Galilee – Capernaum

Sometime after his wilderness experience, Matthew tells us that the Savior “departed into Galilee” (Matt. 4:12).  The first part of the Savior’s public ministry was in Galilee.  During New Testament times, Palestine was divided into five provincial or semi-provincial areas under Roman control.  From north to south these areas were named Galilee, Samaria, Perea, Judea, and Idumea.  The population of Judea was predominately Jewish while the other areas, including Galilee, were of mixed ethnic populations.  Yet, even in these areas, the majority of the population was Jewish.

Galilee is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, the Jordan River and Sea of Galilee to the east, the Jezreel Valley (Valley of Armageddon) to the South, and Phoenicia to the north.  Topographically, the Galilean landscape is dominated by hills and mountains occasionally interlaced by fertile valleys.  This area has the highest annual rainfall of the five areas—40 inches (1,000 mm) per year.  In some mountain areas the temperature drops below freezing for some periods during the winter, and generally these areas get some snow nearly every year. 

At the time of Christ, the Galilean hills were littered with villages, mainly of Jewish population.[xvi]  Besides the villages, there were three major cities in the Galilee: Ptolemais, Sepphoris, and Tiberius.  Ptolemais (modern Acco) was located on the Mediterranean and had a very ancient history.  Sepphoris, which was located in the hill country in the southern part of Galilee was of more recent origin.  It was destroyed in the days of Herod the Great.  But when Christ was a young boy living in Nazareth, Herod Antipas, who inherited the Galilee after his father, Herod the Great, had died, rebuilt Sepphoris, making it his capital.  He brought carpenters, craftsmen, and artisans from all over to build the city making it “the ornament of Galilee.”  Sepphoris was located only 4 miles northwest of Nazareth and was probably where Joseph worked as a carpenter.  However, tiring of the winters, Herod Antipas built another city on the southwestern shores of the Sea of Galilee, a region of Galilee with a more moderate climate.  He located that city and named it Tiberius, after the Roman emperor.

Though forming the eastern border of Galilee, the Sea of Galilee is of a far more moderate climate than the rest of Galilee because its elevation is 700 feet (214 meters) below sea level.  The Sea of Galilee is located in a rift that extends from Lebanon to central Africa.  Much of the northern end of this rift is below sea level including the Dead Sea, the surface of which is 1300 feet (400 meters) below sea level.

The Sea of Galilee is really a lake some 14 miles (22 Kil.) long by 7 miles (11 Kil.) wide.  It is called by several names.  Its Old Testament name is “Chinnereth” (the Hebrew word for lyre–since it has the shape of an ancient lyre).  Sometimes it is called the “lake of Gennesaret” (e.g., Luke 5:1), after the plain of Gennesaret which lay on its middle western shore.  Sometimes it is called “the sea of Tiberias” (e.g., John 6:1) since Tiberias was the major port on the lake.

When the Savior began his public ministry, the Sea of Galilee was surrounded by several villages and a few cities, many with ports on the shores of the lake.[xvii]  As noted, the most important harbor was Tiberias, on the southwestern shore of the lake.  Two of the cities of the Decapolis[xviii], which borded the Sea of Galilee on the southeast side, had ports on eastern and southern side of the lake: Hippos and Gadara.  Most important to the New Testament were the fishing villages of the northern half of the lake: Magdala, Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Gergesa.  Three of the Savior’s apostles–Peter, Andrew and Philip–were born in Bethsaida. (John 1:44).  Mary Magdalene (i.e., Mary of Magdala) came from Magdala.  And, according to Matthew, towards the beginning of his public ministry, the Savior moved from Nazareth “and dwelt in Capernaum” (Matt. 4:13). 

From Archaeological evidence, it appears that Capernaum was first established some 150 years before the time of Christ.  It was located on a branch of the Via Maris trade route.  Because of its location on the Via Maris and because it was a border town, at the time the Savior lived in Capernaum, a customs post and a Roman garrison commanded by a centurion were stationed within the village.  A synagogue built by a Roman centurion (Luke 7:5) was located in the central part of the village near the harbor.  Along the shoreline of Capernaum ran a 2,500 foot (762 meters) promenade supported by an 8-foot-wide (2 ½ meters) seawall.  Several piers extended from the promenade into the lake. 

