Galilee of the Gentiles

The passage from St Matthew’s Gospel describing the healing of the demoniac begins with the words, “When Jesus had come to the other side…” (Matthew 8:28). “The other side of what?” we may ask, raising questions of where Jesus went and what it meant for His ministry. How does knowing where He lived and where He travelled contribute to our understanding of who He is and to our way of following Him?

The Lord Jesus spent most of His earthly life in the province of Galilee, the northernmost district of the Holy Land. Galilee, north of Samaria, was the ancient territory of the Israelite tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali. With Samaria it had formed the northern kingdom, Israel, after the split following Solomon’s death (c. 931 bc). In 740 bc the northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians; it would not be ruled again by Jews until 140 BC.

Galilee of the Gentiles

Already in the eighth century BC the prophet Isaiah referred to this territory as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (9:1), a phrase which will be quoted in Mt 4:16. Isaiah may have been referring to an event mentioned in 1 Kings 9: 10-13. There we read that Hiram, the King of Tyre, had supplied cedar, cypress and gold to build the temple at Jerusalem. To repay him, “King Solomon then gave Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee…”

The story of Hiram is the first of two rather disparaging references to Galilee in the Scriptures. Solomon’s gift did not please the King of Tyre “So he said, ‘What kind of cities are these which you have given me, my brother?’ And he called them the land of Cabul, [good for nothing] as they are known to this day.” 

For the 600 years after the Assyrian conquest much of Galilee had been all but abandoned by the Jews, who concentrated on rebuilding Jerusalem and Judea. Like Samaria, Galilee saw foreigners – in this case Phoenician farmers and Greek mercenaries employed by the Persians – among its new residents, apparently not the result of any intentional efforts by the various ruling powers, none of whom introduced a substantial number of colonists.

Jewish resettlement of Galilee proceeded very slowly until the reestablishment of Jewish rule in the second century bc. According to the evidence of archaeology, there was a sudden change at the beginning of the first century bc. Within a few decades, dozens of new villages appeared, indicating that a new population had come into Galilee. By the first century ad Galilee included 204 prosperous villages and 15 fortified cities (Josephus, Vita, 45). 

Nazareth vs. Sepphoris

The town of Nazareth where Jesus was raised was on the outskirts of one such city, Sepphoris, the administrative center of Galilee and the home of the region’s prosperous Jewish elite. Nazareth was a working man’s town in the shadow of Sepphoris, of no importance to anyone but its residents. When the Lord’s disciple Philip told Nathanael that he had found the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel responded, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

The cosmopolitan and deeply Hellenized city of Sepphoris is never mentioned in the Gospels. Jesus is never depicted as going there – although it was only 3½ miles from Nazareth – and none of His closest followers are said to have lived there. Instead the Lord spent His time in and called disciples from the nearby working-class towns of Cana and Capernaum where He found “the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3), people more likely to accept His words.

The contrast between Nazareth and Sepphoris exemplifies Christ’s preference for the poor in spirit, the attitude of spiritual poverty before God contrasted with the proud, exemplified in the Beatitudes, and which He personified in the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. The figures associated with His birth – the holy Virgin, St Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, even the magi – all display this quality.

Contemporary writers often use the Hebrew term Anawim to describe those people who look to God for everything. It was the word used by the Essene community to describe themselves. The Anawim usually have nothing that the world wants; their “wealth” consists in God. These are the people to whom Jesus referred in His first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth, quoting Isaiah 61:1, 2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor” (Luke 4:18).

The Lord’s identification with the humble – the needy widow, Lazarus the beggar, the blind, the lame, and the lepers – has led churchmen throughout the ages to assert that the Church is called to imitate Christ by declaring its preference for the poor and powerless of this world. “Prove yourself a god to the unfortunate by imitating the mercy of God,” wrote St. Gregory the Theologian (Oration XIV, On the Love of the Poor). “There is nothing so godly in human beings as to do good works.” Sixteen centuries later Pope Benedict XVI taught that “love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel” (Deus Caritas Est, 22).

Foreigners and Samaritans

Archaeologists suggest that the population of Galilee at the time of Christ included transplanted Judeans. They joined many Gentile Galileans (Phoenicians and Greeks) and Idumeans who some scholars say had been forcibly converted to Judaism.  If so, Galilee in Jesus’ day contained many Jews whose ancestors had only been Jewish for about a century.

At the same time the Galileans were surrounded by native pagan peoples: Phoenicians to the north, Amonites and Moabites to the east, Edomites to the south and Palestinians to the west, while their immediate neighbors to the south were the Samaritans. Strict Jews like the Pharisees reviled all these peoples as unbelievers or as heretics and therefore unclean.

The Lord Jesus was not put off by the isolationism of the scribes and Pharisees. Not only did He eat with sinners and tax collectors (i.e. collaborators with the occupying Romans), He ministered to Samaritans (John 4:5-42) and soldiers of the Roman occupation (Luke 7:1-9). He visited pagan territories such as Tyre and Sidon, where He helped the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mark 7:24-30), and Gadara, across the Jordan, as we see in today’s reading.

A Galilean befriending sinners, embracing the poor and powerless, foreigners and Samaritans despite the precepts of the Torah – is it any wonder, then, that the Lord Jesus made enemies among the scribes, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law?