century CE, Galilee was ruled by different Roman rulers than those of Judea. Antipas was succeeded by Herod Agrippa I whom Rome appointed as ruler of Galilee in 39 CE, and then ruler of all Judea, including Galilee, for a few years, from 41 to 44 CE. (Agrippa I had James the brother of John killed, and Peter imprisoned (Acts 12:1-4)). When Nero came to power in 54 CE, he divided the jurisdiction of Galilee. From 54 to 100 CE, parts of Galilee were under direct Roman rule, while Tiberias and Tarichaea-Magdala were governed by Herod Agrippa II. Agrippa II was the seventh and last king (or ruler) of the Herodian dynasty. Agrippa II was generally disliked by his Jewish subjects. His cosmopolitan lifestyle was disdained , and it was rumoured that he had an ongoing incestuous relationship with his sister Berenice, which was against Jewish law. (He and Berenice are mentioned in Acts chapters 25-26).
The rule of the Herods made a big impact in Galilee. They were Greek-speaking, pro-Rome, and openly flaunted Jewish laws despite claiming to be Jews themselves. Even though Galilee was encircled by Greek-speaking cities and was under the authority of Greek-speaking rulers, it seems most Galileans spoke Aramaic or possibly Hebrew. Archaeologists have found only a few Greek inscriptions in the villages of upper Galilee, most being Aramaic/Hebrew, and there is little clear evidence Greek was spoken in the villages of lower Galilee. In first-century Galilee, Greek was mainly the language of those with political and administrative power. The evidence shows that it only made serious inroads in the second century CE, while Latin is virtually unattested in the region. In general, it seems that first-century Galilee was not as Hellenised as Judea, possibly because most Galileans were rural dwellers.
Remains of one of the main streets (cardo) in Sepphoris.
The Cities, Towns, and Villages of Galilee
Arguably, the biggest impact on the Galileans was made by Antipas’ building programs. Antipas started his building works early in his reign, beginning with the rebuilding of Sepphoris. The fortress town of Sepphoris had been destroyed, and the inhabitants enslaved, by the legate of Syria in retaliation for an uprising by some Galileans in approximately 4 BCE, shortly after the death of Herod the Great. Antipas fortified and rebuilt this city to be the “ornament of all Galilee”, and he made it his capital. In 18 CE, Antipas built the city of Tiberias to replace Sepphoris as his capital. He named it to honour the Roman Emperor who was his close friend and patron. As well as being centres of administration and commerce, the cities also provided Roman-style recreation and entertainment.
Horsley notes that, because the Galilean population had never produced an aristocratic or ruling class, the establishment of Antipas’ court and administration in the area made a considerable impact on the traditional way of life. The urban cities of Antipas were cosmopolitan and opulent, and quite unlike the traditional towns of Galilee. Furthermore, the city of Tiberias had been built over a cemetery making it “unclean” for Jews. Josephus explains that Antipas filled the city with strangers and paupers and gave them good houses, just so that the city would be inhabited. It is curious that the gospels never recount that Jesus, a devout Jew, travelled to either Tiberias or Sepphoris, even though Sepphoris is only a few kilometres, and even visible, from the village of Nazareth where Jesus spent his childhood.
The building works of Herod Antipas provided work for many Galilean labourers, but the new cities, which may have been home to about ten to twelve thousand people, also put a strain on the agrarian villagers as they needed to provide more food to feed the city dwellers. Nevertheless, “archaeological excavations in Galilean rural settlements suggest thriving local economies and vigorous trade networks . . .”
The vast majority of the Galilean population were agrarian villagers—farmers and fishermen. Each village was reliant on their own produce, but they also traded for other necessities. Some Galilean villages specialised in the manufacture of certain goods. The Galilean villages of Shikhin and Kefar Hananyah, for example, specialised in the manufacture of pottery. Still other villages functioned as small military outposts. While most villages had a population of under four hundred, the fishing towns of Bethsaida, Capernaum, Tarachaea-Magdala, and others, may have had populations of as many as a two or three thousand. These towns were still small compared with the urban centres of Sepphoris and Tiberias.
