Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Galilee probably looked something
like this in the time of Isaiah.
Are Christians really the world’s most persecuted religious group?

Nelson Jones at New Statesman has taken up the issue at some length in response to a recent statement from British Prime Minister David Cameron: “It is the case that Christians are now the most persecuted religion around the world,” Cameron said. “We should stand up against persecution of Christians and other faith groups wherever and whenever we can.”

Jones starts his article by appearing to agree with Cameron and others who have voiced similar sentiments but as he meanders on, it becomes evident that what he really wants to say is: 1) religion causes fighting, 2) Muslims are persecuted too, 3) “persecution” is a relative term, and 4) anyway, if Christians ARE being persecuted, it’s certainly not because of their faith.

Which pretty much covers all the bases.

Persecution and Respect

I really don’t have a strong opinion on the subject. I’m not persecuted, nor are large numbers of our readers, I suspect. At the same time, I think we are all very aware that not only have Christians been virulently persecuted down through the ages, but that, because of their faith, they continue to be murdered, assaulted, harangued, socially and economically marginalized or excluded outright in growing numbers around the world today, in places of which Nelson Jones and other secular commentators take little or no note.

This has always been the case. As much as 20th and 21st century Western Christendom may appear, with its apparent size, influence and affluence, to be the order of the day to those of us who have grown up in it, Christianity has its origins in low places. Our Lord, after all, was laid in a manger. If our world has little or no room for him now, this is hardly a surprising or recent development.

But whether or not we can be bothered to stake a claim to the title of “most persecuted”, Christians can surely count ourselves among history’s least respected religious minorities, a tradition that finds its basis in Old Testament prophecy. In fact, Isaiah specifically promised that the Messiah would be sent to the most contemptible corner of the Jewish nation:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”
The People Who Walked In Darkness

The “people who walked in darkness” were the Galileans, a mixture of Jews and Gentiles who were looked down on by their own nation. In fact, even today, Infogalactic refers to the city of Nazareth, where the Lord grew up, as the “Arab capital of Israel”.

Palestine, as divided among the Twelve Tribes
By Claude Reignier Conder, 1889
But back in the days of Jesus, Galileans weren’t particularly well thought of either. Nathanael, later one of the Lord’s own disciples, at first asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” And the Jewish religious authorities of the day were prepared to write off anything their fellow Pharisee Nicodemus had to say. “Are you from Galilee too?” they asked him rhetorically. “Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee,” they mocked him. (Of course they were forgetting Jonah, who hailed from Gath-hepher, a few miles north of Nazareth, but since he was sent to the out-of-favour Gentiles he may have been an easy prophet to overlook.)

Just How Contemptible Were They?

On the subject of the Galileans, Isaiah says, “In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali.”

If the times in which Galileans were held in contempt were “former” to Isaiah (who served the Lord for sixty-something years between approximately 740 BC and 680 BC), we are talking about a fairly ancient state of affairs that may well have been an artifact of the low state into which the northern tribes of Israel fell in the latter days of the divided kingdom, after the glory days of Solomon.

The book of Kings tells us:
“In the days of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria came and captured … Galilee, all the land of Naphtali, and he carried the people captive to Assyria.”
After the people of this part of the northern kingdom were carried off to captivity in Assyria, the land became a place of briers and thorns, where “cattle are let loose and where sheep tread”, as Isaiah prophesied in chapters 7 and 8. This was what he says life in Galilee would be like at that point in history, and it seems he probably lived to witness the fulfillment of his prophecy with his own eyes:
“They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.”
The remaining few left in the land spoke “contemptuously” against their God. They had no reasonable expectation of restoration, no enjoyment in their existence and little hope for the future, unless of course they were among those few who may have listened to Isaiah. This is the “darkness” of which Isaiah speaks, a precursor of the spiritual darkness into which the entire nation had fallen by the time of the Lord’s first advent.

Even More Contempt

But in fact, contempt for Galilee goes back many years further in Jewish history, to Solomon himself:
“King Solomon gave to Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee. But when Hiram came from Tyre to see the cities that Solomon had given him, they did not please him. Therefore he said, ‘What kind of cities are these that you have given me, my brother?’ So they are called the land of Cabul to this day. Hiram had sent to the king 120 talents of gold.”
What was Solomon thinking exactly? We may well debate the prudence of any king of Israel electing to give away land that God had bestowed on his people as their national inheritance, especially since doing so was the consequence of a mere financial transaction. Hiram of Tyre had contributed considerable labour, raw materials and financial assistance to the building of a temple for the God of Israel in Jerusalem, but his contribution to the larger, more spectacular palace of Solomon was even more significant. It is very likely Solomon’s extravagant personal indulgence that put him in the position of having to reimburse Hiram with a big chunk of Israelite territory, land far away from Jerusalem, the centre of Solomon’s kingdom.

In any case, having viewed the 20 cities he received from Solomon, Hiram expressed his contempt for them. The word cabul has been translated “worthless” and “good for nothing” by various sources.

So Galilee and contempt have a well established history.

The Lord and a Legacy of Contempt

And yet this despised and “darkened” part of the nation is not only where our Lord was sent to live for the first thirty years of his earthly existence, it was the geographical base for much of his public ministry:
“Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled …”
From the very beginning, this despised subset of the Jewish nation (a group with more Gentile blood in them, on average, than probably any other comparable group in Israel) were the beneficiaries of the Jewish rejection of the Messiah. John, who proclaimed him, was arrested, so Jesus at the very beginning of his ministry withdrew and lived in Galilee. He didn’t just go there because it had been prophesied. He made sure it had been prophesied in order to go there.

And so he became identified not just with mankind, and not just with Israel, but with the lowest of the low in a lowly nation. And he is still identified with them today:
“Most scholars agree that Jesus was a Jewish rabbi from Galilee.”
— Infogalactic

“According to the gospels, Jesus’ earthly ministry centered around the Sea of Galilee. While important events occurred in Jerusalem, the Lord spent most of the three years of His ministry along the shore of this freshwater lake. Here He gave more than half of His parables and here He performed most of his miracles.”
— Todd Bolen
It is hardly surprising that those who identified themselves as disciples of Jesus were summarily tarred with the same brush as their master. Among other pejoratives in circulation to describe the early believers, it appears that “sect of the Nazarenes” (or literally “men of Nazareth”) made the rounds.

A Child Is Born to Whom?

It is precisely in this less-than-impressive context that Isaiah gives us his famous prophecy:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone … For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”

Whether or not we encounter persecution in this life as believers in the Lord Jesus, there is a long history of contempt and despite to which we are legitimate heirs. And I’m just fine with that. After all, he himself was “despised and rejected by men”. As Christians, if we are looking to impress the world, we’ve come to the wrong place. Remember that when you hear professing believers tell us how important it is make religion “credible” or to make compromises so that “Christianity’s reputation in much of the Western world can begin to rebound”.

Worldly credibility for us ain’t happening anytime soon. If it does, we are probably doing something wrong.


  1. Hey Tom, that picture of Galilee at the top reminds me of what Gideon promised Succoth and Peniel he would use to punish them after they rejected his request for food in Judges 8.

    Good post, thanks

  2. There indeed seems to be a basis for saying that Christians are now the most persecuted religious group on the planet.