The "Holy Land" where Jesus lived his life refers to modern-day Israel, the Palestinian Territories and, by some definitions, areas close to them. This part of the world is of great religious importance for Christianity, Judaism and Islam. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, September 30, 2013]

Jesus was born just around the time Herod the Great, who ruled Jerusalem and much what is now Israel, died.Paula Fredriksen of Boston University told PBS: “Herod ruled from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. Quite a long and impressive reign from just the political perspective. But, at his death, his kingdom, which was the largest extent for the Jewish state since the time, really, of David and Solomon, was subdivided among three of his sons. One son, Herod Antipas, took the northern territories of the Galilee and those on the east side of the Jordan River. Another son, Phillip, took the areas to the east of the Sea of Galilee ... the area now thought of as the Golan Heights, and a good stretch of territory over in that direction. The third son, Archelaeus, took the major portion, and in fact the most important cities... Now this region, which we would probably call Judea, was really the most important of the three sub-divisions. But Archelaeus, in contrast to his two half-brothers, didn't fare as well as his father. And within ten years, he was removed by the Roman overlords, and replaced with military governors ... what we usually refer to as Procurators, or Prefects, posted there by the Roman administration to oversee the political activities of the state. [Source: “Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 \=/]

Michael Symmons Roberts wrote for the BBC: The landscape of the Christian story is full of hills and mountains: Mount Tabor is where Jesus is said to have been transfigured - lit up with heavenly radiance - in front of his disciples; the Mount of Olives was the setting for Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and the reported site of his ascension; and Gethsemane was the place of his betrayal, which set the course for his dramatic final days on earth. Add to this list the location for the Sermon on the Mount, and the high mountain on which we are told Jesus endured one of his temptations by Satan, and a clear pattern can be seen. [Source: Michael Symmons Roberts, BBC, September 18, 2009 |::|]

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity ; Religious Tolerance ; History of Christianity ; BBC on Christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Early Christian Writing ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins ; Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Early Christian Art ; Early Christian Images ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images ;

Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ ; Jesus Central ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ ;

Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Bible History Online ; Biblical Archaeology Society ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL)

Galilee and Northwest Israel

Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee)

Galilee and Northwest Israel encompasses Galilee, the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. It is much greener here than in southern Israel and is known for it rich agricultural land, green countryside, forests, kibbutzim, archeological sites and places associated with Jesus. Mountains in the region collect rain water and provide nourishment for trees and crops. A large number of Israeli Arabs live in northern Israel.

Sea of Galilee Sights include Nain, where Jesus raised a widow's son from the dead; Tagba, which has a mosaic and two churches—one Greek Orthodox and one Roman Catholic—commemorating the "Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish;" the remarkably intact Roman baths of Hamat Gader, which is also home to an alligator farm and a large ostrich farm.

Magdala is the traditional the home of Mary Magdalene. Here birthplace is marked by a small white-domed shrine located below the hundred foot cliffs of Mount Arbel. Beit Alpha boasts an ancient synagogue with a splendid 6th century mosaic floor and nearby is an equally striking Roman amphitheater. Meron is where the 2nd century rabbi Simeon bar Yohai is believed to be entombed.

Mount of Beatitudes (near Capernaum, overlooking the Sea of Galilee) is a hill that forms a natural amphitheater that overlooks the Sea of Galilee. This is where it is said Christ gave the Sermon on the Mount speech: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven..." The ruins of a Byzantine Church marks the spot where Jesus is believed to have preached. An underground crypt identifies the place where Christ performed the miracle of the Swine Herd. A huge Mass with Pope John Paul II was held here 2000. Over 100,000 people showed up. It was the biggest event in Israel up to that time.


Jesus grew up in Nazareth, a village in the Galilee. Galilee is a lovely region covered by bucolic countryside, hills, mountains, Arab villages, fishing town, farming communities small towns, olive groves, chick pea fields, and kibbutzim. Sometimes called the "Cradle of Christianity," it is where Jesus lived, worked, taught, walked on water and performed other miracles.

Galilee describes both the land and the sea in this area. It also embraces the Golan Heights, which lie on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee and are claimed by Syria. It is also one of Israel's most ethnically diverse area. About a half million Jews and a half million mostly Muslim Arabs live here. Many of the Muslims live in mountainous areas assigned by the United Nations to an Arab state in the 1947 partition for Palestine. There are also large Christians and Druze populations.

When Christ was alive in the area around the Sea of Galilee was primarily desert. Today is Israel's breadbasket. The Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River here supply about 40 percent of Israel’s fresh water. One of the main reasons the place blossoms today is that Israel's pioneering kibbutzniks built irrigation ditches and installed pumps to bring water to a patchwork of farms, citrus fruit orchards and date palm groves. The area where the Sea of Galilee empties into the Jordan Rover is particularly developed .

The atmosphere of some parts of the region has changed little since the time of Christ. In the spring the Gailee Hills bloom with wild flowers. The Valley of Jezral, has been used by invading in Biblical times and over the centuries after that. In other places Galilee has changed a lot. Modern Galilee is a favored vacation spot. Near the place where Christ walked on water, visitors can enjoy a similar experience on waterskis. Not far from where Jesus healed lepers and gave sight to the blind, kids play video games and whiz down water slides. The 17 Sea of Galilee hot springs located around the lake, which were used by Romans, have modern facilities today.

