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Galilee: Profile of the Region of Galilee - History, Geography, Religion

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Sea of Galilee Map

Sea of Galilee Map

What is Galilee?:


Galilee (Hebrew galil, meaning either “circle” or “district”) was one of the major regions of ancient Palestine, larger even than Judea and Samaria. The earliest reference to Galilee comes from Pharaoh Tuthmose III, who captured several Canaanite cities there in 1468 BCE. Galilee is also mentioned several times in the Old Testament (Joshua, Chronicles, Kings).

Where is Galilee?:


Galilee is in northern Palestine, between the Litani River in modern-day Lebanon and the Jezreel Valley of modern-day Israel. Galilee is commonly divided into three parts: upper Galilee with heavy rains and high peaks, lower Galilee with milder weather, and the Sea of Galilee. The region of Galilee changed hands a number of times over the centuries: Egyptian, Assyrian, Canaanite, and Israelite. Along with Judea and Perea, it constituted Herod the Great’s Judean rule.

What did Jesus do in Galilee?:


Galilee is best known as the region where, according to the gospels, Jesus conducted the bulk of his ministry. The gospel authors claim that his youth was spent in lower Galilee while his adulthood and preaching occurred around the northwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee. The towns where Jesus spent most of his time (Capernaum, Bethsaida) were all in Galilee.

Why is Galilee important?:


Archaeological evidence indicates that this rural region was sparsely populated in ancient times, perhaps because it was susceptible to flooding. This pattern continued during the early Hellenistic era, but it may have changed under the Hasmoneans who launched a process of “internal colonization” in order to reestablish Jewish cultural and political dominance in Galilee.

Jewish historian Josephus records that there were over 200 villages in Galilee in 66 CE, so it was heavily populated by this time. Being more exposed to foreign influences than other Jewish regions, it has a strong pagan as well as Jewish population. Galilee was also known as Galil ha-Goim, Region of the Gentiles, because of the high Gentile population and because the region was surrounded on three sides by foreigners.

A unique “Galilean” identity was developed under Roman political procedures which caused Galilee to be treated as a separate administrative area, cut off from Judea and Samaria. This was enhanced by the fact that Galilee was, for quite some time, ruled by Roman puppets rather then directly by Rome itself. This allowed for greater social stability, too, meaning that it wasn’t a center of anti-Roman political activity and it wasn’t a marginalized region — two misconceptions many take from the gospel stories.

Galilee is also the region where Judaism acquired most of its modern form. After the second Jewish Revolt (132-135 CE) and Jews were expelled from Jerusalem entirely, many were forced to migrate north. This greatly increased the population of Galilee and, over time, attracted Jews already living in other areas. Both the Mishnah and the Palestinian Talmud were written there, for example. Today it retains a large population of both Arab Muslims and Druze despite being a part of Israel. Major Galilean cities include Akko (Acre), Nazareth, Safed, and Tiberias.

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