From the size of the harbor it can be seen that Capernaum was an important fishing village.  At the time of Christ, fishing was not a free enterprise.  All fishing industry was “controlled by the ruling elites.  The local rulers (kings, tetrarch, prefect) sold fishing rights to brokers (telonai, commonly translated ‘tax collectors’ or ‘publicans’), who in turn contracted with fishers.  The fishers received capitalization along with fishing rights and were therefore indebted to the brokers.  The location of Matthew’s (or Levi’s) toll office in Capernaum–an important fishing locale–probably identifies him as just such a contractor of royal fishing rights.”[xix]

The Savior Begins His Ministry

Having moved to Capernaum, the Savior began his public ministry.  Matthew records: “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17).  Matthew further records that “Jesus went about all Galilee teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people” (Matt. 4:23).   As he did so, “his fame went throughout all” the land and “there followed him great multitudes of people from Galilee, and from Decapolis, and from Jerusalem, and from Judaea, and from beyond Jordan” (Matt. 4:24-25).

Jesus Call’s His First Disciples

 To help in this ministry, the Savior called four disciples, Peter, Andrew his brother, James, and John his brother.  These four men along with Zebedee, the father of James and John, had formed a fishing business.  They would have contracted with the local broker (probably Matthew) for the fishing rights of a portion of the lake. 

Matthew records the following: “And Jesus, walking by the sea of Galilee, saw two brethren, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.   And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.  And they straightway left their nets, and followed him.  And going on from thence, he saw other two brethren, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in a ship with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and he called them.  And they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him” (Matt. 4: 18-22).

The calling of these four men reflects a theme found throughout the gospel of Matthew: the cost of discipleship.  When Peter and Andrew were called, “they straightway left [their] nets, and followed him” (Matt. 4:20).  Likewise, when James and John were called “they immediately left the ship and their father, and followed him” (Matt.


4:22).  For these men, the cost of their discipleship included giving up their occupation and family.  The message of the calling of the disciples is that the cost of discipleship demands that we give up whatever is required by God and whatever holds us back from full dedication to the kingdom.

John 1:35-51

In the gospel or “testimony” (see JST) of John, additional information is given regarding the ministry of John the Baptist.  As the other gospels portray, John had confrontations with the Jewish leaders (John1:19-28).  And as the other gospel portray, John testifies that Jesus came to John to be baptized (John 1:29-34).  Additionally, John reveals that the Baptist was successful in engaging disciples. 

Jesus’ First Disciples

It was the mission of the Baptist to bring men to Christ.  Therefore, John took every occasion to direct his disciples to Jesus.  According to Gospel of John, the day after the Savior was baptized, the Baptist was at the place of baptism with two of his disciples, Andrew and John (John 1:35).[xx]  Sometime after the Baptist and his disciples had gathered, the Savior came to the place of baptism.  When the Baptist saw the Savior, he directed the attention of his disciples towards the Savior by saying: “Behold the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36)  This expression seems to equate Jesus with the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law.  In other words, John was saying that Jesus was the sacrifice that all the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law foreshadowed. 

Immediately, the two disciples focused their attention upon the Savior.  When the Savior left, the two disciples “followed Jesus” (John 1:37).  As the pair followed Jesus, “Jesus turned, and saw them following, and saith unto them, What seek ye?”  The disciples responded, “Rabbi, (which is to say, being interpreted, Master,) where dwellest thou?”  The term Rabbi was what disciples called their teachers at that time.  It seems that the two disciples desired to spend time with the Savior in order to be instructed by Him.  John states: “They came and saw where he dwelt, and abode with him that day: for it was about the tenth hour [4 PM]” (John 1:39).