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee (northeast Israel) is the body of water that Jesus famously walked on water. According to the Gospelsit is also where Jesus miraculously calmed a storm and blessed his disciples with boatloads of fish. "Follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus declared to his first disciples, mostly fishermen who lived along the Sea of Galilee.

Known locally as Lake Kinneret and both an outlet and a source for the River Jordan, the modern Sea of Galilee is surrounded by archeological sites and places associated with Jesus and Christianity. A regular ferry service connects the lakes main town Tiberias, with Kibbutz Ein Gev on the opposite side. It is Israel’s main reservoir.

The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake. It is 20 kilometers (13 miles) long, 12 kilometers (seven miles wide) and 210 meters (689 feet) below sea level. Streams from the Golan Heights flow into the Sea of Galilee. Fishermen net mostly carp. Tourists enjoy water sports and hot springs.. A 56 kilometer (35 mile) road encircles the lake. Many people do this as a day trip on a bicycle.

To mark the year 2000 and Jesus’ walk on water, a $4.5 million submerged, crescent-shaped bridge was installed in the Sea of Galilee to allow tourists to walk on water. Bubbles rise up from the edges of the 12-foot-wide platform which can handle 80 tourists at a time.

In 2013, researchers reported the discovery of a massive stone cairn beneath the waters of the Sea of Galilee. Rising 10 meters (32 feet) off the floor of the lake, the structure has a diameter of 70 meters (230 feet), twice the size of the outer circle of Stonehenge. It's estimated to weigh about 60,000 tons, heavier than most modern-day warships. Researchers think it may be more than 4,000 years old, dating to a time when the water levels of the sea were lower and a city called "Bet Yerah" or "Khirbet Kerak" stood a mile to the south of the structure. The purpose of the structure is unknown, but cairns, in some instances, were used to mark burials in the ancient world. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, September 30, 2013]

Galilee in the Time of Jesus

Galilee is often depicted as a quiet, rustic backwater, but in the time of Jesus anyway it was known for political unrest, banditry, and tax revolts. Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University told PBS: “The Galilee, which becomes the true locus for a good deal of Jesus' ministry and which is the heart and soul of Jewish learning from the first and second century onwards..., is one of the most beautiful landscapes of the entire Middle East region. And we can divide it easily because there are only three major trans-Galilean routes that link it east-west and only several roads that go north-south. The great Jordan rift, of course, is the major north-south dividing line, and that goes all the way up to Mount Hermon in the northeastern corner of the land of Israel, and that is the north, the northernmost border of Galilee. The major east-west route that divides upper Galilee from the lower Galilee runs from Haifa/Acco, ancient Ptolemais in this period, over to Capernaum, over by the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. And there is a Roman road there that separates north and south, upper from lower Galilee at the Beth Ha- Kerem Valley, and Josephus is very explicit to tell us about the two Galilees. [Source: Eric Meyers, Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Mosaic with map of the Galilee region where Jesus lived

“The upper Galilee has no cities in it. It's rural, it's remote. It's located in the highest hills of the land of Israel..., a very remote area along the borders and frontiers of modern Lebanon, and high mountains and very, very treacherous terrain, very isolated by reason of topography and the nature of the land itself. Coming down from this first trans-Galilean route, Capernaum, Acco, roughly going across the map, down south you get to the gentle lower hills of lower Galilee. And this is an area that has two cities: Sepphoris and Tiberius, both founded by Herod Antipas. Tiberius he founded anew, the only city founded de novo in the first century. And they become the anchors of the Jewish population of the Galilee, and really a lot of activities that we associate with all the important events of the first century can be located in them.

“One of the most significant differences between the upper Galilee, the more remote area to the extreme north, and the lower Galilee, which borders the Sea of Galilee on the east, and the Mediterranean Ocean on the west, aside from the topography, is that in the north, the people were speaking Aramaic and Hebrew and in the south, both Aramaic and Hebrew but a lot of Greek. In addition, there was a much more lenient attitude towards the second commandment, towards making images and decoration in the south, than in the north. In the north, we get candelabra, minarot, and we get other symbols, but we don't get pictorial symbols as we find them so much in the south. These two Galilees certainly give a picture in miniature of the diversity that we find in Roman period Judaism of that time. Surely the north of Israel was more conservative and lower Galilee less conservative and more open to change, and that is reflected by the road system and all the other traffic that's going on there.”