The Jews of Galilee had their own culture and were less urbanised and less Hellenised than the Jews in Judea, but they were not isolated. Rather, they interacted throughout the late Hellenistic and Roman periods with their pagan neighbours, especially those on the Mediterranean coast. Still, the Galileans were “fiercely independent” and the “Galilean peasants do not appear to have welcomed influences coming from the cities at least during the first century CE.” This fierceness, however, was displayed only by some during the Great Revolt of the Jews against Rome in 66-70 CE. The inhabitants of Sepphoris did not participate in the Revolt at all, causing Nero to dub the city “Irenopolis” meaning “City of Peace.” Other towns of Galilee also took no part, and the Romans spared them. Tiberias, on the other hand, was the site of intense warfare during the revolt.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was ultimately destroyed in 70 AD, Judaism underwent a drastic, irreversible change. Sacrifices could no longer take place and the Jewish priesthood became redundant. One Galilean rabbi Johanan ben Zakai received permission from Rome to found a rabbinic academy in Jamnia (near modern Tel Aviv.) During the years 70 to 135, this academy exercised more and more authority, emulating the old Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and exercising similar legal functions. After the second Jewish revolt (or Bar Kochba Revolt) which ended in 135, Jews were forbidden from living in Jerusalem, and many towns in Judea were destroyed. An enormous number of Jews had been slaughtered or enslaved by the Romans during the revolt, but others fled to Galilee. The Galilean towns of Usha, Sepphoris, and Tiberias became religious centres. “Thus from the second century CE onwards, Galilee became a home of Jewish learning and piety in Israel. It was here that the great scribal schools flourished . . .”
Galilee was under entrenched Roman rule throughout the first century and it was surrounded by pagan neighbours; yet it was predominantly populated by Jews. At least some, perhaps many, of these Jews were devout and followed regulations of ritual purity, as evidenced by archaeological finds. Furthermore, most Galileans were villagers who held to their traditional and distinct culture, as well as their Aramaic/Hebrew language, rather than the Hellenised way of life displayed by Antipas and the other Herods. It is from this Galilee that the rabbis Jesus of Nazareth and Johanan ben Zakai arose.
 Mordechai Aviam notes that the Jewish territory of Galilee was smaller in size during the first century CE than during the Hasmonean period. He suggests this was because of rising hostilities between the Jews and the surrounding gentiles during the thirty-year period between Herod Antipas’ exile and Josephus’s arrival. Jews, Pagans and Christians in the Galilee: 25 Years of Archaeological Excavations and Surveys, Hellenistic to Byzantine Periods (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2004) 13.
 Northern Israel in the eighth century covered an area roughly corresponding with first-century Galilee, Samaria, and Gaulanitis.
 Richard Horsley, Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996) 22.
 Richard Horsley, “Jesus and Galilee: The Contingencies of a Renewal Movement”, Jesus and Archaeology, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) 67.
 James Dunn, “Did Jesus Attend the Synagogue?”, Jesus and Archaeology, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) 209.
 Milton Moreland, “The Inhabitants of Galilee in the Hellenistic and Early Roman Periods: Probes into the Archaeological and Literary Evidence”, Religion, Ethnicity, and Identity in Ancient Galilee, ed. Jürgen Zangenberg et al. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) 137-8.
 Mark Chancey discusses all these views in “Archaeology, Ethnicity, and First-century CE Galilee: The Limits of Evidence”, A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Seán Freyne, ed. Zuleika Rodgers et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2009) 205-218. See also Uzi Leibner, Settlement and History in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Galilee: An Archaeological Survey of Eastern Galilee (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009) 319-326.
 “Numismatic data collected recently (Syon 2004) offers one piece of evidence that seems to support an early Jewish presence [in Galilee, before the Hasmonean annexation]. It concerns a rather surprising number of bronze coins of Antiochus VII from the mint of Jerusalem (132/1–131/0 BCE) that have been found in Galilee.” Danny Sion “Numismatic Evidence of Jewish Presence in Galilee before the Hasmonean Annexation?” Israel Numismatic Research, Vol. 1 (2006) 21.
 See Moreland’s discussion on the possible forced conversion of the Itureans: “Religion, Ethnicity, and Identity”, 151.
 See Horsely’s discussion on the difference between the Hasmonean conquest of Galilee compared with the conquest of Iturea and Idumea: Archaeology, History and Society, 26.
 Mikva’ot are plastered immersion pools, with steps, cut into bedrock, and used by Jews as ritual baths. See Chancey, “Archaeology, Ethnicity”, 210-212, for a discussion on mikva’ot in Galilee.
