Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Instability in Jesus' Galilee: A Demographic Perspective

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Instability in Jesus' Galilee: A Demographic Perspective

Article excerpt

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There can be no doubt that Galilee, once mere background to historical Jesus research, has moved to the foreground. What was going on in Galilee during the reign of Herod Antipas has become a central question in discovering who Jesus was. But how can this be determined? Literary sources are notoriously unreliable, archaeological excavations are spotty, and theoretical models are often forced onto anecdotal literary or archaeological evidence. A key question in historical Jesus research has been the socioeconomic impact of Antipas's urbanization of Galilee when he rebuilt Sepphoris and founded Tiberias, in particular the extent and nature of subsequent urban-rural relations.1

In spite of extensive scholarship on these subjects for over a decade, the Galilean debate has moved toward a consensus on Antipas's urbanization only with regard to religion and culture: Galilee was largely Jewish; Antipas added only a Greco-Roman urban veneer to the cities; and extensive Roman-style urbanization did not occur until after the Bar Kokhba Revolt.2 But no such consensus has emerged on socioeconomics and rural-urban relations. Indeed, the array of positions, which are based in large part on whether urbanization is viewed as exploitation or opportunity, is striking. The discussion is stuck in a rut. On one end of the spectrum, Richard A. Horsley, David A. Fiensey, and Douglas E. Oakman take negative views of Antipas's urbanization and suggest that it exacerbated the plight of the peasants and divided town and country, so that the latter viewed the former with animosity.3 I argue that Antipas's urbanization created a strain on agricultural practices in rural Galilee so that-regardless of whether their lives improved or worsened in any absolute sense-the cities were viewed with suspicion.4 Most recently, Morten Hørning Jensen has weighed in by describing Antipas's rule and his cities as having a negligible impact on Galilean socioeconomics.5 On the other end of the spectrum, Douglas R. Edwards and James F. Strange characterize Galilee's urbanization as part of a vibrant economy that fostered reciprocal relationships between urban and rural areas from which villagers also benefited.6 Oddly, it is not that each position emphasizes a particular aspect of the archaeological record, but that the very same evidence is interpreted in opposite ways!7

Is there a way out of this rut? In this article, I intend to evade the tireless debate over models, to move beyond the disputed archaeological finds, and to reframe the question in terms of social stability by drawing on the hitherto neglected field of historical demography.8 In particular, the tightly interrelated aspects of fertility, mortality, and morbidity will be examined with an eye toward assessing internal migration. To anticipate the conclusions at the outset, life in first-century Galilee- though not necessarily dissimilar to other parts of the Mediterranean-was substantially different from the modern world and cannot be characterized as stable. Chronic and seasonal disease, especially malaria, cut down significant segments of the population and left even the healthy quite often ill. The age structure was youthful, women bore many children, random death made family and household patterns ephemeral, young men were often mobile, and elderly women especially vulnerable. Survival depended on extended family networks, especially for the most vulnerable: old women and young children. The ancient Mediterranean was, in Walter Scheidel's words, a place "of frequent pregnancy and sudden death," with several factors in Antipas's Galilee also fueling considerable internal migration.9 Galilee was not demographically stable. I will conclude with some implications of that instability for socioeconomics and rural-urban relations under Antipas, and will suggest a few avenues worth pursuing with regard to the historical Jesus.


The study of ancient demography has recently made significant strides, and a consensus has been reached on many issues, albeit more in terms of distinguishing the ancient Mediterranean from the modern world than in nuancing differences among regions within the Roman Empire. …

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