Tracking the social and political changes during Jesus' time poses one of the great challenges to understanding biblical history more fully. One of the greatest influences on Galilee in Jesus' time was the urbanization brought about by its ruler, Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great.
Building Cities Was Part of Antipas' Heritage
Herod Antipas succeeded his father, Herod II, called Herod the Great, around 4 B.C., becoming the ruler of Perea and Galilee. Antipas' father earned his "great" reputation in part because of his stupendous public works projects, which provided jobs and built up the splendor of Jerusalem (to say nothing of Herod himself).
In addition to his expansion of the Second Temple, Herod the Great built an enormous hilltop fortress and palatial resort known as the Herodium, situated on a built-up mountain visible from Jerusalem. The Herodium also was intended as Herod the Great's funerary monument, where his hidden tomb was discovered in 2007 by the noted Israeli archaeologist, Ehud Netzer, after more than three decades of excavation. (Sadly, Professor Netzer fell while exploring the site in October 2010 and died two days later of injuries to his back and neck, according to the January-February 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review).
With his father's legacy looming over him, it wasn't surprising that Herod Antipas chose to build cities in Galilee the likes of which the region hadn't seen.
Sepphoris and Tiberias Were Antipas' Jewels
When Herod Antipas took over Galilee in Jesus' time, it was a rural region on Judea's margins. Larger towns such as Bethsaida, a fishing center on the Sea of Galilee, could hold as many as 2,000 to 3,000 people. However, most people lived in small villages such as Nazareth, the home of Jesus' foster father Joseph and his mother Mary, and Capernaum, the village where Jesus' ministry was centered. The populations of these hamlets rarely rose above 400 people, according to archaeologist Jonathan L. Reed in his book, The Harper Collins Visual Guide to the New Testament.
Herod Antipas transformed sleepy Galilee by building bustling urban centers of government, commerce and recreation. The crown jewels of his building program were Tiberias and Sepphoris, known today as Tzippori. Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee was a lakeside resort that Antipas built to honor his patron, his patron Tiberius, who succeeded Caesar Augustus in A.D. 14.
Sepphoris, however, was an urban renewal project. The city had been a regional center before, but it was destroyed by order of Quinctilius Varus, Roman governor of Syria, when dissidents opposed to Antipas (who was in Rome at the time) seized the palace and terrorized the region. Herod Antipas had enough vision to see that the city could be restored and expanded, giving him another urban center for Galilee.
The Socioeconomic Impact Was Enormous
Professor Reed wrote that the socioeconomic impact of Antipas' two cities on Galilee in Jesus' time was enormous. As had the public works projects of Antipas' father, Herod the Great, building Sepphoris and Tiberias provided steady work for Galileans who previously had subsisted on agriculture and fishing. What's more, archaeological evidence has indicated that within one generation - the very time of Jesus - some 8,000 to 12,000 people moved into Sepphoris and Tiberias. While there is no archaeological evidence to support the theory, some biblical historians surmise that as carpenters, Jesus and his foster father Joseph could have worked in Sepphoris, some nine miles north of Nazareth.
Historians have long noted the far-reaching effects that this kind of mass migration has on people. There would have been need for farmers to grow more food to feed the people in Sepphoris and Tiberias, so they would have needed to acquire more land, often through tenant farming or mortgage. If their crops failed, they might have become indentured servants to pay off their debts.
Farmers also would have needed to hire more day laborers to till their fields, pick their crops and tend their flocks and herds, all situations that appear in Jesus' parables, such as the story known as the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15. Herod Antipas also would have needed more taxes to build and maintain the cities, so more tax collectors and a more efficient system of taxation would have been necessary.
All of these economic changes could be behind the many stories and parables in the New Testament regarding debt, taxation and other money matters.
Lifestyle Differences Documented in House Ruins
Archaeologists studying Sepphoris have uncovered one example that shows vast lifestyle differences between wealthy elites and rural peasants in Galilee of Jesus' time: the ruins of their houses.
Professor Reed wrote that homes in Sepphoris' western neighborhood were built with stone blocks that were evenly shaped in consistent sizes. In contrast, homes in Capernaum were made of uneven boulders gathered from nearby fields. The stone blocks of wealthy Sepphoris houses fit tightly together, but the uneven stones of Capernaum houses often left holes in which clay, mud and smaller stones were packed. From these differences, archaeologists surmise that not only were the Capernaum houses draftier, their inhabitants also could have been subjected more frequently to the dangers of having the walls fall on them.
Discoveries such as these give proof of the socioeconomic changes and uncertainties faced by most Galileans in Jesus' time.
Galilee in Jesus' Time Resources
Netzer, Ehud, "In Search of Herod's Tomb," Biblical Archaeology Review, Volume 37, Issue 1, January-February 2011
Reed, Jonathan L., The Harper Collins Visual Guide to the New Testament (New York, Harper Collins, 2007).