New Testament in Context
Galilean Village Life in the Time of Jesus Christ
Knowing about first-century village life where Jesus lived can help us better understand His teachings and draws us closer to Him.
The New Testament Gospels record that Jesus spent most of His life and ministry among the Jewish villages near the Sea of Galilee, a freshwater lake north of Judea surrounded by low hills and agricultural plains.1
Not only did this region provide the physical, cultural, and religious settings of Jesus’s childhood years, but it was also where He called His earliest disciples, performed many of His miracles, and began to proclaim the “good news” of the kingdom.2
Knowing about first-century village life in the region can help us better understand His teachings and bring gospel stories to life in a way that draws us closer to Him.
Scriptures, historical sources, and archaeological excavations near the Sea of Galilee indicate that, although this area was once inhabited by some of the northern tribes of Israel,3 the Galilean villages of Jesus’s day—such as Nazareth, Cana, Nain, Capernaum, Chorazin, and others—were settled during the first two centuries BC, when Judean families migrated northward as part of the expanding Hasmonean kingdom.
By the time of the New Testament, the population of these villages ranged from a few hundred to a few thousand inhabitants, most of whom engaged in the types of farming, fishing, and trade activities to which Jesus often alluded in His parables and sermons.4
Daily life in Galilean villages was relatively modest, especially in comparison to the larger cities of the region (such as Jerusalem) with their Roman-style urban layout, construction technology, and amenities.
For example, Galilean villages typically had no centralized planning, paved roads or plazas, monumental architecture, or running water facilities. Instead, they mostly consisted of small groups of homes with simple living rooms clustered around a shared courtyard (allowing for little personal space). They were made of stacked fieldstones bound with mortar and had thatched roofs covered with a layer of plaster.5 And they housed extended families who worked together in their farming, fishing, craft, or food preparation activities.6
As homes expanded to accommodate growing needs, packed-dirt paths and alleyways naturally developed, which made living conditions dusty in the hot summers and muddy in the rainy winter season.
Because taxes in this period were high and most families lived only slightly above subsistence levels, homes in Galilean villages displayed no internal decor, had limited furnishings, and contained no luxury items.
Family members typically prepared meals using grinding stones and ovens; sat and slept on reed mats covering the home’s packed-dirt floors; and dined out of cooking pots and shared dishes by dipping bread into soups or thin stews.
Typical meals also would have included local wine, olive oil, legumes (lentils, beans, and chickpeas), fruits (grapes, olives, figs, and dates), vegetables (onions, leeks, and cabbages), fish, and dairy products (goat cheese, butter, and milk).
With no running water or bathing facilities in these settlements, hygiene among Galilean villagers would have been significantly lower than modern standards.
In addition to the region’s physical environment, villages in first-century Galilee were mostly inhabited by religiously observant Jewish families.
They spoke Aramaic (perhaps blended with occasional Hebrew words and phrases), celebrated holy days such as the Sabbath (which was welcomed in with the lighting of small oil lamps) and kept kosher dietary laws as prescribed in the Torah,7 offered Jewish prayers such as the Shema,8 maintained varying levels of ritual purity,9 gathered in modest synagogue settings,10 and orally passed down scriptural stories and teachings.
Most villagers could not afford to wear long robes or multiple layers of clothing but instead wore the common clothing of Roman Palestine: a simple knee-length, sleeveless tunic cinched at the waist with a belt, leather sandals, and a mantle draped around the shoulders for extra warmth during the winter season.
In addition, Jewish men would have worn sacred fringes on the corners of their mantles (with no evidence for religious head coverings in this period), and married women would have worn their hair pulled up in a small net.11
These and other aspects of Jewish daily life in first-century Galilee offer a valuable glimpse into the world in which Jesus lived, and keeping them in mind as we read the gospel accounts can greatly illuminate our understanding of his mortal ministry, messages, and calls to discipleship.