There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. [Isaiah 53:2-3 (NLT)]
Because we know little about the geography or politics of Jesus’ time, we sometimes miss subtleties in the gospel accounts. We know Jesus was from Galilee but what do we know of Galilee? Located north of Judea with the province of Samaria separating them, Galilee originally was settled by the tribes of Naphtali, Asher, Issachar, and Zebulun—all of whom failed to drive out the Canaanites. King Solomon gave twenty towns in the northern part of Galilee to King Hiram of Tyre either as payment for the cedar, cypress, and gold Hiram provided for the Temple’s construction or as collateral to cover later payments. In any case, Hiram later returned the cities to Solomon who then settled Israelites in them. When the kingdom divided, this region became part of the northern kingdom of Israel.
When Assyria defeated Israel, much of the Jewish population was relocated while those remaining often intermarried with the Gentiles sent there to repopulate the area. By the 7th century BC, the region was known as Galilee with Upper (northern) Galilee known as the “Galilee of the Gentiles.” This was a rich and fertile region and, with the Sea of Galilee being the largest freshwater lake in the area, it was an ideal location for settlements and fishing. After returning from their exile in Babylon, Judean immigrants resettled the region.
By the time of Jesus, Galilee was a heavily populated area. Jesus was raised in Nazareth in Lower Galilee. Most, if not all, of His disciples were from Galilee and He spent much of his ministry preaching around the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee in towns like Capernaum and Bethsaida. It was in Galilee that he turned water into wine, gave the Sermon on the Mount, and performed miracles like feeding the 5,000, healing the centurion’s servant, raising Jairus’ daughter and the widow of Nain’s son, walking on water, and calming a storm.
What we 21st century believers probably don’t know is that, in Jesus’ day, Judeans disparaged Galileans. Even though most Galileans were Jewish, the pureness of their ancestry had been diluted by intermarriage and Judeans considered them of questionable ancestry. The Galilean Aramaic dialect differed enough from Judean Aramaic that Galileans (like New Yorkers) were recognizable by their accents. It was Peter’s accent that identified him as a Galilean when he denied Jesus and it was their distinctive accent that caused Judeans to consider Galileans uneducated. One story in the Babylonian Talmud told of prohibiting them from speaking in the Temple for fear they might mispronounce something and offend God! In Acts 4:32, we find the Council amazed at the confidence with which Peter and John spoke because they were “unlearned and ignorant” men. It was their thick Galilean accents, not their words, that caused the incorrect assumption of ignorance.
Regional prejudices were as prominent in Jesus’ time as they are in ours and Judeans, especially Jerusalemites, viewed Galileans as uncultured peasants. “Galilean” was as derogatory a term as are “redneck” or “hillbilly.” Consider Nathanael’s surprise when Philip told him the Messiah was from Nazareth: “Can anything good thing come from Nazareth?” When Nicodemus dared to defend Jesus by pointing out He deserved a trial, his fellow Pharisees taunted him with their answer: “Are you from Galilee, too? Search the Scriptures and see for yourself—no prophet ever comes from Galilee!” Not only did their scorn prove their bias and prejudice, but it also revealed their own ignorance. The prophet Jonah came from Gath-Hepher, just a few miles north of Nazareth, in Galilee! Their bias also kept them from seeing how Jesus filled Isaiah’s prophecy of a Messiah in Isaiah 9 (repeated in Matthew 4:13-16).
Are we as judgmental as were the Pharisees? Do we make assumptions about groups of people based on pre-existing beliefs about their heritage, race, accent, attire, age, gender, religion, or disability? Many in Judea turned their backs on Jesus and the disciples because all they saw were uneducated peasants who spoke with a Galilean accent! Because of their prejudice, they continued to sit in the darkness in the presence of the Light! Let’s not make a similar mistake!