(Map 5:X2–3)The name for the northern region of Palestine, meaning literally either the circle or the district. According to Joshua 19, this area was allotted to the tribes of Naphtali, Zebulun, and Dan, although the accounts of the tribal settlements suggest that the older population continued in the more prosperous regions such as the valley and the coast (Judg. 1.30, 33). Archaeological data, especially from surveys, add evidence of many new settlements throughout the region in the early Iron Age, as further south in the central hill country (see Conquest of Canaan). Galilee, together with some of its major cities, especially Hazor, is only sporadically mentioned in biblical and nonbiblical sources in the first half of the first millennium BCE. After the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 BCE Galilee was included in the Assyrian province of Samaria, but it is unlikely that the whole Israelite population was ever completely uprooted in this largely rural area. While drawing a distinction between Upper and Lower Galilee, later writers, such as Josephus and Pliny, extol the fertility and the variety of its agricultural produce.

The region receives more attention beginning in the Hellenistic period, when Simon, one of the Maccabean brothers, went there to rescue some fellow Jews during the persecution that followed Antiochus IV's Hellenistic reform in the mid‐second century BCE (1 Macc. 5.14–23). This episode has suggested to many scholars that Galilee was then a thoroughly gentile region, but this may not be an accurate assessment. Scattered references from the Persian period (Tob. 1.10; Judith 4.6–10) indicate a continued Jewish presence there in Persian times. Archaeological surveys suggest that the region was not densely populated in the early Hellenistic period, and the episode involving Simon seems to have been confined to the region of Ptolemais. Josephus informs us that the Hasmonean Aristobulus I forcibly circumcised the Iturean people as part of the campaign to reestablish control of the old Israelite territory (Ant. 13.12.318–19.). This episode may have involved some of those dwelling in Upper Galilee but can scarcely be considered to have involved all Galilean Jews of the first century BCE.

The population of Galilee seems to have increased under the Hasmoneans by a process of “internal colonization,” giving rise to a densely populated province by the first century CE (Josephus War 3.3.41–44). This “Jewish Galilee” emerged as a separate administrative unity when Pompey, the Roman general, carved up the Hasmonean kingdom, and its identity was further enhanced by the setting up of an administrative council for the region at Sepphoris by his successor Gavinius in 57 BCE. This center, and its rival Tiberias, founded by Herod Antipas in 19 CE, continued to dominate the whole of Lower Galilee administratively, whereas Upper Galilee retained a largely village culture into late Roman and Byzantine times.

Galilee's separate identity also emerged when the Romans once again intervened to carve up Herod the Great's kingdom on his death in 4 BCE. The region, together with Perea, was entrusted to his son Herod Antipas, whose long reign (4 BCE to 39 CE) covered the career of Jesus of Nazareth. By contrast with Judea in the south, which came under direct Roman rule in 6 CE, with the consequent deterioration of social relations there, Antipas's reign appears to have brought stability to Jewish Galilee. Galilee also came under direct Roman rule, probably on the death of Herod Agrippa in 44 CE, although part of the region—Tiberias and Tarichaeae and their territories—had been given by Nero to Agrippa's son, Agrippa II, whose territory had previously been confined to Trachonitis in Transjordan.

In the First Jewish Revolt (66–70 CE), the Jewish revolutionary council appointed Josephus as governor of Galilee at the outbreak of hostilities with Rome, but apart from a few centers such as Gischala, Gamala (situated in the Golan, although closely associated with Galilee), and Tiberias, the campaign was quickly brought to an end by the advancing Roman legions, and Josephus was captured after his last stand at the fortress of Jotapata, an account of which is highly embellished to extol his own military prowess (War 3.4.59–3.7.306). Galilee does not seem to have been involved in the Second Jewish Revolt (132–35 CE), and as part of the Roman settlement Jews from the south were forced northward. Thus, from the second century CE on, Galilee became a home of Jewish learning and piety in the land of Israel. It was there that the great scribal schools flourished at Usha, Sepphoris, and Tiberias, producing the Mishnah and later the Palestinian Talmud (Yerushalmi). Jews from all over the Mediterranean world were buried at Beth Shearim in Galilee. The excavated remains of the synagogue there suggest a thriving local community with an independent religious life down to the Arab conquests of the seventh century CE, despite the increased Christian presence after Constantine's conversion.

This sketch of Galilean political and religious history should help to correct some false impressions of Galilee and Galileans that are often found in accounts of the career of Jesus of Nazareth. Galilean life was relatively stable politically, especially in contrast to Judea, and so it is incorrect to see Galilee as the home of the Zealots or as a hotbed of revolutionaries, at once more radical and more charismatic in the expressions of their Jewish religious loyalties. Nor were Galileans generally socially deprived or marginalized. The natural fertility of the region, its strategic location on the caravan routes to the East, as well as its role as a hinterland for the Phoenician trading centers, meant that its inhabitants were in a position to enjoy at least some of the benefits that the Hellenistic age brought to the East.

Galilee and Galileans are associated particularly with Jesus of Nazareth and his movement. While each of the four Gospels treats the region differently within the overall purposes of its narrative and does not give us the kind of detailed information about the region that one can glean from Josephus's Life, for example, many of their underlying social and religious assumptions are realistic on the basis of what can be reconstructed historically from other sources. For the evangelists also Galilee is thoroughly Jewish in its religious affiliation. Tensions between the religious claims on the region from Jerusalem and the distinctive regional ethos are recognized (Mark 3.22; 7.1). The rural setting predominates, and the lake region with its busy commercial life is highlighted. This picture, highly selective in its coloring, corresponds remarkably well with a more detailed profile that can be established with the aid of other sources. Galilee did indeed function as a symbol of the newness of Jesus' vision in contrast to the more established circles of Jewish belief for the early Christians, but all the indications are that the symbolic reference was grounded in an actual ministry that was conducted in the real Galilee of the first century CE.

Seán Freyne