New Testament Primer: Regions of the Holy Land

Galilee

There are over fifty references in the Gospels to Galilee as a region, the first mention being Joseph's return from Egypt with Mary and Jesus to live in the northernmost region of the land of Israel: "When he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judaea . . . , he was afraid to go thither: . . . he turned aside into the parts of Galilee." (Matt. 2:22.)

Jesus' ministry begins with a geographical note: "Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him." (Matt. 3:13; see Mark 1:14.) And then "Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues." (Matt. 4:23.) Important towns of Galilee in Jesus' ministry included "Nazareth of Galilee" (Matt. 21:11), "Capernaum, a city of Galilee" (Luke 4:31), "Cana of Galilee" (John 2:1), and "Bethsaida of Galilee" (John 12:21).

One of the most important towns in Galilee was Sepphoris (located about three miles northwest of Nazareth), where Herod Antipas resided prior to making Tiberias the capital of Galilee. Since Sepphoris is not mentioned in the New Testament, few people have heard of it. Jesus may have taught there since he went throughout all of Galilee.

All but one of Jesus' apostles were Galilaeans (Judas Iscariot was perhaps a Judaean). When Jesus departed into heaven from the Mount of Olives, two men in white apparel asked, "Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven." (Acts 1:11.)

The speech of Galilaeans was apparently distinct from their fellow countrymen. A young girl at Caiaphas's palace in Jerusalem accused Peter, "Surely thou art one of them: for thou art a Galilaean, and thy speech agreeth thereto." (Mark 14:70.) Matthew adds, "Surely thou also art one of them; for thy speech bewrayeth thee [Greek: reveals you]." (Matt. 26:73.) At the celebration of Pentecost after the Lord's resurrection, the thousands that had gathered in Jerusalem from all the Mediterranean world were amazed and marveled at the linguistic phenomenon they had witnessed, "saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans?" (Acts 2:7.)

How did Judaeans regard those from Galilee? Speaking to Jews of Judaea on one occasion, Jesus asked, "Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans?" (Luke 13:2), inferring that Judaeans looked with condescension, even disdain, upon Galilaeans. Certainly most of those revered personalities of former times had come from Judaea, and most Judaeans now expected nothing good from Galilee. "Shall Christ come out of Galilee? . . . Search, and look: for out of Galilee ariseth no prophet." (John 7:41, 52.)

When the region of Galilee first appeared in historical records (in the annals of Pharaoh Thutmose III), it was not Jewish but a conglomeration of Amorites and Canaanites. Perhaps this is the rationale behind the expression "Galilee of the gentiles" (Matt. 4:15) or "Galilee of the nations" (Isa. 9:1; Greek, Galilaia ton ethnon).

When Israelites dominated the region, they retained the title "Galilee," referring to lands from the Litani River in southern Lebanon south to the Jezreel Valley, which separates Galilee from the province of Samaria. Topographically the region is divided into "Upper" and "Lower" Galilee, distinguished by elevation. Matthew (4:15) quotes Isaiah (9:1) identifying Galilee as the tribal regions of Zebulun and Naphtali. Nazareth was in Zebulun, and the Sea of Galilee and surrounding settlements were in Naphtali.

Decapolis

"There followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis." (Matt. 4:25.) The Decapolis was an association of ten Greek cities (deca = ten, and polis = city) to the east and south of Galilee. The cities were Greek in the sense of having a predominantly Greek or hellenized culture.

In the New Testament, the Decapolis is mentioned two additional times. (See Mark 5:20; 7:31.) Jesus traveled and performed miracles among the Greeks, some of whom became disciples. The ten cities included Damascus, Raphana, Dion, Hippos (Hebrew, Susita), Gadara, Scythopolis (formerly called Beth- shean), Pella, Gerasa (today's Jerash), Philadelphia (today's Amman), and Abila or Canatha.

Ituraea and Trachonitis

"Philip [was] tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis." (Luke 3:1.) When Herod the Great died, his son Philip was granted control of the lands north and east of Galilee, including the slopes of Mount Hermon and the Lebanese Beq'a. This area comprised Ituraea and Trachonitis. Important towns were Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Hermon, and Bethsaida, on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. South of Ituraea were regions called Ulatha and Gaulanitis (today's Golan), and south of Trachonitis were Batanaea and Auranitis.

Samaria

"He must needs go through Samaria." (John 4:4.) The northern boundary of Samaria in Jesus' day was the Jezreel Valley. The southern boundary was arbitrarily demarcated, however, since there is no geological or topographical feature that separates the hill country of Samaria from the hill country of Judaea. The border point, according to Jewish historian Josephus, was a small village called Anuathu Borcaeus, just north of the Lebonah Valley in the hill country of Ephraim.

Jesus journeyed back and forth between Galilee and Judaea, often walking through Samaria, which is surprising considering the Judaeans' derisive attitude toward Samaritans. The Jews regarded them as genealogical half-breeds and historical antagonists: "The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans." (John 4:9.) One of the Jews' ultimate curses was to pronounce someone a Samaritan: "Say we not well that thou art a Samaritan, and hast a devil?" (John 8:48.)

But Jesus did not avoid Samaritans. In fact, he once stayed for several days in Samaritan villages and taught them. Just as the story of Jonah taught former-day Israelites that salvation was for all of God's children, that all must have a chance to hear and repent, so Jesus pointedly illustrated God's concern for all peoples despite local prejudice. He immortalized the Samaritan people by his parable about a man (a Jew) assaulted along the Jericho road: "A certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him." (Luke 10:33.) The only one of the ten lepers Jesus healed who came back to express gratitude was a Samaritan. (See Luke 17:16.)

