Earlier today I read an article on the economy of Galilee during Jesus’ time, and I thought the article was particularly thoughtful in examining the question of how we view historical places and times and place Jesus Christ (and other historical figures) in a given context. What I found most striking was the way that the article pointed out that while textual research and material culture showed that Galilee was an area of ordinary wealth in terms of the Eastern Mediterranean world, that many recent “Bible scholars” sought to promote Galilee as a particularly poor and downcast region in order to promote an idea of Jesus as a social revolutionary in some sort of massively poor area. It should be noted that the Bible itself does point out that Galilee held a great deal of poor people, but it also demonstrates evidence of trade routes and communication and a fair amount of wealth through land ownership as well as business.
How do we know this? For one, Jesus’ own ministry and His own statement indicate a wide deal of knowledge about the wider world. Jesus’ disciples included four fisherman who worked together in a profitable venture, and the Apostle John appears to have been known to the high priest, possibly because of a concession held for fish provided to the temple from the Sea of Galilee. Matthew was a tax collector, certainly someone who, however hated tax collectors were by Jews, was a member of the professional class. Jesus interacted uniformly positively with centurions , who themselves were people of considerable importance in the Roman military structure of the area. Jesus’ parables, moreover, are full of a knowledge of issues of government and business and landowning, and Jesus was not afraid to view interest or shrewd stewards or tax collectors or generous landowners or reasonably well-off Samaritans in a positive fashion. Given that Jesus Christ did not have the prejudices of His own time against outsiders, we should not expect Him to have the fashionable prejudices of our own time against capitalists and those who have earned or inherited wealth through no ungodly means.
All too often, what we say about the past reveals far more about ourselves than it does about the past that we are writing about. This does not necessarily involve the wrong sort of hidden agendas, although when it comes to portraying Jesus Christ in an overly anarchic and subversive fashion, ulterior motives are often at play. Even those who engage in sound historiography, though, and search the relevant textual and material data in search of historical truth about past places and times, though, reveal much about themselves in such a search. What is revealed is a serious attempt to, as much as is possible, come to a true understanding of the past from the relevant and available research, and to let that understanding shape our interpretations. Far too often, though, this sort of responsible perspective is entirely lacking as people demonstrate their falling into confirmation bias by only looking for that which supports their own preconceived biased notions and their own idea of Jesus Christ.
After all, even if our understanding of the past is imperfect, there are many things we can do to understand the past better. We can take advantage of texts from the past, as we have evidence of biblical conditions from the Bible, from the writings of such luminaries as Philo and Josephus, and even from some Greek and Roman writers whose travels took them to Judea and Galilee and who had no reason to exaggerate or downplay the conditions there. The material conditions we have awareness of in Galilee is no less remarkable. There are well-researched ruins in such places as Tiberias, Capernaum, Magdala, and numerous other cities in Galilee, as well as some of the Gentile cities of the Decapolis region. These material remains demonstrate that the first century AD was a time of urban construction of a considerable scale, at least in the time before the Jewish revolts. If there was a great deal of political tension in Judea and Galilee during this time, as well as occasional famines recorded in scripture, it was not a time of complete and total destitution. If Galilee was made fun of for being a bit of a cultural backwater, it appears to be closer to Myrtle Beach or the Redneck Riviera of the Gulf Coast than it does to the conditions of Dust Bowl Oklahoma or Depression-era Appalachia. It is certainly possible to look down upon people as being culturally unsophisticated even if they have a decent living overall–certainly we see that in our own nations.
There is a great deal of irony in this. Part of the irony is that the people who so stubbornly misrepresent the state of Galilee during biblical times do the same when it comes to those areas that most closely resemble Galilee in our own contemporary age. Galilee’s peripheral status in the Jewish realm was not too unlike that of the American South in our own age, an area that is looked down on by those who are cultured and sophisticated urban elites (like those who ruled as part of the Jerusalem clique). Yet simply because an area is a cultural periphery does not mean that place is destitute and filled with teeming masses willing to follow any populist or revolutionary leader who can provide food for them and direct their grievances against corrupt authorities. The lower cost of living and lower tax burden of many Southern states makes their standard of living far less dire than the usual impression of those who dwell in the left and right coasts and look down on those regions, and the same was likely true of first century Galilee as well, where Jesus and his stepfather were skilled craftsmen and where there was a reasonably robust economy to be found. How much contemporary scholars are aware of the irony is not very clear, however.
 See, for example: