Jesus in Context: The Influence of the Galilee Region on the Life and Ministry of Jesus and His Followers

By Michael Wainwright

Geographic Context: Using the Land as a Teaching Tool

            In addition to its impact on the socio-economic quality of Jesus’ ministry, the physical geography of the Galilee region shaped the way in which Jesus organized his public discourses. In Mark 4:1, the author reports that during one of Jesus’ seaside sermons, the audience became so thick that Christ could not address them all at once. Today, an evangelist might address a massive audience by simply switching on a microphone, but Jesus had to turn to the geography of Galilee to solve his acoustics problem.  

            To a modern audience, the idea of delivering a sermon from a ship’s deck rather than a stage may seem odd, but this is precisely how Jesus dealt with the throng of Mark 4:1. From a skeptical viewpoint, it seems improbable that his voice could have carried over the entire crowd when he himself was afloat on the sea. However, Galilee’s geography provides a solution to this puzzle.

            Between Capernaum and Tabgha, there is a natural stadium called the Cove of the Sower, which would have provided the ideal setting for Jesus’ discourse from the boat. The location is a large cove rimmed by hills, a half-circle of land from which an audience would have a clear view of the inlet of water at the hills’ feet. In his article “The Acoustics and Crowd Capacity of Natural Theaters in Palestine,” published in Biblical Archaeologist, B. Cobbey Crisler argues that up to 7,000 people could fit in the area below the hills of the Cove of the Sower, with more than 14,000 situated on the hillside. In addition, Crisler’s study proves that a speaker on the water can be heard clearly by an audience on the hillside, and long-distance conversations are actually possible in this location. While Scripture does not tell us specifically where the discourse from the boat was held, it is self-evident that Jesus the Galilean and resident of Capernaum would have been aware of the acoustic properties of the Cove of the Sower.

            If Christ were familiar with this cove, then tradition may be correct in asserting that the famous “Sermon on the Mount” was delivered from nearby Mt. Eremos (Bible Places). There is evidence to suggest that the supposition that this location corresponds with the hill described in Matthew 5-7. Jesus himself gives the reader an obscure hint to his location, when he describes the public life of his followers as “a city on a hill [that] can not be hid.” As all orators know, a visual illustration is often a powerful way to convey a message. Eremos would provide Jesus with the illustration he needed to drive home his point – a hefty Greek city called Hippos, shimmering on a hill just across the waves of the sea (Middendorf). That a Jewish teacher would illustrate his point with an example from Gentile culture may seem unusual, but if Jesus did mention Hippos as an example for his disciples to follow, then it was clearly in keeping with his cross-cultural message.   

            Furthermore, the traditional placement of Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” reconciles an apparent discrepancy between Matthew 5-7 and Luke 6. While Matthew’s well known version of the story places Jesus on a “mount,” Luke 1:17 asserts that he “stood in a Plain”. A cursory glance at Mt. Eremos and its surrounding environs proves that, if the sermon did take place at this location, then both writers are correct in their descriptions. Eremos stands just above the four-mile long plain of Gennesaret, a lush region of fertile farmland which Jewish historian Josephus called “nature’s crowning achievement” (Bible Places). Clearly, Mt. Eremos could have been regarded as belonging to the Gennesaret region, and thus to stand on the mount would be to “stand on a plain” – that is, to stand on the plain of Gennesaret. Just as Luke used Gennasaret as a reference point for the Sea of Galilee itself, so he also uses “the plain” to give a geographical perspective to the location of Jesus’ sermon.