‘Ali Baba Cave’ Offers Insights into Jesus’s Life And Death

In March 2017, the Israeli Antiquities Authority opened up its vast treasure trove of artifacts, offering fresh insight into the time, if not the life, of Jesus. At a warehouse in the city of Beit Shemesh, a short drive west of Jerusalem, reside many of the estimated 40,000 artifacts dug up in Israel each year, around a third of them related to the Christian presence in the Holy Land, [Source: Jason Le Miere, March 21, 2017 /*/]

Jason Le Miere wrote: “Most intriguingly, what the Antiquities Authority refers to as its “Ali Baba cave” presents clues as to what life was like at the time Jesus Christ is believed to have lived in the Holy Land, around 2,000 years ago. “There's good news,” said Gideon Avni, head of the archaeological division of the Israel Antiquities Authority. “Today we can reconstruct very accurately many, many aspects of the daily life of the time of Christ. We can reconstruct precisely how the country looked.” /*/

“Among the artifacts contained in the warehouse was a limestone burial box that belonged to a descendant of the high priest Caiaphas, who has a notable place in the New Testament for his role in relinquishing Jesus to the Roman authorities who executed him. There is also a clue about the crucifixion itself. A replica of a heel bone pierced by an iron nail with wood fragments on each end was discovered in a burial box in northern Jerusalem, dating to the time of Jesus. /*/

Eugenio Alliata, a professor of Christian archaeology at the Franciscan biblical school in Jerusalem, told The Washington Post that what has been found from the period thus far is in line with biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, even if there has yet to be any direct proof of his existence. “We have not found any evidence of the person of Jesus, but we have found lots of things about what happened at the time he lived, such as the population and the material culture that grew because of him,” Alliata said. Avni has argued that it should not be a surprise that it is hard to pinpoint one man’s existence 2,000 years ago, even if that man was perhaps the most famous ever to have lived. “He was one of more than a million people living here then, an ordinary Jew who had original ideas and attracted some followers,” Avni said. “His fame only really started after his death.” While there is a general consensus of Jesus’ existence among scholars, recent surveys have hinted that belief in the narrative of his life contained in the Bible is on the decline among young people.” /*/

Church of the Nativity and Bethlehem, Birthplace of Jesus

The Church of Nativity (in Bethlehem) is a basilica built over the grotto where it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus. It is not built around an outdoor manger like that displayed in Christmas nativity scenes (mangers were often built in caves as were homes). The church is a Byzantine-style structure with thick fortress-like walls, medieval frescos and mosaics, limestone columns, and a columned bell tower, rebuilt several times.

The main entrance to the basilica, the “Door of Humility," was built in the 13th century and reduced to its present height of four feet high in the Ottoman period. Most people hunch over when they enter it. According to some stories, the door was built the way it was to elicit a respectful bow from all those who enter. Most historians however agree that it was built so small to keep people on camels and horses from entering and desecrating the site.

Michael Finkel wrote in National Geographic, “The Church of the Nativity is almost hidden. It looks like a stone fortress, walls several feet thick, with a facade devoid of ornamentation. Perhaps this is how it has survived 14 centuries. Bethlehem is no place for delicate architecture. A spot at the crossroads of the world...means a perpetual rush hour of invading armies...The entrance reduced in size over the centuries...has shrunk to a miniature hole. You nearly have to fold yourself in half to get through...The interior of the church, cool and dark, is as spare as the outside; four rows of columns in an open nave lead to the main alter. There are no pews, just a collection of cheap folding chairs. But beneath the altar, down a set of worn limestone steps, is a small cave.

Altar in the Grotto of the Nativity The main holy altars lie above the grotto. The altar of Nativity sits on the spot where it is said Jesus was placed after he was born. The altar of the Magi is where it is said the Three Wise Men presented gifts to the newborn Jesus. Between the main altars and the Door of Humility is the Nave. Most of this has survived from the from the 6th century. Some of the 44 pink limestone columns were recovered from the original 4th-century basilica. A stairway below the altar leads to the grotto, written about a 100 years after Christ's time by St. Justin Martyr and described as "the cave in Bethlehem where he was born" in 248 by Origen.

The grotto is reached by a small stairway just a few steps from the main hall of the basilica. A two-foot-wide, 14-point silver star marks the spot where it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth. The grotto itself is lined with marble, save a small section of the rock floor worn smooth by centuries of kisses and caresses. Above the star on a platform are 15 silver lamps each representing a different Christian denomination, whose fires are always left burning. Near the star is a an inscription that reads, “Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born." Many of the pilgrims who come to cave read a passage from the second chapter of Luke: "And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for him in the inn."

History of the Church of Nativity

Church of Nativity

The Church of Nativity is one of the world's oldest working churches. It was built by Saint Helena and her son Constantine the Great in A.D. 325 and remained under Byzantine control after Constantine's death and was rebuilt and reconfigured under Emperor Justinian after it was destroyed during a Samaritan riot in A.D. 529. The basilica that exists today is essentially the one built under Justinian. A few things such as mosaics date back to the 4th century but most of what you see today dates back to the Middle Ages.

After the Holy Land was taken over by Muslims in the 7th century, the Muslim caliph guaranteed the integrity of the church to the Byzantines. It survived the Persian invasion in 614 and an order by the Fatamid caliph in 1000 to destroy all Christian shrines.

