If the plethoric geographical references throughout scripture are any indication, Bible geography must be important. Jesus and his earliest followers lived in real places where environmental features “contributed to the ‘framework’ or ‘lens’ through which they saw life” (G. M. Burge, et al., NT in Antiquity 54). New Testament allusions to localities and physical surroundings presuppose that readers are familiar with the topography, climate, and populace of these places, along with the respective ethnic, cultural, and political environments. The relevance of these settings in shaping events and even teachings should not be overlooked.
New Testament Palestine
The area historically known as Palestine lies between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The southwestern coastal territory, inhabited by the Philistines prior to the arrival of the Israelites, was called Peleshet (“Philistia”) in Hebrew, meaning “land of the Philistines” (Psa. 60:8; 87:4; 108:9; cf. Josh. 13:2-3). The Greek derivative Palaistinē was used by Herodotus and later Greek writers to refer to the entire region (between Phoenicia and Egypt), followed by Roman authors like Ovid, Pliny, Dio Chrysostom, and Plutarch, as well as Jewish authors like Philo and Josephus. The designation was revived by the Romans in the 2nd century AD as the Latin Palaestina (“Palestine”) in reference to the Roman province of Syria Palaestina.
As far as biblical history is concerned (cf. Num. 34), the boundaries extend to the Mediterranean coastline to the west, the Jordan River to the east, the Galilee mountains to the north, and the central deserts to the south, although Jewish settlements outside these boundaries date back to the time of Joshua (cf. Josh. 22:4-9). This area “forms a land bridge that connected great empires in antiquity. Because of the massive deserts of Arabia and Syria, trade and communication between Mesopotamia and Egypt passed along the upper Euphrates River and then south through Israel, continuing to Egypt …” (G. M. Burge, et al., NT in Antiquity 55).
The land can be divided into five major longitudinal zones: (1) the coastal plain, (2) the coastal hills, (3) the central mountain range, (4) the Jordan valley, and (5) the eastern plateau. Because of diverse topographical features, much of Galilee would be placed in a separate geographical category.1
The Coastal Plain comprises a 120-miles’ (193-kms) stretch of the western boundary of Judea and Samaria, from below Gaza in the south to Mount Carmel in the north. It was in this area that the apostle Peter ministered in the town of Lydda, the district of Sharon, and the coastal village of Joppa (Acts 9:32-43). The Ethiopian eunuch encountered the evangelist Philip on his way from Jerusalem to Egypt via Gaza (Acts 8:26-39). Afterwards Philip traveled north along the coast to the seaport city of Caesarea Maritima (v. 40), built by Herod the Great. This was the home of the first Gentile converts (Acts 10:1) and the site where Paul was incarcerated for a couple of years prior to his Roman imprisonment (Acts 23:23–27:1).
The Coastal Hills are east of the coastal plain, from around Beersheba in the south to just east of Caesarea Maritima in the north. There were a number of settlements along these hills, whose lights would have been visible at night from far away – “a city placed on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14, author’s own translation). One of these villages was Emmaus, around 7 miles (11 kms) from Jerusalem and apparent home of the disciple Cleopas (Luke 24:13-36).
The Central Mountain Range runs east of the coastal hills from below Hebron in the south to the upper regions of Samaria in the north. Cities built in this mountainous region included Hebron in Judea (cf. 2 Sam. 2:1; 5:5) and Shechem near Mt. Gerizim in Samaria (John 4:20; Acts 7:16), with the Jewish capital of Jerusalem at the center. The village of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:1) was about 5 miles (8 kms) south of Jerusalem, with Bethphage and Bethany about 2 miles (3 kms) to the east (Mark 11:1; John 11:18).2 A road connected Shechem in the north and Hebron in the south, passing through Shiloh, Bethel, Ramah, Gibeah, Jerusalem, and Bethlehem.
The Jordan Valley,3 descending nearly 10 miles (16 kms) eastward from the central mountains to the Jordan River, runs southward from Dan in the north (southwest of Mt. Hermon)4 through the Sea of Galilee, on through the Dead Sea (earth’s lowest point) beyond the southern border of Israel to the Red Sea, approximately 260 miles (418 kms). Much of the lower region, which includes Jericho (Matt. 20:29) and Qumran, is wilderness. This is probably the wilderness area where Jesus was tested by the devil for nearly six weeks (Matt. 4:1-11). The desolate valley would have provided the Lord and his disciples secluded places of solitude (Luke 5:16; 9:10; cf. Mark 1:35). The main road from Jerusalem downhill to Jericho was particularly hazardous (Luke 10:30).
