BMCR 2006.09.08

Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, 134

, Greco-Roman culture and the Galilee of Jesus. Society for New Testament Studies monograph series ; 134. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xvii, 285 pages : maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0521846471. $90.00.

In his new monograph Mark Chancey (hereafter C.), Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, intends to shed new light on the cultural influence Hellenism and Romanization had on first century Galilee. Besides general information about the time and its socio-cultural setting, C. provides investigations into archeological artifacts, mainly inscriptions and coins, but now and then architecture as well. In sum he admits that, although a cultural transition had started in the early first century, the deep impact on and change of society only took place after the stationing of Roman soldiers organized in legions and auxiliary units. C. argues that, for anybody who wants to get to a deeper understanding of the time and the region, it is indispensable to regard Galilee in the context of Romanization and geographically as being part of the larger area of the Roman East. With this C. challenges the classic dictum of German scholar and icon of research on first century Judaism, Martin Hengel, that “[by] the time of Jesus, all Judaism was Hellenistic Judaism” (1). At the same time he revives discussions of the cultural setting into which the New Testament writings were set. C. focuses on archaeological findings and the language material preserved by them. By doing so he presents a significant contribution to research on the role Greco-Roman culture had played in the Galilee of Jesus.

The fierce disputes between so-called ‘Purists’ and ‘Hebraists’ about the true character of the Greek of the New Testament writings started in the 17th century. The first regarded this kind of Greek as the pure and elegant form of Attic Greek (due to the fact that it is God who speaks there), the latter as a specific Jewish derivate of the Greek of the time.1 Only with Gustav Albert Deissmann’s2 and Albert Thumb’s3 classic works could those irreconcilable positions be outgrown. Both demanded that scholars embed Biblical texts in the predominant language of their contemporary environment, which they identified as the Greek Κοινή. Since then the readiness among Biblical scholars to consider papyri, ostraca, and inscriptions to solve philological problems and to form a socio-cultural background against which Biblical texts can be compared with has tremendously increased. Nonetheless, there is still a lack of methodological criteria to assess and use the data collected from archaeological artifacts.4 Be that as it may, any investigation into the socio-cultural setting of Palestine in the days of Jesus is of invaluable significance for anybody involved in research in the field; researches on the cultural impact Hellenism might have had on Palestine are even more important as they affect the issue of languages spoken and written in the first-century there. Thus, it is self-evident that this monograph is of prima facie interest for anybody working on this topic or related subjects. According to the programmatic summary on the dust jacket, C. “argues that the extent of Greco-Roman culture in the time of Jesus has often been greatly exaggerated”. So, C. intends to challenge long-established notions of a widely Hellenized Galilee and to “contextualize investigations of Galilee within the larger scholarly conversation about Romanization” (xi).

As in his previous monograph, which is his revised Ph.D. dissertation published as ‘The Myth of a Gentile Galilee’,5 C. is motivated by his interest in archaeological findings he himself worked on. These he wants to bring together with textual studies to paint a more realistic picture of Galilee in the first century. Thus, it is not surprising that again Sepphoris plays an important role in the present volume. It serves to illustrate the atmosphere of a mixed cultural situation (with a predominance of the Greek language next to others and with Jews and non-Jews living in the same towns and villages). But for Sepphoris the traces of Roman culture indicate that Romanization took place there as much as Hellenization did (2-6). The introductory chapter (1-23) is also the program of the whole volume: C. defines the terms ‘Hellenistic’, ‘Roman’, and ‘Galilee’. Then he supplies criteria and maxims for how to assess the data he refers to in the following chapters. Finally he points out what readers have to keep in their minds in order to evaluate C.’s conclusions on their own (8, 14-15). Therefore, C. strictly focuses on “the expression of Greek and Roman cultures in Galilee in public and monumental architecture, inscriptions, coins and various forms of art” (20). He hopes “to address some of the questions most frequently posed about Galilee and to correct some of the more frequently repeated misperceptions” (21). Without doubt, he is right in claiming that a lot of work still remains to be done in the future (e.g., on “the economic impact of Romanization on Galilee”) and is fully aware of the limits of his study.

In eight chapters — whereas chapter eight only presents the conclusion of the whole work — C. attempts to fulfill what he manifested as desiderata of his study. Chapter one is dedicated to “Galilee’s early encounter with Hellenism” (24-42). The descriptive passages about Galilee before Alexander the Great and above all after 332 BCE contain some epigraphic evidence and references to other sources (e.g. P.Col. IV 61 = P.Col.Zen. II 61, a Greek letter mentioning the construction of a bathhouse in 259 BCE, though C. there mainly relies on the works of others. The same is true about the next section dealing with the Hasmoneans, Hellenism, and Galilee. In conclusion, C. is right in stating that less is known of Hellenistic impact on Galilee than is usually believed. According to C. it remains questionable whether to blame the destruction work done in the construction of new buildings for our lack of knowledge about that time (42).

Chapter two about “The Roman army in Palestine” (43-70) is analogously structured. Of course, the arrival of the Roman army under general Pompey in 63 BCE in Palestine marked an essential cultural caesura. However, C. convincingly shows by means of literary sources (above all, Josephus and his works Antiquitates Judaicae and De bello Judaico are cited), philological observations, and some archeological objects that Galileans and Romans stayed apart from each other until a sustained garrison was established in Galilee in c. 120 CE. Thus, in the time of Jesus, Roman presence and influence in Galilee were rather small. The situation only changed with and after the Bar Kokhba revolt.