The Crusaders took over the church without a fight when Jerusalem was captured from the Muslims in 1099. A force of 100 knights was put in charge of guarding it. They hired artists who decorated the church with their own paintings and mosaics, including a column of saints painted using a rare technique in which pigments are suspended in wax. After that Franciscan monks backed by the Pope took over the church, creating a rivalry that lasted for centuries between them and the Greek Orthodox church (successors of the Byzantines) over control of the church. Looting and damage from earthquakes and fires has taken place. Major renovations were done in the 12th century.

The Church of Nativity has been divided into Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Franciscan) and Armenian sections for several centuries. Each group is very possessive about the parts of the church and objects under its control. Decisions about who takes care of what is based on Ottoman-era Status Quo system which mandates that things be done as they have always been, which basically means if you can prove you have been doing some chore for some time you have the right to keep doing it.

Even so the sects periodically squabble over things like who washes which sacred wall and which sect has the right to use which aisle. It is not uncommon for guards at the church are forced to intervene. In the 1980s, monks battled each other with chains and broomsticks over who had the right to clean a particular section of wall and beams. At one point a ladder was yanked out form under a monk working five meters up cleaning the wall. The matter was cleared through lengthy and complicated negotiations.

A fight over the dusting of chandeliers around Christmas 2006 landed several holy men in the hospital. It began when Greeks cleaning a chandelier put a ladder in Armenian territory, something the Greeks should have known would set off a fight. There are reports of monks stockpiling rocks in anticipation of an all-out battle.


old picture of Mary's Spring in Nazareth

As the names “Jesus of Nazareth” and “Jesus the Nazarene” suggest, Jesus was raised in Nazareth, a small, agricultural village in southern Galilee. Nazareth (southwest of the Sea of Galilee and 100 kilometers north of Bethlehem) is the hometown of Mary and Joseph and where Jesus spent his growing years attending classes in the local synagogue and learning his trade as a carpenter.

Nazareth is a village in Galilee. Situated in a kind of natural amphitheater, Nazareth was a tiny hamlet in Christ's day. Today is a cramped, dusty, unattractive city of 70,000 people, occupying land captured by Israel during the 1948-49 war of independence. Only a few decades ago its population was 90 percent Christian. Now it is around 70 percent Muslim. There is some tension between Christians and Muslims over muezzin calls drowning out quiet prayer sessions and the construction of mosque near holy Christian sites. Many visitors who come here expecting to see something that will bring Christ to life leave disappointed.

Among the sights claimed to have existed in time of Christ are two rival grottoes of the Annunciation, two competing homes of the Holy Family, a cave purported to be Joseph's workshop and a stone table said to have been where a resurrected Jesus shared a meal with his disciples before he ascended into heaven. If you are looking for mementos of early Christian times look no further than the stone houses, similar to those built thousand of years ago, and the markets, selling many of the same goods sold back then.

Basilica of the Annunciation (in Nazareth) is the main Christian shrine in Nazaerth and the largest church in the Middle East. A modern structure consecrated in 1964 by Pope Paul VI, it has a conical dome and is believed by Catholics to lie on the spot where Mary was notified by the Angel Gabriel of her miraculous conception and told that she would give birth to the son of God. Orthodox insist at Mary’s well a 10 minute walk away at Mary’s Well Church.

Jesus Trail in Israel

The Jesus Trail is a 40-mile trek that wanders from Nazareth in northern Israel through Arab villages, kibbutz farmland and some stunning landscape to the Sea of Galilee. Howard Schneider wrote in Washington Post: “Though the venture is called the Jesus Trail, the appeal is meant to be broad. Nazareth and the Galilee are important to Christians, who regard the area as the setting of Jesus's boyhood, adult ministry and initial miracles. However, the route is a layer cake of "narratives," covering Christian holy sites, small Arab towns typical of northern Israel, the remnants of Palestinian villages empty since Israel's 1948 war of independence, ancient Jewish sites, modern kibbutzim, Crusader battlefields and Muslim shrines. The other, much longer "Christian walk," from Nazareth to Bethlehem, cuts through the occupied West Bank and various Israeli military checkpoints. West Bank security has improved markedly in recent months, and some companies offer guided walks along that route as well. [Source: Howard Schneider, Washington Post, Sunday, June 7, 2009 \=]

landscape of Galilee

“The Jesus Trail is still in its infancy. In parts the path is well blazed, and in places it overlaps with Israel's national and regional trail system. In others, well, like the life of Jesus and other religious figures, some of it remains a matter of faith, at least when Sami and I made the trip in mid-April. Blazes painted on rocks were lost behind springtime weeds, signposts had disappeared and fresh barbed wire (meant to control cattle, not people, we were assured) had to be navigated. But now, I've been told, the blazing has been completed and all's right with the trail. As Landis said, "walking makes the trail." Improved marking is being coordinated with Israeli trail groups, he said, and an increase in traffic will help make the way clear. \=\

“And rough spots aside, it is a fascinating walk -- from the steep stairs that climb out of Nazareth's Old City, by the old Roman town of Zippori, into villages such as Meshad that are off the beaten path, through the valley of Arbel (and down a cliff if you are vertigo-free) and on to the Sea of Galilee, known in Israel as Lake Kinneret. \=\

