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.