Villages of Galilee by Eric M. Meyers

Village life in biblical times was at the very heart of everyday life. Early Israel’s experience in the land was tied to the character of the settlements, their size, the kinds of houses and artifacts in them, and their location in relation to other clusters of villages near and distant. Urbanism did not take hold in ancient Israel until late in the First Temple period, beginning around the time of King Hezekiah (715–687 B.C.E.). The resettlement of the north after the destruction of the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E. by the Assyrians was a very slow process that did not gain full steam until late in the Hellenistic period, when the Hasmoneans established a Jewish presence there, often by force. By the Roman period (63 B.C.E. to the mid-fourth century C.E.), Jewish villages were spread throughout the Galilee and into the adjacent Golan Heights region.

The hundreds of Jewish villages of the Galilee surrounded the only two urban centers in their midst, Sepphoris and Tiberias, each of which functioned as the capital of the Galilee at separate times, the former in the lifetime of Jesus. Sepphoris did not participate in the Great Revolt against Rome (66–70 C.E.), and consequently coins were struck there under the Roman emperor Nero in 68 C.E. with the name “Irenopolis,” meaning “City of Peace.” Tiberias, however, was the site of intense warfare during the revolt.

How each city was related to the outlying areas in which the villages were located is at the core of current research, along with the question of their Jewish character and how it might have informed the ministry of Jesus. Given the proximity of Nazareth to Sepphoris, there has been much speculation as to why Sepphoris is not mentioned in the New Testament; perhaps it was due to its cosmopolitan ambience or its association with the Herodian family. Other urban and mostly gentile-dominated centers ringed the Galilee and exerted influence on the region also; these included Tyre, Akko/Ptolemais, Banias/Caesarea Phillipi, Bethsaida/Julias, and Beth Shean/Scythopolis.

Though there is ample evidence for pagan life and cult in the cities of Roman Palestine, especially from the beginning of the second century C.E., the overwhelming character of village life in Galilee in Roman Palestine was Jewish; people mainly spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, with Greek only making serious inroads in the second century C.E. Latin is virtually unattested. Distinguishing features of Jewish villages from the late Hellenistic period onward include ritual baths (miqva’ot), stone vessels that are impervious to impurity, discus lamps, often with Jewish symbols such as seven-branched candelabra (menorot) on them, Torah shrines, and, from the Middle Roman period onward, synagogues. Examination of animal remains shows that pigs and other nonkosher animals were absent. In general, synagogues are the most prominent public buildings in the villages. Though their style is inspired by Greco-Roman culture, their orientation toward Jerusalem and the frequent inclusion of a raised bimah, or dais, are distinctively Jewish features. Recent research has concluded that there were only about 130–150 rabbis in the land of Israel during the Roman period and that their influence was confined mainly to the urban centers where their academies were based.

Situated in a predominantly agricultural environment, the village was heavily dependent on its own crops and animals, and residents secured other necessities through trade and visits to local fairs. Some villages, such as Sakhnin and Kefar Hananiyah, specialized in the manufacture of pottery. Villages could often accommodate wealthy families and their sophisticated tastes in building style and internal furnishings, especially tableware.

Eric M. Meyers, "Villages of Galilee", n.p. [cited 4 Dec 2022]. Online:


Eric M. Meyers

Eric M. Meyers
Professor, Duke University

Eric M. Meyers is Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Jewish Studies and Archeology at Duke University. He is the former president of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) and excavated in Israel for forty years. His early works focused on four village sites in Upper Galilee that had synagogues: Khirbet Shema’, Meiron, Gush Halav, and Nabratein. More recently he has excavated at the site of Sepphoris.

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

a person who is not Jewish

"The revolt of the Jews against the Roman Empire between 66 and 73 C.E.,
the result of which was the destruction of Jerusalem and the second

Relating to the cultures of Greece or Rome.

A dynasty that ruled Israel from 140-37 B.C.E.; their origin is recounted in 1 and 2 Maccabees.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

Of or relating to the reign of the family of Herod, which governed Palestine from 55 B.C.E. to the end of the first century C.E.

Contaminated as a result of certain physical or moral situations, and therefore prohibited from contact with holy things. (See also: "purity" (HCBD).)

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Not permissible for human consumption or use; not following the biblical (or later, Jewish) laws of kashrut.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

(n.) One who adheres to traditional or polytheistic religious and spiritual belief and practice systems; sometimes used to refer broadly to anyone who does not adhere to biblical monotheism.

Another name often used for the area of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin term for the Roman province of Palaestina; ultimately, the name derives from the name of the Philistine people.

religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E.

Collective ceremonies having a common focus on a god or gods.

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