With chapter three C. leaves the tracks of historical descriptions and summaries and turns to an evaluation of traces of Greco-Roman architecture (71-99). However, again the secondary literature plays an important role in this chapter. C.’s own observations are often just embedded into the rearrangement of what others have already stated in their publications. As throughout the book, C.’s inclination to rely on artifacts becomes obvious. He rejects tentative suggestions that are not based on archeological findings. This might prove as problematic now and then when a reconstruction of ‘gaps’ in history is indispensable.

The fourth chapter is more or less about geographical and social changes (“The transformation of the landscape in the second and third centuries CE”, 100-21). C.’s conclusions drawn from civic titles and names, and Greco-Roman architecture are compelling. Moreover, they are of major value to be taken into account in future works on the socio-cultural history of Galilee. Especially in the second and third century Roman architecture spread all over Galilean urban environments, and synagogues changed adequately, too.

In chapter five C. discusses “The use of Greek in Jesus’ Galilee” (122-65), but not starting with the Purist-Hebraist disputes and/or Deissmann and Thumb. He just primarily relies on the evidence of inscriptions and coins, and the usage of Greek and Latin names in Galilee in the first century. From them he draws the conclusions that mainly officials were capable of using the Greek language and that there was a striking difference between urban and rural areas as well as between Upper and Lower Galilee. That may be correct. However, what do we know about the knowledge of Greek of the common people there (as we do for Greco-Roman Egypt and the thousands of documentary papyri found there)? Do inscriptions really enable us to infer a certain social status? Without doubt, C. is right in challenging traditional views and overstatements about the usage of Greek throughout Galilee. But the hypothetical scenario of a Jewish male of Tiberias in the mid-first century CE is somewhat odd: he lists Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek with descending probability as being spoken/known by this Jew. Possibly, C. is correct that elites were more capable of using Greek than others, something we know from Greco-Roman Egypt for many individuals. But can this be generalized? And what about knowing Hebrew in those days? This chapter is running short of evidence, as it seems.

More based on realities are chapters 6 and 7, as they focus on “The coinage of Galilee” (166-92) and “Greco-Roman art and the shifting limits of acceptability” (193-220). C.’s observations and conclusions are sound and intriguing: the coins and the texts preserved on them clearly prove that only in the second and third century “a wholesale adoption of Greco-Roman numismatic customs” (192) took place; frescos and mosaics, statues, decorations, and sarcophagi also became more common in the second and third century than they were in the days of Jesus. In this chapter social status is adequately taken into consideration, so that all conclusions drawn are reflected on once again in that respect.

Finally, C. concludes from the previous seven chapters that “Greco-Roman culture in Galilee during the lifetime of Jesus has often been greatly exaggerated” (229). Furthermore, only the second and third century present obvious archeological witnesses to Greco-Roman influence on Galilee and its society. Much of the conclusion chapter is a repetition of what C. has already stated in his introduction.

The readers are supplied with an appendix with “Galilean names in the first century CE” (230-5) that can serve as a database for further studies. A select bibliography can motivate further reading (236-74). Additionally, the book comes with indices of passages, places, and people and topics (275-85), a preface (xi-xii), a list of abbreviations (xiii-xvi), and a map of Galilee and northern Palestine (xvii). All in all, the volume is a fine representative of the high-quality series ‘Society for New Testament Studies. Monograph Series’ printed by Cambridge University Press on good paper and in a pleasant layout.

C. succeeds in challenging the overstating of a Greek setting for first century Galilee (and Palestine). His references to numismatic, epigraphic, and architectural evidence are compelling. They can serve as a role model for further studies in that field and direction. However, one may be skeptical about C.’s interpretation of Hengel’s work (cf. C.’s introduction), which itself may be an overstatement. Furthermore, C. often rejects suggestions by others, who did not offer adequate archeological findings as evidence. That can turn out as tricky and deceitful. History is a discipline that can’t help doing without filling gaps and bridging lacks of evidence from archeological artifacts now and then; and it can’t do without suggestions and imaginative hypotheses. Some of C.’s reflections will need further discussion. Some others will need to be challenged in order to prove whether they can stand plausible counterarguments or not. Leaving these points of criticism aside, C. presents many essential and interesting details about first, second, and third century Galilee. With this volume C. brings his readers one more step closer to the environment in which Jesus lived and taught, the days in which the writings of the New Testament were written, and the impact Hellenism and Romanization actually had. Further studies will prove whether C.’s archeological evidence can really serve as a foundation for judgments on ‘Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus’.


1. For details about the Purist-Hebraist controversy see J. Ros, De studie van het Bijbelgrieksch van Hugo Grotius tot Adolf Deissmann, Nijmegen-Utrecht: Dekker & VandeVegt, 1940, and G.H.R. Horsley, The Fiction of ‘Jewish Greek’, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity 5 1989, 5-40, here 37-40.

2. See, for instance, G.A. Deissmann, Bibelstudien. Marburg: Elwert, 1895; idem, Neue Bibelstudien. Marburg: Elwert, 1897; idem, Licht vom Osten. Das Neue Testament und die neuentdeckten Texte der hellenistisch-rmischen Texte. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1908; 4th edition 1923.

3. Cf. A. Thumb, Die griechische Sprache im Zeitalter des Hellenismus. Beitrge zur Geschichte und Beurteilung der Κοινή. Strassburg: Trbner, 1901; idem, Die sprachgeschichtliche Stellung des Biblischen Griechisch, Theologische Rundschau 5, 1902, 85-99.

4. A commentary series attempts at tackling this issue. See the first two volumes: P. Arzt-Grabner, Philemon. Papyrologische Kommentare zum Neuen Testament, 1. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2003; idem et al., 1. Korinther. Papyrologische Kommentare zum neuen Testament, 2. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006.

5. Mark A. Chancey, The Myth of a Gentile Galilee. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series, 118. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.