 The Jews considered stone vessels to be impervious to impurity (cf. John 2:6). “Stone vessels not only tell us that Jews lived at a site, they also tell us that those Jews were concerned with ritual purity and had an understanding of the purity system that included a role for such vessels.” Chancey, “Archaeology, Ethnicity”, 210. See also Andrea Berlin, “Jewish Life before the Revolt: The Archaeological Evidence”, Journal for the Study of Judaism, XXXVI, 4, (2005) 417-470.
 Ossuaries were stone, or sometimes clay, boxes where the bones of a deceased person were placed for a secondary burial. The use of ossuaries was a distinctly Jewish custom. “Ossuaries first appeared in Jerusalem c. 20-15 BCE and were used there and at other sites in Judea until the Bar Kochba war . . . It seems indisputable that ossuary usage grew dramatically in Galilee after 70 CE, and the attribution of that increase to the influence of Judean refugees [after the Great Revolt] appears to be the most reasonable explanation.” Chancey, “Archaeology, Ethnicity”, 213. A few ossuaries have been found, however, which may date to pre-70 CE.
 Mark Chancey, Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) 90. Mordechai Aviam, Jews, Pagans and Christians, 17.
 For example, Mordechai Aviam, Andrea Berlin, Mark Chancey, Seán Freyne, Eric Meyers, and Jonathan Reed.
 Dunn, “Did Jesus Attend the Synagogue?” 209.
 Moreland, “Religion, Ethnicity, and Identity”, 138.
 Furthermore, Cohen “concludes that prior to the Hasmonean period Ioudaios should always be translated as Judean, and never “Jew”. Shaye J.D. Cohen, The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties (Berkeley University: University of California Press, 1999), quoted by Dunn “Did Jesus Attend the Synagogue?” 211.
 Some sects, or strands, of pre-70 Judaism include the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Herodians, Zealots, Nazarenes or Christians, Samaritans, and perhaps Proto-Gnostic groups, as well as the different forms of Judaism in the Diaspora including the Therapeutae of Alexandria.
 Seán Freyne argues that a Jewish Galilee does not imply that there were no Greek influences on aspects of everyday town or village life in the first century. He writes, “Eric Myers has repeatedly pointed out that Jews had adapted to Greek culture in many Diaspora situations, and there is no reason to doubt that the same was true of Galilean Jews. Indeed the very notion of Judaism and Hellenism as opposed and competing cultural forces is now seen as an outmoded nineteenth century construct that needs to be abandoned, or at least seriously revised.” Seán Freyne, “Archaeology and the Historical Jesus”, Jesus and Archaeology, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) 76.
 Uzi Leibner, Settlement and History, 338.
 Herod Antipas is referred to simply as “Herod” or “Herod the Tetrarch” in the New Testament.
 Reed, Archaeology and Galilean Jesus, 10.
 Other references to Herod Antipas in the New Testament include Mark 8:15; Luke 3:1; 8:3; Acts 4:27; 13:1.
 “With the exception of a brief period under Herod’s grandson Agrippa I (41-44 CE), Galilee remained under separate political jurisdiction from Judea through the rest of the first century CE. . . . Galilee was thus politically no longer under the jurisdiction of the Temple and high priesthood for the final seventy years of the second-temple era.” Horsley, Archaeology, History, and Society, 63.
 Despite his long reign, Agrippa II never ruled Judea, which was governed by a procurator. Nevertheless Agrippa II was given the role of supervising the Jerusalem Temple and he appointed its High Priests.
 Horsley, Archaeology, History, and Society, 170-171.
 “While few, if any, scholars would argue that Greek was spoken nowhere in Galilee, a thorough investigation reveals that there is little reason to believe it was widespread.” Mark Chancey, Greco-Roman Culture, 124. Chancey also asserts that Jesus didn’t need to speak Greek “to be a carpenter, to teach the Galilean crowds, to travel around the lake, or to venture into the villages associated with Tyre, Caesarea Philippi, and the Decapolis cities.” Greco-Roman Culture, 163. See Chancey’s discussion on the use of Greek in Jesus’ Galilee in Greco-Roman Culture, 122-165.