“The trail will take you to the highlights of the region, such as the Mount of Beatitudes, the presumed site of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, but will get well beyond them. The first day of the four-day hike, for example, ends with an overnight stay in Kfar Qana, the town regarded by Christians as the place where Jesus turned water into wine, at the wedding at Cana. This has been a place where tourists pause, rather than linger, but after 12 miles of walking, you are ready for a shower, a meal and a bit of downtime. Locals are starting to open their homes to visitors, and for about $25 you'll get a place to sleep and breakfast on the way out, exactly the type of small endeavor the trail's founders hope will accumulate along it. \=\

“The walk is designed to begin in Nazareth, where Inon five years ago partnered with the Arab family that owns a 200-year-old Ottoman building in Nazareth's Old City to create the Fauzi Azar Inn. If you don't have time for the full trail, you can pick a section for a day trip out of Nazareth, Tiberias. From the small Israeli town of Arbel to historic Capernaum, could easily be truncated. The morning climb down the Arbel cliffs is a high point. But after passing the Arab town of Wadi Hamam, the trail runs through miles of agricultural land. \=\

Gospel Trail: More Places Associated with Jesus

Daniella Cheslow of Associated Press wrote: “The newly opened Gospel Trail winds for 63 kilometres, heading south from Nazareth, across gentle green hills, through Jewish and Arab towns and down to Capernaum, the fishing town where Jesus is said to have established his home base. The Tourism Ministry believes the new trail may attract up to 200,000 Christian pilgrims to northern Israel over the coming year. Christians are a rapidly growing segment of Israeli tourism, comprising about two-thirds of the 3.45 million people who visited in 2010. [Source: Daniella Cheslow, Associated Press, December 24, 2011 +++]

Mount Tabor

“The Gospel Trail heads south out of Nazareth, beginning at Mount Precipice, where a mob nearly threw Jesus off a cliff after a sermon he made in a local synagogue. The summit provides sweeping views across the Galilee, from ancient Nazareth and down through the Jezreel Valley. From there, the path goes to Mount Tabor, said to be the site of the Transfiguration, when Jesus spoke to Moses and Elijah and became radiant, and God called him his son. Today, priests celebrate mass in a Franciscan church with soaring ceilings and pristine white marble floors. +++

“From there, the trail winds north, passing, in springtime, through a carpet of anemones and cyclamens. A side path, also marked, heads to Kfar Kana, where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine. Then the Gospel Trail passes double extinct volcanoes known as the Horns of Hattin — famous as the site where Saladin’s Muslim army defeated the Crusaders in 1187. Today a lone mosque stands as one of the few remainders of an abandoned Arab village on the site. +++

“Nearby is the town of Migdal, named for the ancient town of Magdala, said to be home to Mary Magdalene. Farther north, at Tabgha, the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes commemorates when Jesus fed a multitude with only a handful of food. And finally, travellers pass by the Mount of Beatitudes before heading to Capernaum, where a charming pink-domed white church gives a European look to the lush green surroundings. The Gospel Trail includes suggestions to take a boat across the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus is said to have walked on water. The boats run between Capernaum and Kibbutz Ginosar. +++

“The Gospel Trail, planned and researched for more than a decade, cost about $800,000. The government paid for two-thirds of it, the Jewish National Fund the rest. Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said the trail is one element of a branding strategy to sell Israel’s abundant religious sites to visitors. Despite the large numbers of Christian tourists, for years little comprehensive information was available to those hoping to hike alone through the Galilee. Walking trails were marked, but maps were in Hebrew, Israel’s national language. This began to change when two entrepreneurs developed a path they called the "Jesus Trail" in 2008, following a slightly different route from Nazareth to Capernaum. Founders David Landis and Maoz Inon offer guided hiking tours and a colourful tour book for the region, the best resource available for trekking in the steps of Jesus. Inon also founded a backpacking hostel in Nazareth. The new Gospel Trail, by contrast, is a government project.” +++

Greco-Roman Cities in Jesus’s Time

Roman-era shop

Holland Lee Hendrix told PBS:“Well, let's say into any sort of maritime Roman provincial capital.... You would have seen something that was typical of a lot of Roman cities, only on a very, very polished and grandiose scale. And I think the most important thing is that you would have seen the typical institutions of Roman culture.... You would have seen a Roman odeum, a Roman hippodrome, a place where you have the horse races. You would have seen shops with books in Latin and probably Greek as well on the wharves, a very lively commerce in the literary culture of Rome.... One would have stepped into a place typified by Roman society and culture, exemplified by Roman institutions of economy and political power.... [Source: Holland Lee Hendrix, President of the Faculty, Union Theological Seminary, Frontline, PBS, April 1998]

“You would have an enormous range and mix of people because certainly in the Mediterranean basin, on the maritime fringe of that basin, an enormous traffic in populations was going on, so that one would have found persons perhaps even from the sub-continent, certainly from the East, one would have found persons from Greece, from Egypt, from as far west as Gaul and perhaps even Britain.

