Michel Onfray’s Galilee blunder

John Dickson puts Michel Onfray's claims about the origin of a hope for 'paradise' to the test

More than once have I heard it argued that the world’s three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, invented their hope for a ‘paradise beyond’ as way of coping with the misery of their desert origins.

Who wouldn’t fanaticise about heavenly bliss if all you had before you was the dreary wilderness of Sinai, the endless sands of Arabia and the wasteland of Galilee. One recent example of the argument is found on the opening page of Michel Onfray’s The Atheist Manifesto:

  I thought of the lands of Israel, Judaea and Samaria, of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, of Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. Places where the sun bakes men’s heads, desiccates their bodies, afflicts their souls with thirst. Places that generate a yearning for oases where water flows cool, clear and free, where the air is balmy and fragrant, where food and drink are abundant. The afterlife suddenly struck me as a counterworld invented by men exhausted and parched by their ceaseless wanderings across the dunes or up and down rocky trails baked to white heat.

I will leave it to Jews and Muslims to point out the fallacies of this argument in connection with their own origins, but in the case Christianity this line of reasoning amounts to a real geographical blunder. Had Onfray actually visited, instead of merely ‘thought of’, Jesus’ stomping ground of Nazareth and the surrounding Galilee he might have written something very different indeed.

Jesus was raised in one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. You might have your own mental images of Jesus’ home turf, perhaps based on biblical tales of desert wanderings or the barren hills of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. I am meant to be an expert in this stuff and I was frankly amazed at what I saw when I first landed there. Far from being a desert, Galilee is a highly fertile region made up of rolling hills, stark mountains and a large valley leading down to the beautiful inland sea known as Lake Gennesareth or simply Lake Galilee (twelve kilometres wide by twenty kilometres long). The lake has always provided plenty of fish for food and trade—I recently enjoyed a fish feast by the shore myself. It was by far the richest and most populous region of all ancient Palestine.  An eyewitness account from the first century is offered by Josephus. As the military commander in charge of Galilee Josephus knew the land well:

  For the land is everywhere so rich in soil and pasturage and produces such a variety of trees, that even the most indolent are tempted by these facilities to devote themselves to agriculture. In fact, every inch of the soil has been cultivated by the inhabitants; there is not a parcel of waste land. The towns, too, are thickly distributed, and even the villages, thanks to the fertility of the soil, are all so densely populated that the smallest of them contains above fifteen thousand inhabitants.  

Scholars rightly question Josephus’ numbers above. Nazareth, for instance, where Jesus was raised, was a hamlet of probably no more than 2000 persons.  But Josephus’ geography is better than his demography, and modern geological studies have confirmed his statements about soil fertility. Aerial photography of the mountainous Upper Galilee (North of the Lake) indicates widespread terracing where intense vine and olive cultivation once took place. Down in Jesus’ Lower Galilee a similar natural abundance is evident. Recent excavations of Nazareth itself reveal the presence of grape presses for wine and a field irrigation system that belies the romantic notion that Jesus grew up in a place of barrenness and poverty. A leading expert on Galilee, Prof. Sean Freyne of Trinity College Dublin, writes:

  The Nazareth farm project supports the idea that they were not just mere subsistence farmers, but like all colonizers in the Mediterranean as elsewhere, worked the land intensively, participated in the redistributive system and were able to support a relatively comfortable lifestyle. The main crops would be the traditional Mediterranean ones of cereals (mainly wheat and maize), olives, figs and grapes.  

I had the privilege of being shown around parts of Galilee by Prof. Freyne. As we looked over the first century town of Gamla with the Eastern shore of the lake in the distance (see photo) I was struck by the rich green of the grass, the bright yellow of the flowers and the abundant bird life all around. We could have been in the Scottish Highlands.

Amid the obvious uncertainties of all ancient life, Jesus must have grown up with a clear sense of the provisions of the Creator in this place of beauty and fertility. It is no wonder that the land and its produce feature so often in Jesus’ teachings:

By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? (Matthew 7:16).

Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown (Mark 4:20).

The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ (Luke 12:16-17).

The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field (Matthew 13:24).


The thesis that Christianity’s hope for ‘the kingdom of heaven’ was fuelled by its desert origins is in need of a serious re-think. If this hope was merely wishful thinking, as Onfray would have us believe, then the source of such misguided dreaming must come from somewhere other than the ‘barrenness’ of the land. The first followers of Jesus, all of them Galileans like their leader, lived in a place brimming with the produce of the earth.

Dr. John Dickson is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and aHonorary Associate of the Department of Ancient History, Macquarie University (Australia)