The first recorded instance of Jesus openly declaring to anyone that he was the Messiah was to a Samaritan woman at Jacob's Well. (See John 4:5-26.) The woman could not contain her excitement and called the townspeople, who eagerly listened to Jesus. "Many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him," saying, "We have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world." (John 4:39, 42.)

Jesus commissioned his disciples to preach the Gospel also in Samaria: "Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria." (Acts 1:8.) So they went out and "testified and preached the word of the Lord . . . in many villages of the Samaritans." (Acts 8:25.) "At that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria." (Acts 8:1.) Churches also grew in the land of the Samaritans. "Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria." (Acts 9:31.)

Coastal Plain

"All that dwelt at Lydda and Saron [the Sharon Plain] saw him, and turned to the Lord." (Acts 9:35.) This is the only general reference to coastal plains in the New Testament record, which was to feature prominently in the growth of the early Church. (More detail on individual sites appears later in this chapter.) When Peter performed a miracle at Lydda, people from all parts of the Sharon Plain enlisted in the Christian cause.

Judaea

"It is evident that our Lord sprang out of Juda." (Heb. 7:14.) New Testament events occurred in two regions of Judaea: "the wilderness of Judaea" (Matt. 3:1) and "the hill country of Judaea" (Luke 1:65).

John the Baptist and Jesus both commenced their ministries in the wilderness, but their lives began in the hill country. "Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country . . . into a city of Juda." (Luke 1:39.) Mary was visiting her relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth, parents of the prophet John the Baptist.

Tradition has long regarded En Kerem, a quaint village on the western outskirts of modern Jerusalem, as the birthplace of John. Another ancient tradition was revived by nineteenth-century biblical scholar Edward Robinson that Zechariah and Elizabeth lived in the village of Juttah, just south of Hebron, and that John was born in the south of Judaea. It was one of the cities given to Aaron and his sons. (See Josh. 21:13-16.) The tradition may be unlikely as the village of Juttah was situated in the region of Idumaea at that time.

In the New Testament, there seems to be constant intentional juxtaposition of Jerusalem and the rest of Judaea. Jerusalem was the capital, the chief and holy city, and merited preferential status or at least singular mention alongside any or all other places. Thus we see, "there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem" (Mark 1:5), "a great multitude of people out of all Judaea and Jerusalem" (Luke 6:17). "Ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea." (Acts 1:8.)

Jerusalem was synonymous with leadership. The headquarters of the early Christian Church was centered in the same place where centuries earlier God had chosen to place his name, where the Holy Temple had epitomized Judaic life for a millennium. Like the work of some of the old prophets, Jesus' most important work was performed and his life was given in Jerusalem. And though nearly all the members of the quorum of apostles were originally from Galilee, they clearly understood, too, that the center place of Zion, where the law and the word must go forth, was Jerusalem.

Though we hear of Bethlehem from Jesus' birth until Herod's slaying of the children, we hear of no other events in Bethlehem or in any other specific place south of Jerusalem in the New Testament. There is evidence, however, of proliferation of organized units of the Christian Church: "Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea" (Acts 9:31); and "That word . . . was published throughout all Judaea" (Acts 10:37). When Paul testified before Agrippa, he explained the course of his own teaching journeys. He "showed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God." (Acts 26:20; italics added.)

Jordan

"Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judaea, and all the region round about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan." (Matt. 3:5-6.) John baptized in the Jordan River east of Jericho at a place called Bethabara (see entry in this chapter). His ministry was actually located on the eastern shore of the river, in the region called Peraea. "Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him" (Matt. 3:13); that is, Jesus left Galilee and walked south along the eastern side of the Jordan Valley into Peraea, opposite Jericho.

Beyond Jordan

"He arose from thence, and cometh into the coasts of Judaea by the farther side of Jordan." (Mark 10:1.) The "farther side of Jordan" is the same phrase rendered seven other times as "beyond Jordan," meaning "across the Jordan" (peran tou Jordanou). The word peran is an adverb of place, and its cognate noun Peraea is known to stand by itself as a regional name, especially in the writings of Josephus. As we have seen, all directions given by Hebrew peoples are given as if standing looking east. Beyond Jordan, then, would be on the eastern side of the river.

"There followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan [that is, from Peraea]." (Matt. 4:25.) Since all place names in the preceding passage are regional names (besides Jerusalem), it follows that "beyond Jordan" is also a regional name.

Both Galilee and Peraea were provinces ruled by Herod Antipas. Later, Herod Antipas would have John the Baptist incarcerated and put to death in the prison-fortress of Machaerus in southern Peraea.

Idumaea

"Jesus withdrew himself with his disciples to the sea: and a great multitude from Galilee followed him, and from Judaea, and from Jerusalem, and from Idumaea, and from beyond Jordan; and they about Tyre and Sidon." (Mark 3:8.) Clearly the Gospel writers were impressed not only with the crowds gathering around Jesus, but also with the distances they had traveled to hear him. Those present at the Sea of Galilee from Idumaea had journeyed at least one hundred fifty miles to listen to this new teacher who spoke as one having authority.

At the time of Jesus, Idumaea was the territory stretching from just north of Hebron in the hill country to south of Beersheba in the Negev Desert. Idumaea is the English spelling of the Latin name for Edom, and Edomites had for several centuries lived also on the west of the Rift Valley. Herod the Great was an Idumaean.

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