In Series 6 Episode 11 of Word Online, Martin Charlesworth comments that geography is very important in the Gospels. It's important to think about the different districts and areas that are involved, the reasons why people travelled backwards and forwards, and what was going on in each different area. In this blog we consider the significance of geography in Jesus’ life.
There are essentially three geographical areas and provinces in the main part of the country of Israel of Jesus’ day - Galilee to the north, Samaria in the centre, and Judea in the south. The capital city, Jerusalem, was situated in Judea.
Map of Israel during Jesus' life. Showing Galilee to the North, Samaria in the centre and Judea to the South.
Early Years in the North
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in Judea, near to Jerusalem where he was presented in the Temple as a baby. His parents had had to travel to Bethlehem in the south to satisfy the census requirement issued by the Roman Governor, Quirinius. Jesus’ home-town, however, was Nazareth in Galilee, in the north. He gave his ‘manifesto’ in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 16 - 30) Series 3 Episode 3, but he based himself in the fishing village of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, (Luke 4: 31 -41) Series 3 Episode 4. In Nazareth, he met with controversy and unbelief; in Capernaum he received an open welcome. He spent three years of his ministry in Galilee, travelling around the villages of Galilee teaching, calling his disciples and training them in preparation for their leadership of the Church after his death, resurrection and ascension.
Moving Further South
After that, he went to Caesarea Philippi, with his disciples (Mark 8: 22-26) Series 7 Episode 1 and it was there that Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John and met with Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17: 1 - 9) Series 7 Episode 3. This was the turning point for Jesus’ ministry, as Luke makes clear in Luke 9: 30-31. Although he was 180 kilometres away from Jerusalem - and he would not travel there directly - he resolutely set his sights on Jerusalem, and the confrontation that was awaiting him there, (Luke 9: 51) Series 7 Episode 11. Jesus did not return to Galilee to minister again.
Then Jesus spent quite a long time travelling through parts of Samaria in the centre of the country, through the southern province of Judea, and the neighbouring province of Perea, on the eastern side of the River Jordan and also associated with Galilee because it had the same Roman ruler - Herod Antipas. It is difficult to work out the exact itinerary Jesus took and the distances that he travelled at this point in his ministry. He sent out thirty-six teams of disciples to spread the good news in these regions. (Luke 10:1 - 24) Series 8 Episode 7. His message was well-known in the north, in Galilee, so he wanted this area to be offered the same opportunity to respond to the gospel.
Pilgrims from the north often travelled through Samaria, to attend the religious festivals that were celebrated at the Temple in Jerusalem. Historic tension existed between the Jews and Samaritans; many Jews preferred to avoid travelling through Samaria and instead travelled down the Jordan Valley. The Jordan River went from the north to the south, to near Jerusalem. That way you would pass through the city of Jericho. Series 10 Episode 9. The other route was along the coast. This journey to Jerusalem that Jesus made takes up all of Series 7 - 10 of Word Online.
Whilst still teaching in Galilee in the north, Jesus was confronted by Pharisees and Teachers of the Law who were sent to investigate him and his claim to be the ‘messiah’. They were sent on behalf of the Sanhedrin - the leaders of the Jewish faith who were based in Jerusalem, in the south. By Matthew 12: 22 - 37, Series 5 Episode 6, the Sanhedrin had decided against him and accused him of using the power of ‘Beelzebub, the prince of demons’, to cast out demons.
At every event, Jesus faced the opposition of Pharisees and others representing the Sanhedrin. They were present when he healed the man lowered through the roof by friends, in Capernaum, Galilee (Mark 2:1 - 12) Series 3 Episode 8. The scrutiny intensified as Jesus drew nearer to Jerusalem; he was less of a threat in Galilee in the north. However, they were aware of Jesus and his miraculous powers. On one occasion he healed a leper near Capernaum and told the man to go to the priests in Jerusalem, as was mandatory by the Law of Moses, so that he could be declared clean (Matthew 8 : 1 - 3) Series 3 Episode 7. This was a provocative act from Jesus. Also when Jesus healed the ten lepers, (Luke 17: 12 - 19) Series 10 Episode 1, he was in a village on the border between Galilee and Samaria and yet he tells them to show themselves to the priests in Jerusalem. That was quite a distance to travel and again would have provoked the religious leaders.
Jerusalem in the South
John’s Gospel tells us of several visits that Jesus made to Jerusalem to attend different festivals. Jesus attended a Passover feast early in his ministry and ‘cleansed’ the Temple of the traders who were operating there. (John 2 :13 - 25) Series 2 Episode 7. He attended the Feast of Tabernacles, during which he healed a man who was born blind (John 9: 1 - 41) Series 8 Episode 5. However, it was another Passover feast that Jesus attended in the last week of his earthly ministry. He travelled from Bethany to Jericho, performing amazing miracles and then entered Jerusalem with the crowd heralding his approach (Matthew 21: 1 -11) Series 11 Episode 1. It was at this point that the confrontation with the Jewish Sanhedrin intensified and resulted in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. After his resurrection, Jesus spent time with his disciples in Jerusalem (Luke 24: 36 - 49), Series 14 Episode 4 but also returned to Galilee, where he shared breakfast with them on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21: 1 - 25) Series 14 Episode 6.