“When you leave the Roman city, especially a provincial capital, you would see gradations of the city life, expressing itself primarily through what we call suburbs that were closely tied to the city. And then as one got more rural, the difference would become I think starker and starker and you would be really confronting or encountering two very disparate things: on the one hand the ongoing indigenous cultures and societies of the people who had lived there for centuries, if not millennia; on the other hand you would be seeing the intrusions of Roman economic power and in some instances political power. For example, there would have been in all the provinces large landed estates located primarily in rural areas, away from the cities. And these could be rather large, with populations upwards of a hundred. And it would have included, probably, a rather large slave population in which a number different ethnicities and nationalities would have been represented. Contrast that, then, to the indigenous populations who primarily were still either agrarian or tied to the support of the infrastructure of the cities, also in some instances tied to the landed estates.... But certainly one would encounter in the rural areas, aside from the landed estates, a degree of subsistence population that would have stood in stark contrast with the urban centers.



Capernaum (on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee) is an ancient fishing town where Jesus met the fishermen—Peter and Andrew casting nets, James and John mending theirs—who became his first followers and established his first base of operation. Christ preached in the synagogue, taught by the seaside, and healed the sick, but failed to win any converts. The disciples Peter and Andrew came from Capernaeum. It was here that Jesus promised to make the disciples “fishers of men.’

“The Gospels tell the story of how Jesus cured Peter’s mother-in-law, ill with fever, at her home in Capernaum. Word of the miracle spread quickly, and by evening a suffering crowd had gathered at her door. But Jesus also said Capernaum would be "thrust down to hell." The eery purplish land crabs that inhabit this town make it seem like its halfway there. The basalt ruins found here today are reminiscent of an old Greco- Roman city.

The largest ancient structure in Capernaum is a partially-restored, columned synagogue built in the A.D. 4th century, built upon the foundations of the synagogue where Christ may have taught. Reliefs inside depict figs, pomegranates and shellfish, and the entrance is guarded by crouching lions, which appear to be in violation of the Jewish proscription against graven images. Nearby, archaeologists discovered a dwelling that was venerated by early Christians. Some scholars believe it is the home of the Apostle Peter. ^|^

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “Commonly referred to on the Christian tour route as the “town of Jesus,” the pilgrimage site of Capernaum today is owned by the Franciscans and surrounded by a high metal fence. A sign at the gate makes clear what’s not allowed inside: dogs, guns, cigarettes, and short skirts. Directly beyond the gate is an incongruously modern church mounted on eight pillars that resembles a spaceship hovering above a pile of ruins. This is St. Peter’s Memorial, consecrated in 1990 over one of the biggest discoveries made during the 20th century by archaeologists investigating the historical Jesus. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]


ancient synagogue in Tiberias

Tiberias (on the Sea of Galilee) is the only large town on the Sea Galilee. Home to 40,000 people, many of them Sephardic Jews, it is both a historical town with deep significance to Jews—the Talmud was compiled here by ancient scholars and Jewish pilgrims have come for centuries to visit the tombs of Rabbi Sages—and a lively resort town with spa hotels, beautiful people, water slides, fish restaurants, and motorized water sports. A popular delicacy served at restaurants around the Sea of Galilee is St. Peter's fish.

Although Tiberias is regarded as an important historical city there is not that much here any more of historical value. Among the few old buildings are the 18th century Al-Omri Mosque, the waterfront 19th century Jamaa al-Bahr mosque (now the home of the Antiquities Museum). Other attractions include the Galilee Experience, a 40-minute slide show presentation on Tiberias’s history and spiritual significance; a restaurant-lined waterfront; and the Tomb of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon.

Hammat Tiberias (1½ miles south of Tiberias) is a Roman site built around a hot spring. The remains include a 4rd century synagogue with a magnificent mosaic floor, a 6th century bathhouse. Nearby is a modern hot spring complex and the tomb of Meir Ba’al Hanes, a 2nd century rabbi who helped compile the Talmud.

Kibbutz Ginossar (10 minutes from Tiberas on the Sea of Galilee) is the home of the Kibbutz Nof Ginnisar Museum, which houses a 24-foot, 2000-year-old fishing boat found well preserved in the Sea of Galilee mud in 1986. It has been dubbed the “Jesus boat” because many scholars are convinced that the boat dates back to the time of Jesus.

Caesarea Maritima

Caesarea (40 minutes north of Tel Aviv, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa) is the home of one of the most important archaeological sites in Israel. In the 1st century B.C., Herod the Great's built a great city on the sea as a kid of grand finale after completing the Great Temple of Jerusalem, the winter palace of Jericho and the fortress of Masada. Using cement that hardened under water, a harbor was created where no harbor had stood before. Around it were placed temples and grand building that were occupied by Byzantines, Arabs and Crusaders, and endured until the 13th century when they were leveled by Mamluk Egyptians.

