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Life in First Century Galilee

If I think about life in Galilee around the Sea of Galilee at the time of Jesus and I think of places like Capernaum or Magdala, we need to first of all realize that this is a society and economy that’s driven by agriculture; so most people in one way or another are involved in agriculture.  If you are lucky enough to own land, you of course, work your own land; if you don’t own the lands you may wind up working someone else’s land or you might drop down into sort of lesser trades like fishing, and fishing would have been sort of a low-level trade for people. 

We have to keep in mind that whether you are fishing or agriculture, that this would have been a fairly hard life, a difficult life, lots of menial labor, fairly intensive labor, but also very seasonal labor; so that there would be times in the agricultural cycle where there wouldn’t be that much work, where you would try to eke out a living, maybe by producing things or fishing just a little bit more. 

Overall life would have been much more difficult than today.  These villages that we’re looking at weren’t cities in the modern sense or even the ancient sense of the world.  They were villages that were fairly simple. 

The archaeological record tells us that there weren’t a lot of imports; there weren’t a lot of nice floors, mosaic floors, there weren’t really many frescoed walls or roof tiles. 

So we need to think in terms of a lot of mud, some thatched roofs and as best we can also %%tell, there may have been dung used to reinforce the walls on occasion.  So this is really kind of a dry, dusty, and when it’s rainy, occasionally smelly kind of a place. 

Not a lot of people would have lived in the villages; they may have been between a thousand or even two thousand people; and they would have had a very small upper class; the people that is in charge, that rules are the wealthy; and the other thing that we can %%tell at the time of Jesus is that the social economic stratification was beginning to intensify.  It’s not so much that the rich were getting richer and the poor poorer; it’s more that the rich were able to afford a few imports and a life style that would have been significantly different than the poor; so even if the poor actually aren’t worse off around the time of Jesus, the wealthier were able to display their wealth in more ostentatious ways.

So, one of the parables that really illustrates the way I think life in antiquity was, in terms of the socioeconomics is the parable of the workers at the vineyard. And Jesus, of course, sets the stage and %%tells a parable where there’s a group of people waiting around for employment, waiting for work, and this very much looks like what we have today in terms of undocumented workers waiting around a Home Depot to be picked up; and that sort of desperation or hope to find a job to eke out a little bit of money just for the day or for the next week, really is shown in the parable by the anger of those who resent the fact that the recent comers get the same pay as those that have worked for the full day.  I don’t think it’s so much that they’re mad at them as they are worried about themselves; and it illustrates a situation in which people are fearful about where am I going to get money for the bread that I need today.

  • Jonathan Reed

    Jonathan Reed is professor of religion and dean for the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of La Verne. He co-authored Excavating Jesus and In Search of Paul with John Dominic Crossan. Reed is an active archaeologist and directs a dig at Sepphoris. He has appeared on numerous television documentaries, and his work has appeared in National Geographic.