Of this incident, Elder James E. Talmage wrote: “The spirit of our Lord’s invitation to the young truth seekers, Andrew and John, is manifest in a similar privilege extended to all. The man who would know Christ must come to Him, to see and hear, to feel and know.  Missionaries may carry the good tidings, the message of the gospel, but the response must be an individual one.  Are you in doubt as to what that message means today?  Then come and see for yourself.  Would you know where Christ is to be found? Come and see.”[xxi]

Peter

After this, Andrew sought out his brother, known by Christians as Peter but whose real name was Simon.  John records: “He first findeth his own brother Simon, and saith unto him, We have found the Messias, which is, being interpreted, the Christ” (John 1:41). 

The Hebrew word, messiah, literally means “anointed one.”  The view that comes to mind for a Christian who hears the word, messiah, or its Greek equivalent, christ, is the suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  However, this was not the view held by anyone at the time of Jesus’ ministry.  The word messiah conjured up other things.  In the Old Testament, the word messiah could refer to prophets, kings, and priests, since all were anointed to perform their various duties (e.g., 1 Sam. 16:6; Lev. 4:3; Psalms 105:15).  The general consensus among scholars is that the people viewed the Messiah to be a royal messiah. 

What Andrew conceived the Messiah to be when he uttered to Peter, “We have found the Messias” we can hardly know.  But it seems to be certain that none of the twelve apostles initially had an accurate understanding of the messianic role Jesus of Nazareth came to fulfill.  This is seen in the following story recorded by Matthew.  Sometime after the Savior began his public ministry (perhaps two years later), the Savior gathered the twelve together and asked them, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” (Matt. 16:13)  They replied that the people considered Jesus to be no more than a prophet of God. The Savior asked the twelve, “Whom say ye that I am?”  Peter answered, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:15-16).  The correct answer!  The Savior testified that Peter’s witness of the Savior’s messianic role and divine sonship came by revelation and not through the witness of the miracles he had seen the Savior perform. 

Yet, further reading of this story reveals that though Peter had a testimony that Jesus was the Christ, he did not understand what role the Savior would play as the Messiah.  After Peter bore his testimony of Jesus, Matthew tells us: “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day” (Matt. 16:21).  This is the view Christians have of the messianic role of Jesus.  But apparently, this did not fit the preconceived idea of the messianic role Peter held for “Peter took [Jesus], and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee” (Matt. 16:22).  The Savior severely chastised Peter for this view.  Though later the Savior continued to teach the twelve of his divine mission as the Messiah (see Matt. 20:17-19; 26:2), it appears that the twelve did not fully understand the Savior’s messianic role until after his resurrection.

Though we do not know precisely what Andrew, or any of the twelve initially conceived the messianic role to be, what is sure is that Andrew, like Peter came to know later, knew Jesus was the Messiah.  He led his brother to see Jesus.  When the Savior first gazed upon Peter, he said, “Thou art Simon the son of Jona: thou shalt be called Cephas” (John 1:42).  Cephas is the Aramaic word for “rock.”  The Joseph Smith Translation revises this verse in this way: “And when Jesus beheld him, he said, Thou art Simon, the son of Jona, thou shalt be called Cephas, which is, by interpretation, A seer, or a stone.  And they were fishermen. And they straightway left all, and followed Jesus” (JST John 1:42).  The name, Peter, given to Simon by the Savior was a foreshadowing of his future role as the Prophet and leader of the Church on earth after the resurrection of Christ.

Philip and Nathanael

John records that soon after the Savior engaged Peter, Andrew, and John as disciples, Jesus left the Jordan valley and went to Galilee.  After he arrived in the beautiful hills that surround the sweet water lake, he met and converted another man whom He would make one of his disciples.  His name was Philip.  “Now Philip was of Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter” (John 1:44). 

Philip had a friend named Nathanael whom he wanted to introduce to the Savior.  Leaving the Savior, he found Nathanael sitting under a fig tree.  Fig trees were common throughout ancient Palestine (as they are today).