Caesarea Maritima

Herod was a client king of Rome, who ruled his province with Rome's approval and authority and with the consent of his friend and patron, the Emperor Augustus. It is possible, even likely, that Jesus was born the same year that Herod the Great died - in 4 B.C. [Source: Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Herod the Great built his great seaport city in honor of Caesar and named it "Caesarea Maritima" after him. The ruins from the ancient city stretch along a two mile section of the Mediterranean coast. They include an aqueduct that runs parallel with the shore on a white sandy beach, and a sanctuary devoted to the god Mithas. Older remains include massive Crusader walls, the remnants of a medieval cathedral, and ancient shops, mills, fountains and columns. The fountain of the ancient harbor can still be seen in the clear blue water. There is a Roman amphitheater, less than a hundred yards from the Mediterranean Sea, that hosts an international opera festival in the summer.

According to to Frontline PBS: “Caesarea's strategic location placed it at the juncture of important trade routes. But the harbor itself offered no natural advantages; the currents were dangerous and there were problems with silting. Using ingenious technical advances, Herod's engineers constructed two huge breakwaters, lined with warehouses. At the end of the southern breakwater stood the lighthouse, whose fires burned 24 hours a day. Six enormous bronze statues marked treacherous sandbars. To ships coming in from sea, the sight must have been truly impressive.

“After his death, Herod's city became the new capital of the Roman province of Judea. When Jesus went to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, the prefect of the province also traveled there to ensure that order was kept. His name was Pontius Pilate. Until recently, Pilate's existence was known only through literary sources, but a recently discovered stone bears the inscription "Pontius Pilatus, of Judea," clearly demonstrating Pilate's position and administrative authority.

“Later events put Caesarea on the map in ways that neither Herod nor Pilate had intended. A riot in Caesarea incited the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome. Later Caesarea became an important center of religious study and training. The great early Christian scholar and apologist, Origen, visited Caesarea in 231 CE and turned the city into a center of Christian learning. Origen built a huge library that became a magnet for scholarly study. When the Emperor Diocletian unleashed the Great Persecution (303-313 CE), Caesarea became the site for the death of a number of Christian martyrs, whose fates are described in the work of Eusebius, On the Martyrs of Palestine.”

Plan and Design of Caesarea Maritima

Caesarea Maritima

Caesarea was built like a model Greco-Roman city and laid out on a grid. There was a forum, theatre, temples, public baths, paved streets, and an elaborate villa that probably belonged to Herod himself. Giant twin aqueducts brought fresh water from Mt. Carmel, and formed part of an elaborate water and sewer system. But the focal point was a temple dedicated to Augustus.

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Caesarea Maritima is the city that Herod the Great founded to become his gateway to the Roman Empire. It was self-consciously planned to be a new city. A city that would give him access to the shipping lanes and to the commerce of the Roman Empire. And so, if one thinks of ... Caesarea and the great harbor that he built, you're looking at a place where he wanted people to see the world opening up ... the world opening up on his kingdom. So, it was to his grandeur that he was also developing this port. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Herod designed this as a new harbor, precisely because there was no natural breakwater, was no natural port along that stretch of the coast. And so, he had to build an artificial harbor. He used Roman engineers, who were brought in, and they created the harbor, by floating barges out and sinking them with huge thirty ton blocks of either concrete or stone to form the underwater segment of the harbor. On these foundations, then, he would create the inner harbor, the shipping lanes, and the warehouse system that would be Caesarea Maritima. In the middle of the city, was a Roman city complete with the capital, temples to the deified Roma, that is the personification of Rome, itself, as well as to the Emperor Augustus, who was Herod's patron.”

I thought Herod was a Jewish king. Shouldn't there be synagogues, shouldn't there be a mausoleum? “Well, there were, in fact, synagogues in Caesarea. We hear of them later on. And at times, there were some tensions as a result of this. But this was a Roman city, it was planned and laid out like a Roman city. A very square, Roman street plan, with a theater, with an amphitheater, with all the accouterments of Roman civic life, and a great deal of Hellenistic influence as well.”

Professor Eric Meyers told PBS: “The demographics of the eastern Roman empire are really at the very core of understanding properly the setting of Jesus and first century Judaism in Palestine. Jerusalem was a multi-splendored city, as we know so well from sources. But Caesarea was the epitome of the great port city. The great city of mixed demographics, of mixed ethnic population. It had been for a long time before the Roman era because it was a major port. Herod's activities there made it into a major exit and transfer center where goods and supplies were coming in and other items being traded and going out. And it had a magnificent look to it. And it was full of sailors, it was full of soldiers. It was full of Romans because that's where the procurators were located. And it had a very diverse and upscale Jewish community. We know that its Jewish minority population in this period also functioned and ultimately developed into one of the significant Jewish centers in a later time. But the character of the city was oriental, splendored, splendid, beautiful, huge open port, ships coming and going.” [Source: Eric Meyers, Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]


Sepphoris (near Nazareth) is an ancient city and was the capital of Galilee in Roman times. Jeses is believed to have spent a lot of time here. Mary may have been raised here. Evocative of Biblical time, it is a popular archeological park with Israelis. Nearby in Beit Netofa you can find the remains of the Via Maris, the old Roman Road to the Mediterranean Sea. The ruins of Sepphoris include a Crusader citadel and Roman-Byzantine buildings.

