Were there Pharisees in Galilee?

Yes, the most important Pharisee in the history of Rabbinic Judaism lived 15 miles due west of the Sea of Galilee during Jesus’ last days alive. This Pharisee was probably the chief witness against Jesus at his real trial. Jesus was charged with sexual transgression. He was one of the four defendants in Luke 17:34-35 (KJV, Darby).

Pharisees are featured characters in the canonical gospels. According to the gospels, Pharisees pursue Jesus relentlessly, trying to trap him at every turn. There are many valid and consequential reasons for resisting the anti-Jewish tone of the gospels, especially of John. Some people insist that there were virtually no Pharisees operating in Galilee (vis-a-vis Vridar). Issues like these will never be resolved for all audiences with a broad brush. Nor will issues of historical accuracy be resolved if an investigator approaches them using only one source. Historical investigation can only limp along fruitlessly if investigators insist on using one source, or insist on neglecting a particular source. A realistic image of events in the past requires as many perspectives as possible. By using evidence from two classical sources, the older and relatively undamaged gospel portions and seemingly incidental facts in the Jewish Mishnah, we can get a stereoscopic picture, not of Pharisees in Galilee generally, but rather the presence of one specific Pharisee, one of the most influential and controversial Pharisees in all Jewish history.

We will begin by focusing on one gospel Pharisee — he appears in Luke. On two separate occasions Jesus reportedly dined in the home of a Pharisee, once in Luke 7:36-50 and again in Luke 14:1-14. In chapter 7 the host is named as “Simon the Pharisee”, and this chapter contains Luke’s version of the woman anointing Jesus with expensive perfume. (Each of the four gospel versions of the woman and Jesus is radically different from the others) In the Lukan version it is the woman who is nameless. Later in Luke, in chapter 14, it is the Pharisee who is nameless. He is simply described as a “leading”, “well known”, or “prominent” Pharisee.

This is significant because, at that historical moment, the most “well-known” and “prominent” Pharisee in first-century Palestine was Yoḥanan b. Zakkai. Just before Rome invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple, R. Yoḥanan escaped Jerusalem and retreated to the safety of Yavneh, on the south coast. During the Jewish civil war, Yavneh was Rome’s safe-haven for the Jewish upper classes, everyone with Roman loyalties. Yoḥanan b. Zakkai was the Pharisee in charge in those tumultuous years, at the beginning of the transition from a territorial government to a landless religion. Though not usually described this way, Yavneh was home to the Jewish government-in-exile, a sanctuary for upper class pro-Roman Herodians, priests, scribes and Pharisees.  

‘Arav in Galilee

Figure 1 ‘Arav

F.Y.I.

‘Arav is located about half way between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean, at 32°51′2″N 35°20′20″E.  Bethsaida, at the north end of the Sea of Galilee, is located at 32°54′36″N 35°37′50″E. The straight-line distance between ‘Arav and Bethsaida is 28.023 km (17.413 miles). For many years scholars debated the exact location of Bethsaida. For historical purposes, however, no matter which archaeological site is preferred by the reader, travel time between ‘Arav and Bethsaida is the same for the one-to-three day trip.

We know from the Mishnah that the first 18 years of Yoḥanan b. Zakkai’s career were spent in the Galilean city of ‘Arav [Shabbat 16.7; Jerusalem TalmudShabbat 16:8 (81b)]. Today the ‘Arav of antiquity is known by several names, including Arraba and ‘Arrabat al-Battuf.

Scholars agree on the approximate years of R. Yoḥanan as 1-80 CE.  If he began working in ‘Arav between the age of 18 and 25, then his 18-year tenure there could have lasted from 18 to 36 CE, or from 22 to 40 CE. That period of overlap places R. Yoḥanan in ‘Arav between 22 and 36 CE, setled and active in Galilee during the traditional years of activity of the historical Jesus, and only 17.4 miles from Bethsaida.

One of Yoḥanan b. Zakkai’s most famous sayings is from his time in ‘Arav. He said, “O Galilee, Galilee! You hate Torah!” (Palestinian Talmud, Shabbat 16.8). From the vehemence of the denunciation, it may have originated in a heated situation. The details of that situation are not readily evident. The denunciation is nevertheless reminiscent of another heated condemnation, this one preserved in the gospel of Luke. A voice says, “It will be better off for Sodom in the judgment than for that city! Woe unto you, Chorazin! Woe unto you, Bethsaida!” (Luke 10:12-13) Thus we have two vehement exclamations, one a denunciation of Galilee itself, and one a denunciation of two cities within Galilee. The four overlaps here (the region, the early date of the pericopes, the figures involved, and the tone of the denunciations) indicates that these denunciations could easily have resulted from the same explosive conflict.

