Galilee: History, Politics, People

By Richard A. Horseley
Valley Forge, PA : Trinity Press International (1995). viii + 357 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
11.1 (Spring 2000) : 127-128

The author, professor of Religion and Classics at the University of Massachusetts, has produced a work of significant research dealing with the sociopolitical and economic forces at work in the region of Galilee during the NT era. The work seeks to fill a void the author detects in studies of the region. He states, “Renewed pursuit of the historical Jesus, critical studies of rabbinic literature, and intensified archaeological explorations have led to revived interest in Galilee” (1), and “Previous understandings of Galilee were ill-prepared for this sudden revival of interest and information”(ibid.).

However, the reader who has any regard for the Bible at all will be significantly disappointed in both the methodology and results of the author’s efforts. The author takes an extreme “minimalist” view of Scripture in relation to historical data. He introduces his historical methodology by informing the reader, “I will generally avoid using the Gospels as sources for life in Galilee. The use of synoptic or Johannine Gospel traditions as historical source for Galilee is just as problematic for using them as sources for the historical Jesus” (14). He also flies in the face of an enormous corpus of even secular literature when he states, “Luke [the gospel of], of course seems the least trustworthy; he often writes patterns from elsewhere in the Hellenistic-Roman world into the scenes set in Galilee” (ibid.), or to put it plainly, he feels that Luke simply creates episodes and places them into Galilee settings for “effect.” Whereas he gives almost no credibility to Scriptural accounts, he views rabbinic literature as very important, and details an amazing list of its benefits in his study (14-15).

Though the author presents a great deal of material in a clearly well-researched and well-documented work, his goal seems to be more often than not to discredit every conclusion about Galilee that previous scholars had reached. His chief target is Sean Freyne and his classic work Galilee, from Alexander the Great to Hadrian, 323 B.C.E. to 135 C.E.: a study of Second Temple Judaism (Univ. of Notre Dame, 1980). Citing Freyne’s work more than two dozen times, the author always disagrees with him, often in a disparaging manner (e.g., 294 n.; 300 n.). Also he is critical of the archaeological work of Eric and Carol Meyers and James F. Strange, especially their Excavations at Ancient Meiron, Upper Galilee, Israel: 1971-72, 1974-75, 1977 (Cambridge, Mass.: ASOR, 1981), cautioning his readers to use their work with a “critical eye” (296 n.). However, he deals with these authors only briefly in the endnotes, never directly in the text of the work. He never gives their work or conclusions a hearing or presents it in what could be described as an even-handed manner. Even the groundbreaking works of Yohanan Aharoni (e.g., Galilean Survey: Israelite Settlements and the Pottery and The Settlement of the Israelite Tribes in Upper Galilee) receive no mention.

This work, though scholarly, is too often a set of assertions by the author on one hand and the “out of hand” dismissals of positions contrary to his own with little if any interaction (e.g., his rejection of the historicity of the account of Yohanan ben Zakkai and Jamnia council in Galilee, 94-99). It is a thoroughly disappointing production that has little to commend it. The reader is well advised to continue referring to Sean Freyne for Galilee studies.