The drive from the airport to Tiberias is about two hours. Israel and the occupied territories are about the size of New Jersey, so our trips to different sites will not be too long.
This is the land of Jesus and we’re going first to where he was raised and began his mission: Galilee. In the scriptures he’s called a Galilean, from Nazareth. Our hotel is in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, where we will be staying for four days. It’s not too far from Nazareth and Capernaum and other Galilean towns mentioned in the New Testament.
On a map of 1st century Palestine you can see where these places were.
Our official guide will tell us a great deal about Tiberias and the surrounding area, but let me say something about the city where we will be staying. Today it’s a Jewish city of modern resorts, hotels and spas, but it’s also one of Judaism’s holy cities. Let’s look at it at the time of Jesus.
It was built by Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, around the year 20 AD. He made the city his capital and named it after his patron, the Roman Emperor Tiberius.
Herod Antipas (4 BC-39 AD) is mentioned a number of times in the New Testament. Jesus called him “that Fox.” He ordered John the Baptist beheaded and later wondered if Jesus might be John come back from the dead.
Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to Herod before sentencing him to death, but Jesus didn’t say a word to him. One other interesting connection to Herod: Johanna, wife of Herod’s steward Cusa, was a follower of Jesus who stood with Mary and the other women at his cross.
Like his father, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas loved to build, and his splendid Greco-Roman city of Tiberias arose from 20 and 27 AD, while Jesus lived in Nazareth. It had a Roman gate, stadium, spacious squares with marble statues, a grand palace with a golden roof and a large synagogue. To pay for it, Herod relied on his tax-collectors in the cities and towns in his district–places like Capernaum and Nazareth– to squeeze the fishermen and farmers for whatever they could get.
The ruins of Herod’s city lie south of the present city of Tiberias.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple by the Romans in 70 AD, pharisees and scribes from the city flocked to Tiberias and made it a base for reconstituting Judaism. Instead of the temple, they made the synagogue the center of Jewish life and worship. Tiberias itself became the site of over 12 synagogues and an important place for Jewish learning. A rabbinic school established in the city eventually produced the Palestinian Talmud, a written collection of rabbinic teachings on Jewish laws and traditions, around the beginning of the 4th century. Jewish historians describe the early centuries after the destruction of Jerusalem as the Time of Talmudic Judaism.
The Gospel of Matthew
Some scholars say the Gospel of Matthew, the most contentious and polemical of the gospels, may have been written near Tiberias around the year 90 AD. (Other places they suggest are Antioch in Syria and Sepphoris, not too far from Nazareth) The gospel certainly reflects the struggles between the Jewish authorities in Tiberias and the Jewish Christians of Galilee over the future of Judaism. The sharp critique of the scribes and pharisees in the 23rd chapter of Matthew is an example of the contentious spirit that must have existed on both sides.
It would be good to keep Matthew’s gospel in hand as we travel around Galilee.
Peter’s confession at Caesaria Philippi that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the Living God”, the highpoint of the Matthew’s gospel, makes a claim that the Jewish authorities from Tiberias would fiercely dispute. After all, Jesus came from nearby, inconspicuous Nazareth where his own neighbors rejected him. Did he really rise from the dead? Rumors were that his disciples stole his body from the tomb. Perhaps he resembled Elijah, or John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, but he could be a false prophet too.
The Jewish authorities would also question the credentials of the chief followers of Jesus– uneducated fishermen and unpopular tax-collectors. Could they be authentic teachers in Israel?
Modern scriptural studies point out the real life situations that influenced the creation of our gospels. They didn’t drop down from heaven, they came from people struggling over the questions Jesus asked Peter: “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” They were written to answer his critics then, and we hear these old disputes even now.
For example, Matthew’s gospel speaks to questions about the origins of Jesus, born of a virgin and conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. Matthew’s Jesus speaks to the crowds from a mountain, like Moses, not in a synagogue like the Pharisees. The gospel is filled with Old Testament references backing up his claims. Matthew’s gospel challenges the story that after his resurrection his body was stolen by his own disciples. Matthew takes on the task to disprove that story.
Finally, Peter, the fisherman, and Matthew, the tax-collector are star witnesses of Matthew’s gospel. “Flesh and blood” hasn’t revealed this to them, but the Father in heaven.
Did the Christians Lose?
I think the followers of Jesus lost the battle with the new Jewish establishment in Galilee at the end of the 1st century, and many moved on to other places. Only some remained in Galilee. The final words of Jesus to his eleven disciples in Matthew’s gospel seem to indicate a call to other places.
“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Mt 28, 16-20
Fourth Century Christian Expansion
The Christian presence in the Holy Land increased when Constantine gained control of the Roman empire in the 4th century and favored the Christian Church. As Christians came to the Holy Land and built churches and shrines over the places where tradition said Jesus lived and ministered, Galilee remained a Jewish stronghold.
When Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the 7th century, Christians and Jews alike came under their rule. Because of harsh Muslim rule under the Seljuk Turks and their destruction of the great Christian shrine of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in the 11th century, Crusaders from Europe invaded Palestine and re-established a Christian presence again. Evidence of Crusader churches and fortresses can be seen today.
Muslims, Jews and Christians
Muslims regained control of the Holy Land in the 13th century and remained in power till the 20th century. Under Ottoman rule, Jews were treated more favorably than Christians, but as the fortunes of the Ottoman Empire declined so did the economy of Palestine. By the 19th century , Jewish and Christian and Muslims saw a land that was poor and neglected.
As the nation states formed in Europe in the 17th century, persecutions of the Jews increased and Jewish aspirations to return to their ancestral lands strengthened. By the 19th century Jews from Russia and Poland were settling again in parts of Palestine, in Jerusalem as well as in Galilee. After the holocaust, the Jewish population dramatically increased.
The Christian presence today is small and increasingly limited to shrines at Christian holy places, sustained especially by religious like the Franciscans.
Tiberias Then and Now
An English visitor to Tiberias towards the end of the 19th century offers an interesting glimpse of this Jewish city at the time:
“The Jews are very numerous in Tiberias, it and Safed being, after Jerusalem and Hebron, the two holiest towns; for the Messiah is one day, they believe, to rise from the waters of the lake and land at Tiberias, and Safed is to be the seat of his throne.
“Prayer must be repeated at Tiberias at least twice a week, to keep the world from being destroyed. The worship in the synagogue seems to be in some respects peculiar, since the congregation seek to intensify different parts of the service by mimetic enforcement of its words. Thus, when the Rabbi recites the passage, “Praise the Lord with the sound of the trumpet,” they imitate the sound of the trumpet through their closed fists; when a tempest is mentioned , they puff and blow to represent a storm; and when the cries of the righteous in distress are spoken of in the Lesson, they all set up a loud screaming.
“The Israelites of Tiberias are chiefly from Russian Poland, and do not speak German. Poor, thin, and filthy, they are certainly far from attractive; but the women are neatly dressed, many of them in white and look much better than the men. “ Cunningham Geikie, The Holy Land and the Bible,Vol 2, New York, 1890 p 543
Tiberias today little resembles the city the visitor describes then.