The question of Jesus’ Galilean identity has become an important one, and there’s an informative two-part article by Halvor Moxnes in Biblical Theology Bulletin, here and here. The whole thing is worth reading, every sentence, but for now I’ll focus on Moxnes’ descriptions of four particular views — represented by Mack, Meyers, Horsley, and Freyne.
Burton Mack, of course, sees Jesus as descendent from Gentiles, a thoroughly Hellenized Jew, sharing little (if anything) in common with the Jews of Judea:
“In a certain sense Galilee has become a modern space: open, complex in cultural mixture, with an emphasis on the wisdom of popular philosophy and questioning traditions. Galilee in Mack’s construction is a space of ideas and easy social contacts; there is little interest in the topography of power, or in less modern aspects of Hellenism like superstition and magic. Galilee has become a spatial metaphor for Hellenism understood as culture in socio-intellectual terms.”
Jesus is thus seen as a cosmopolitan, multiculturalist cynic-sage, a reconstruction derived from the hypothetical Q (hazardous enough) and Q1 in particular (hard to take seriously).
Eric Meyers gives the opposite picture: a Jesus descendent from the Hasmonean settlers in the second century BCE, sharing mostly everything in common with the Jews of Judea:
“Meyers has a much more sophisticated view of the relations between Hellenism and Judaism than many others in the discussion of Galilee, but in the end Hellenism does not make much difference to Galilean Judaism… On the basis of archaeological evidence about aniconic decorations, the use of Aramaic and Hebrew in inscriptions as well as many ritual baths, Meyers concludes that Galilee was an area congenial to and supportive of Jewish halakhic norms in the time of Jesus… There was not a specific form of Galilean Jewishness that could influence Jesus; rather, even with the influence of Hellenism there seems to be a basic unity to Judaism in Palestine.”
Jesus thus emerges as a “common Jew”, as someone like E.P. Sanders maintains.
Richard Horsley sees major differences between Galilee and Judea, though not in the way Mack does. His Jesus descends from the northern Israelites, peasants left on the land after the Assyrians deported primarily rulers, officers, royal servants, and retainers in 722 BCE. These peasants stayed in Galilee, for centuries remaining free of a native aristocracy and temple community, unlike their Samaritan and Judean cousins down south. Jesus was thus a relative of Judean Jews, but a very distant one. Immediately pressing for him was the problem of urbanization encroaching on Galilean peasants, who had long been accustomed to being “left alone”:
“Horsley does not find enough evidence for urbanization in Galilee to conclude that there was a cosmopolitan Hellenistic culture in which Jesus acted as a ‘Cynic-like countercultural sage.’ Rather, Horsley’s view of the imperial dominance and the effect of Antipas’ rule if anything strengthens his conviction that the problem was the threat to traditional life posed by the disintegration of the basic social forms of family and village… The most prominent task for a popular leader is to protect this traditional village life against outward pressure and domination, and the most effective strategy is not armed insurrection, but rather the empowerment of the local people of the villages.”
Jesus had little use for ideas about the Torah and Temple which had developed in southern Judah — and even less use for accommodating things Greek which threatened the welfare of peasant families.
Like Horsley, Sean Freyne sees a conflict between “Jewish peasant ethos” and “Hellenic urban values” giving rise to Jesus’ prophetic career, but like Meyers understands Galileans to be descendent from the more recent Hasmonean settlers than ancient northern Israelites (whom Freyne thinks had all been deported, contra Horsley). Jesus then shared more in common with the Judeans than Horsley allows, though the latter is on target about a clash between villages and cities:
“The foundation of Sepphoris and Tiberias by Herod Antipas is [Freyne’s] starting point. Why did Jesus never enter these cities, if the Gospel narratives are to be believed? Freyne argues that it was a deliberate avoidance on the part of Jesus ‘as an act of solidarity with the victims in order to generate a prophetic critique of their oppressors’… Tiberias and Sepphoris represented an economic structure that brought changes in the lives of Galilean peasants…This picture provides Freyne with a setting that makes plausible an image of Jesus ‘espousing a prophetic critique of the dominant prevailing ethos, based on covenantal ideals for a restored Israel, within an apocalyptic framework that made it possible to imagine and propose a radically different lifestyle and values’…This is not just a religious Jesus, nor only a political one.”
Two things are clear. Jesus can hardly be seen as either oppositely Hellenic or identically Judaic to the Judeans of the south, and certain tensions between Galilean villages and cities seems to have informed much of his prophetic ministry. I hope to have a review/critique of Horsley’s Galilee and Freyne’s Jesus: A Jewish Galilean posted over the next month or so. Their approaches to the Galilee question are probably the best available for getting these two starters right, though they draw different conclusions.