ritual bath in Sepphoris

Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “Sepphoris was known as the jewel of the Galilee. It was one of the capital cities of the Galilee and it's the first capital of Herod's son, who is an independent Jewish client king of Rome during the lifetime of Jesus.... Sepphoris is a beautiful, wealthy city. It's a Jewish city. But like most wealthy Jewish cities in the Greco-Roman period, it's architectural statements are done in Greco-Roman idiom. That doesn't mean that it's Greco-Roman culture. No more than we would think that Thomas Jefferson [was] because Monticello has elements of Greek architecture.... [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Professor Meyers told PBS: “Sepphoris was a city that existed already in Hellenistic times, first, second century BCE. But it was really developed by Herod's son Antipas, when he went there in 4 or 3 before the Common Era, after his father's death. The extent of his activities, however, as described by none other than Josephus, the historian of this era, is very complicated. It's alleged by many scholars that his building scheme resembled that of his dad's in Jerusalem. But after a dozen years excavating at the site, it's very difficult to come up with the fixings of a real eastern Roman city in the time of Jesus or at the beginning of the first century in the time of Antipas. [Source: Eric Meyers, Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The theater that everyone assumes was built in the time of Jesus or in the time of Antipas, in my opinion and I think now in the opinion of all of the excavators of the site, was not begun until the second half of the century, if not the beginning of the second century, C.E.... We have wonderful upper class villas in which Jews and priests lived, some of them with very close connections to Jerusalem. And we have a series of first century ritual baths, used for complete immersion, to deal with the Levitical command as found in the Hebrew Bible, to honor the commandment of ritual purity, bodily purity....

“So Antipas beautified the city, but it was not yet a great city of the Roman East. I'm absolutely certain of this. This happened later when the theater is erected and when Roman Legionnaires and soldiers come and establish their presence and make themselves known at the beginning of the second century. There's one other clue that tells us very much about the character of first century Sepphoris. And that surprisingly, comes from the bones that we find in these houses and in these villas. We have virtually no pig bones attested in the early Roman period at Sepphoris. Occasionally, we find an odd bone here or there of swine, but virtually none. When we go up to other centuries, even the second century, we find a significant increase, up to 8 or 10 percent of the bones are pigs, and no doubt these are being presented, by virtue of the presence of the Roman Army. And by the fourth century when there are Christians there we've got 18 percent, 20 percent pig bones....

“I think the beginnings of Jewish culture in Sepphoris, as we can reconstruct them now from archaeology in the first century, might be characterized as upscale, living very much as some of the Jews from Jerusalem might have lived at the same time in the Jewish quarter. We have frescoed rooms. We have houses, each with its own private ritual bath. That's an extravagance, considering where the water had to be brought from and the kind of technical [manueverings] it took to get pure water mixed with standing water. But it was very much in the mainstream. I don't think they were doing anything that they shouldn't have done. It was not an assimilating community. The picture we get is a community very much in the mainstream, but on the high end of the scale. It was an upscale city in the making. Not yet a real city of the east, but a city surely that was born in the time of Antipas.”

Mona Lisa of the Galilee

Mona Lisa of the Galilee

In the mid-1990s, archaeologists uncovered an extraordinary 1,700-year-old mosaic here. Once part of the floor of a banquet room in a palace, it measures 9 x 5 feet and contains a portrait of a woman dubbed the “Mona Lisa of Roman Palestine” and 15 separate scenes of Dionysus, the god of wine, in various acts of revelry. In one scene he is competing with Hercules in a drinking contest. The mosaic is in very good condition and 75 percent intact. There was a debate as to whether it should be unearthed and placed in a museum or left where it is.

Professor Eric Meyers told PBS: “One of the more exciting discoveries that we made at Sepphoris was a magnificent Roman villa with a gorgeous, gorgeous mosaic on its floor in a banquet hall. And this villa, which we call the Villa of Dionysus because so many of the scenes are concerned with the legend and mythology of the god Dionysus, has at two of its ends in this banquet hall, one very attractive woman and one not so attractive woman. The lady who is not so attractive was not depicted as well as the other, but she was also injured badly during the great earthquake which destroyed Sepphoris in 363. [Source: Eric Meyers, Professor of Religion and Archaeology Duke University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“But the lady on the other side was dubbed "Mona Lisa" by the press when we found her because she's really an extraordinary depiction in stone of a beautiful woman of Roman antiquity. She might be one of the four seasons. But one has the feeling that behind that face was a real woman and a real figure. Because the artistry that depicts it in stone is so delicate and so exquisite and so painterly. And so she has become kind of synonymous with the site even though she's from the 3rd century, the high point of Hellenization at the site. She has now become synonymous with the Romanization of the site and Hellenization.

“The discovery of these scenes of the mythology of Dionysus on the floor of a public house in a banquet hall in a Jewish town certainly blew most everyone's mind. And made us think for the first time that there was a much more liberal attitude towards the second commandment banning pictorial images in Judaism and that Jews in general were much more flexible with respect to image making and artistic presentation and activity, in the very period where the Mishna, the first major Jewish body of law to be codified in Palestine at Sepphoris in the third century, was being produced side by side with this great piece of work.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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