  With its large, broad leaves, the fig tree provided ample shade to any desiring to get out of the hot Middle Eastern sun.  If Nathanael was doing something more than escaping the heat of direct sunlight is not known.  But what is sure, as our account reveals, is that the Savior had supernatural knowledge of Nathanael’s whereabouts.  

Philip said to Nathanael, “We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”  Hearing the Jesus came from Nazareth, a small, little village of no consequence in the highlands, Nathanael replied: “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?  Philip saith unto him, Come and see” (John 1:43-44).  As Philip and Nathanael approached the Lord, Jesus said of Nathanael: “Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!”  Confused, Nathanel responded, “Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.”  Nathanael was surprised, then impressed!  It was apparent to him that Jesus was no ordinary man.  All doubts as to whom Jesus was vanished in light of the extraordinary gift exhibited by the Savior.  He exclaimed, “Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel.”  Because of his immediate but sincere belief, the Savior promised: “Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these.  And he saith unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Hereafter ye shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man”(John 1:46-51). 

Although the Savior was directly addressing Nathanael, in both the English and Greek text, the original language of the New Testament, the “ye” of verse 51 is plural, meaning that what he was saying to Nathanael was meant for all the twelve (and perhaps by extension to all those who believe on Jesus Christ).  The imagery of angels ascending and descending comes from the dream of the ladder given to Jacob (see Gen. 28:12).  But was not a ladder that twelve would see angels ascending and descending upon but the Savior himself.  Through these promised future spiritual experiences, the twelve would come to understand the true messianic role of Jesus of Nazareth.  They would learn that He is the true mediator between heaven and earth.  He is the true path that leads to eternal life.  Indeed, the twelve would come to understand that the messianic role of Jesus is to save all who would believe on His name from sin and bring them back into the presence of God, the Father.

Endnotes


[i]  Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah (The Messiah Series, vols. 2?5. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979?1982), 1:1.

[ii]  Harold B. Lee, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee (Salt Lake City: The Church of the Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000), p. 196.

[iii]  Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Joseph Fielding Smith [Ed.] Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1938), p. 162.

[iv]  Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses (George D. Watt [Ed.], 26 vols. Liverpool: F. D. Richards, et al., 1854-1886), 7:265.

[v]  Marion G. Romney, Conference Report, Apr. 1977, p. 61; or Ensign, May 1977, p. 44.

[vi]  Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writings of Joseph Fielding Smith (3 Vols., Bruce R. McConkie [Ed.], Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954-56), 2:328.

[vii]  Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith,  p. 335.

[viii]  Gerhard Kittle (Ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (10 Vols.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 4:976.

[ix]  Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 336.

[x]  Bruce R McConkie, A New Witness for the Articles of Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), p. 347.

[xi]  “Election,” in LDS Bible Dictionary, p. 662-663.

[xii]  Kittle, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 2:192,198.

[xiii]  Neal A. Maxwell, Lord, Increase Our Faith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1994), p. 74.

[xiv]  Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 308. 

[xv]  Joseph Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W Cook (Eds), Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Company), pp. 119-120.

[xvi]  For a concise history and societal treatise concerning Galilee, see Richard A. Horsley, Archaeology, History, and Society in Galilee: The Social Context of Jesus and the Rabbis (Valley Forge, PN: Trinity Press, 1996).

[xvii]  See Mendel Nun, “Ports of Galilee: Modern Drought Reveals Harbors from Jesus’ Time,” Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 1999, Vol. 25, No. 4), pp. 18-31, 64.

[xviii]  The Decapolis (Gr. for ‘ten cities’) was a region of ten Hellenistic cities that were unified only by their Hellenistic character.  They have often been portrayed as a league of independent cities.  But there is no ancient documentation that demonstrates this.  Hippos and Gadara were to nothern most cities of the Decapolis and were located on the souther-eastern region of the Sea of Galilee.

[xix]  K. C. Hanson & Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 106.

[xx]  Andrew is the only one of the two specifically named (vs. 40).  But from earliest times, it has been generally conceded that John, the author of the gospel, is the other disciple.

[xxi]  James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (15th ed., rev. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter?-day Saints, 1977), p. 151.