The God from Podunk
By Scott MacGregor
I have come to realize that my perceptions have been mistaken when it comes to where Jesus lived as a child and presumably as a young man. I have always been aware that Galilee was in the north of Israel and a fair distance from Jerusalem, but it is only lately that I have come to appreciate just how far out “in the sticks” Galilee was, and how this impacted Jesus and His followers and the Jews of His day.
The area of Galilee is in large part a rugged and hilly region surrounding the lake that bears its name. It was also a backwater, mostly poor, and of not much consequence. It had been out of the mainstream of Jewish culture and life for many hundreds of years. It had been part of a united Israel up until the death of King Solomon when civil war split the nation in two. The southern kingdom from then on was called Judah and was ruled by Solomon’s descendants.
The northern kingdom continued to be called Israel, and Jeroboam became king. He set up a competing religion to the temple-based, monotheistic religion of the south. He built two golden calves and set one up in Bethel and another in Dan and declared these were Israel’s gods. Anyone familiar with the story of Moses and the Exodus is probably reminded of the golden calf from that period of Israel’s history, and you are probably shaking your heads at the repeating of that all over again. (See Exodus 32.)
Israel was then invaded by Assyrians and ceased to exist as an independent country in 721 BC. The ruling class and urban dwellers were deported, but because of the hilly nature of most of the Galilean area, it seems that most of the poor who lived there were largely left alone and continued on in their subsistence lives.
Meanwhile, in 586 BC, the Babylonians invaded the southern kingdom of Judah. Over the course of three military campaigns, they destroyed Jerusalem and the temple, deported the upper class to Babylon and elsewhere, and left Judah a wasteland inhabited only by the poor. It wasn’t until the Persians conquered the Babylonians that the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their city, and most importantly, their temple.
The Jews who came back from Babylon compiled the Jewish Bible. Most important to them was the Torah—the books of the Law—the first five books of the Bible, which are attributed to Moses. They then centered their government and religion around these five books.
The Persians meanwhile were conquered by Alexander the Great, and Judah became a part of his empire and then that of his successors. In fact, it was an area much fought over by two of his successors, the Macedonian Seleucids, based to the north of Israel, and the Macedonian Ptolemies, based in Egypt. It was during these days that Greek joined Aramaic as the common language of the Middle East. In Israel, Hebrew was basically relegated to use in the temple and synagogues.
After intense provocation by the Seleucids, the Jews revolted and won their independence under a Jewish dynasty called first the Maccabees and later the Hasmoneans. When the Maccabees came to power in Judea, they then set about conquering the lands around them, bringing them into their own kingdom. It was about 100 BC when they conquered the area of Galilee. There had already been a native population of Israelites living there, and it seems that more Jews moved into the land at this time. But the big change was that the Hasmoneans imposed their laws—the laws from the first five books of the Bible—on the land. And thus the inhabitants also became Jewish religiously.
Before this time, it isn’t apparent what the Galileans believed religiously. If you will remember, their ancestors had abandoned the worship of God in the Jewish temple and instead worshiped those golden calves. Later, at least some of them adopted the worship of Phoenician gods. Just how much the worship of God in the old Jewish way remained is not known. However, by the time Jesus was born, the Jewish religion was followed in Galilee, even though at the time they were ruled by yet another conqueror, the Romans, through their client king, Herod. The family of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, was from Judah, specifically Bethlehem, but whether he was a first-generation Galilean or if his family had been there longer than that is not known.
All of the above to say: the Jews from Judea from the area around Jerusalem didn’t think very highly of the Galileans. These people were regarded as country bumpkins. Apparently they had a distinct accent, as indicated by the comment to Peter on the night of Jesus’ trial: “You also were with Jesus the Galilean … for your accent betrays you” (Matthew 26:73).
The chief priests and Pharisees obviously thought the idea of a prophet, let alone the Messiah, coming out of Galilee was ludicrous. They even scorned one of their own, Nicodemus, for thinking that this could be possible: “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee” (John 7:52).
It also seems that Nazareth, Jesus’ home village, was of a particularly poor reputation. Nathanael, one of Jesus’ apostles, was reported by John as saying, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). In fact, it seems that Galilee was somewhat of a hotbed of rebellion. The book of Acts makes note that a certain Judas from Galilee had started a revolt there before he was killed and his followers were scattered. (See Acts 5:37.) The Romans had also brutally put down a rebellion there around the year Jesus was born, and destroyed Sepphoris, Galilee’s most important city, which was only a short distance from Nazareth.
Most of Jesus’ ministry took place in Galilee and He only went from time to time to Judea. Jesus really was the God from Podunk. No wonder He got such a tough reception from many of the Jews. I am left to ponder sometimes if I would have been quick to embrace Him and His teachings if I had been around in those days. Try to picture yourself following some fellow with a provincial accent from the poorest part of your country.
But follow Him they did. And not just people from Galilee, but Jews from all over the Mediterranean world. Just 50 days after He had been ignominiously executed in Jerusalem, thousands of Jews who had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate an important religious festival decided that this Galilean was not just a prophet but also the long-awaited Messiah, and eagerly embraced the fledgling Christian movement. Historians estimate that at this time Jerusalem had a population of about 60,000 people. So this mass conversion, followed by a similar one a few weeks later, amounted to about 13% of the population. What got into them?
The answer is that God got into them in a very significant way. The Christian movement was off to the races. And soon it was not only Jews, but the people from the myriad nations of the Roman Empire and beyond were embracing the belief in the God from Podunk.
It took a while, over 300 years, before it was acceptable, even preferable, to be a Christian in many quarters. Yet from what could arguably have been one of the most insignificant parts of the most troublesome province in the Roman world, a man, who preached for about three years and was executed in his thirties as a rebel, started a religion of love for God and others that is still with us today. And that God Man, Jesus, is still with us today, and He will be with us forever and we with Him. And when you think about all of this, it’s astonishing.
Adapted from a Just1Thing podcast, a Christian character-building resource for young people.