 Eric M. Meyers, “Villages of Galilee”, <http://www.bibleodyssey.org/places/related-articles/villages-of-galilee>
 Herod I was known as “Herod the Great” because of his extensive and grand building works. Yet there is no evidence he built in Galilee.
 Josephus, Antiquities 18 §27.
 Horsley, Archaeology, History and Society, 11.
 Josephus describes Antipas a “lover of luxury” (Antiquities 18 §245).
 Josephus, Antiquities 18 §36-38.
 Helen Bond, The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2012) 75.
 Perhaps Jesus did not expect to find Jews in the cities of Antipas (cf. Matt. 10:5-6; 15:24). Some, however, speculate that Jesus may have worked at Sepphoris as a builder. Jesus is described as a builder or carpenter (tektonos) in Mark 6:3 and Matthew 13:55.
 Bond, The Historical Jesus, 76.
 Moreland, “Religion, Ethnicity, and Identity”, 140.
 Interestingly, the patterns of usage of Kefar Hananyah pottery in Upper Galilee have proven useful to archaeologists (at a macro level) as an indicator of Jewish inhabitants. See Chancey, “Archaeology, Ethnicity”, 207-8. Conversely, the pottery known as Galilean Course Ware has been used as an indicator of earlier pagan inhabitants.
 Helen Bond cautions that these cities should not be compared with the larger, grander, and better resourced cities of Caesarea Maritime or Jerusalem. The Historical Jesus, 75.
 Moreland, “Religion, Ethnicity, and Identity”, 141.
 Moreland, “Religion, Ethnicity, and Identity”, 146.
 Horsley, Archaeology, History and Society, 11, 15.
 Chancey, Greco-Roman Culture, 186.
 Eric Meyers, “Villages of Galilee”, n.p.
 Cassius Dio wrote in his Roman History (69.14.1) that 580,000 men in Judea were killed in various raids and battles, and many more were killed by famine, disease, and fire. He also recorded that 50 outposts (or fortified towns) and 985 “famous” Judean villages were razed to the ground. It is difficult to determine whether these numbers are accurate or exaggerated.
 Seán Freyne, “Galilee”, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, eds Bruce M. Metzger and Michael David Coogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) 241.
Aviam, Mordechai, Jews, Pagans and Christians in the Galilee: 25 Years of Archaeological Excavations and Surveys, Hellenistic to Byzantine Periods (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2004)
Berlin, Andrea M.,“Jewish Life before the Revolt: The Archaeological Evidence”, Journal for the Study of Judaism, XXXVI, 4 (2005) 419-470.
Bond, Helen K., The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed, (London: Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2012)
Chancey, Mark A., “Archaeology, Ethnicity, and First-century CE Galilee: The Limits of Evidence”, A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Seán Freyne, eds Zuleika Rodgers, Margaret Daly-Denton, and Anne Fitzpatrick-McKinley (Leiden: Brill, 2009) 205-218
____________ Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)
Dunn, James D.G., “Did Jesus attend the Synagogue?”, Jesus and Archaeology, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) 206-222.
Freyne, Seán, “Archaeology and the Historical Jesus”, Jesus and Archaeology, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006) 64-83.
____________ “Galilee”, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, eds Bruce M. Metzger and Michael David Coogan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993) 240-242.
Horsley, Richard A., Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996)
____________ “Jesus and Galilee: The Contingencies of a Renewal Movement”, Galilee through the Centuries: Confluence of Cultures, ed. Eric Meyers (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbaums, 1999) 57-74.
Leibner, Uzi, Settlement and History in Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine Galilee: An Archaeological Survey of Eastern Galilee (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2009)
Meyers, Eric M., “Villages of Galilee”, <http://www.bibleodyssey.org/places/related-articles/villages-of-galilee>
Moreland, Milton, “The Inhabitants of Galilee in the Hellenistic and Early Roman Periods: Probes into the Archaeological and Literary Evidence”, Religion, Ethnicity, and Identity in Ancient Galilee, eds Jürgen Zangenberg, Harold W. Attridge, and Dale B. Martin (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2007) 133-159.
Reed, Jonathan L., Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus: A Re-examination of the Evidence (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000)
Sion, Danny, “Numismatic Evidence of Jewish Presence in Galilee before the Hasmonean Annexation?” Israel Numismatic Research, Vol. 1 (2006) 21-24.
More articles and essays on early Jewish history here.