The Eastern Plateau, east of the Jordan River and west of the Arabian Desert, was the location of the Transjordanian Mountains (incl. Mt. Hermon), the Decapolis, and Perea. This would have been the territory “beyond the Jordan” (Matt. 4:25; 19:1; Mark 3:8; John 1:28; 3:26; 10:40), which included the jurisdictions of Herod Antipas (Matt. 14:1-12; Luke 13:32) and the Nabateans (Gal. 1:17; 2 Cor. 11:32). Both John the baptizer and Jesus included this general area in their ministries (John 3:26; etc.).
Galilee is north of Judea and Samaria and south of Syria, with the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River respectively serving as its western and eastern boundaries. Upper Galilee is mountainous and barren, at times providing a much-needed getaway for Jesus (Matt. 14:23; Mark 6:46; John 6:15). Lower Galilee was a lot more populated, so the bulk of the Lord’s ministry was spent traveling around its many villages (Matt. 9:35; Mark 6:6). Jesus grew up in the Galilean village of Nazareth (Matt. 2:23) and later made his home-base in the fishing village of Capernaum (Matt. 4:13). The Lord’s immediate disciples apparently were all Galileans (Acts 2:7).5
Once known as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isa. 9:1; cf. Matt. 4:15), the region had been controlled by Phoenician king Hiram I of Tyre-Sidon in the 10th century BC and later populated by the Assyrians with exiled foreigners in the 8th century BC. Within its 1st-century AD borders were Hellenistic communities like Tiberias (on the Sea of Galilee’s western coast) and the capital Sepphoris (near Nazareth). Archaeological discoveries of Galilean synagogues reveal Phoenician influences and tolerance of other cultures6—a stark contrast to the less indulgent Judeans.
Bethsaida and Caesarea Philippi were just beyond the political boundaries of Galilee. The description in John 12:21 is apparently geographical rather than political. Both townships were within the jurisdiction of Herod Philip II. The region of Caesarea Philippi may have been the farthest north Jesus travelled (Matt. 16:13), depending on how far into the region of Tyre and Sidon he had visited earlier (Matt. 15:21). While Bethsaida (a.k.a. Bethsaida Julias) was the hometown of the apostles Philip, Andrew, and Simon Peter (John 1:44), at some point Andrew and Peter were living in a house across the Jordan River in Capernaum (Mark 1:21, 29). Being fishermen by trade, they would have been subject to taxation whenever they crossed the Jordan River into the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas (cf. Luke 5:27). The house in Capernaum may have belonged to the family of Peter’s wife.
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See G. M. Burge, et al., NT in Antiquity 55-62. In comparison C. G. Rasmussen, whose focus is not limited to the NT period but includes the entire biblical record, categorizes the zones as (1) the coastal plain, (2) the central mountain range, (3) the Rift Valley, (4) the Transjordanian mountains, and (5) the eastern desert (Zondervan Atlas of the Bible 21-28). Y. Aharoni considers four zones with multiple subdivisions: (1) the coastal zone, (2) the central mountain range (including Galilee), (3) the Jordan Rift, and (4) the Trans-jordanian highlands (The Land of the Bible 21-42).
2 This was a different Bethany than the one across the Jordan (John 1:28; “Bethabara,” N/KJV).
3 Part of the greater 1,800 miles’ (3,000 kms) Rift Valley that runs from Lebanon to SE Africa.
4 See Judg. 18:28-29, marking the northernmost border of Israel (Judg. 20:1; 1 Sam. 3:20; 2 Sam. 3:10). The melting snows of Mt. Hermon produce springs that form the Jordan River’s headwaters.
5 See The 12 Apostles. Since Judas Iscariot was not present on the Day of Pentecost, it is uncertain whether or not he was a Galilean. One theory concerning the moniker Iskariōth (“Iscariot”) is that it might be based on the Hebrew Îš-Qrîyôth, meaning “man of Kerioth,” thus identifying where Judas or his family was from (R. Baukham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses 106). Some manuscripts of John 6:71 have interpreted Iskariōtou as apò Karuōtou (“from Kerioth”) in relation to Judas’ father Simon (see B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary [2nd ed.] 21, 184, 204, 205). If the theory is valid, then Judas Iscariot may have been the only one of Christ’s original apostles who was not a native Galilean. Kerioth was a town in southern Judea (Josh. 15:25), about 10 miles (16 km) south of Hebron.
6 See Hebrew University of Jerusalem, “Remains Of Ancient Synagogue With Unique Mosaic Floor Found In Galilee,” ScienceDaily (27 Nov. 2007), <Web>.
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