Regarding the presence of Pharisees in Galilee, the Jewish Mishnah (early Talmud) says that Yoḥanan b. Zakkai lived in ‘Arav (about 15 miles due west of the Sea of Galilee). Bethsaida is the location of the first appearance of Jesus in John chapter 1. “Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.” (John 1:44) This initial meeting included, as written, five men: Andrew, Simon-Peter, Philip, Nathaniel, and Jesus.  

Based on the New Testament and Mishnah references above (all of which are now easily accessible for verification on the internet) it seems highly likely that Pharisees were present in Galilee during the time of the historical Jesus, and that one of these Pharisees, well-known and critically influential, was Yoḥanan b. Zakkai.

One of Yoḥanan b. Zakkai’s most famous sayings is from his time in ‘Arav. He
said, “O Galilee, Galilee! You hate Torah!” (Palestinian Talmud, Shabbat
16.8). From the vehemence of the denunciation, it may have originated in a
heated situation. The details of that situation are not readily evident. The
denunciation is nevertheless reminiscent of another heated condemnation, this
one preserved in the gospel of Luke. A voice says, “It will be better off for
Sodom in the judgment than for that city! Woe unto you, Chorazin! Woe unto you,
Bethsaida!” (Luke 10:12-13) Thus we have two vehement exclamations, one a
denunciation of Galilee itself, and one a denunciation of two cities within
Galilee. The four overlaps here (the region, the early date of the pericopes,
the figures involved, and the tone of the denunciations) indicates that these
denunciations could easily have resulted from the same explosive conflict.

Regarding the presence of Pharisees in Galilee, the Jewish Mishnah (early
Talmud) says that Yoḥanan b. Zakkai lived in ‘Arav (about 15 miles due west of
the Sea of Galilee). Bethsaida is the location of the first appearance of Jesus
in John chapter 1. “Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.”
(John 1:44) This initial meeting included, as written, five men: Andrew,
Simon-Peter, Philip, Nathaniel, and Jesus.  

Based on the New Testament and Mishnah references above (all of which are
now easily accessible for verification on the internet) it seems highly likely
that Pharisees were present in Galilee during the time of the historical Jesus,
and that one of these Pharisees, well-known and critically influential, was
Yoḥanan b. Zakkai.

Another historical figure from these decades was a territorial governor
called Philip the Tetrarch. Philip’s jurisdiction was the northeastern quadrant
of his father’s kingdom. Philip’s territory included much of present-day Syria
and the Golan Heights. What is important here is the extreme southwest corner
of his tetrarchy. In dividing up the territory of Herod the Great, the Romans were
careful to give Philip access to the Sea of Galilee. The fishing village of
Bethsaida was under Philip. His western border was the Jordan River, which
flows into the north end of the lake. So while Philip’s half-brother Antipas
was given the title Tetrarch of Galilee, Antipas did not govern the
entire Sea of Galilee, only the western shoreline. The village of Bethsaida
belonged to Philip.

It is popular today to dismiss the gospel of John as a very late
compositiom. But if we can ignore that popular opinion, and accept the
historicity of John 143-44, then Jesus was present in or near Bethsaida in 30
CE.

Philip ruled his tetrarchy from 4 BCE until his death 34 CE. R. Yohanan b.
Zakkai was staioned in ‘Arav between 22 and 34 CE. And Jesus was in or near Bethsaida
in 30 CE.

Something noteworthy happened to Bethsaida in 30 CE. Philip the Tetrarch
elevated Bethsaida to an official Roman polis that same year, and renamed it
Julias. Scholars often refer to it as Bethsaida-Julias. Thus, as of 30 CE,
Bethsaida-Julias would essentially be Roman territory. Roman law, not Torah,
would officially rule. Freeborn individuals would be citizens of Rome, the kind
of situation which benefited “Saul” of Tarsus (another official Roman
city).

NOTE: If your approach to historical research requires you to ignore any historical sources that are problematical, religious, or contain bias, then I invite you to disregard this post.

DISCLAIMER: I am neither a believer nor a theist. I pursued this investigation as a duly skeptical, analytical and unaffiliated historian.

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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