This Sunday’s lectionary reading for Year A, Epiphany 3,is Matt 4.12–23. It begins the account of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, which continues until Matt 16.20 (compare ‘from that time on’ in Matt 4.17 with Matt 16.21), and now Jesus takes centre stage as the main actor in the drama. But from the beginning, he does not act alone, but calls a community of disciples to himself, and in Matthew they are with him throughout—until he is deserted in Matt 26.56.
Mark’s account of the start of Jesus’ ministry is quite stark and factual—but Matthew makes it more specific and personal. His ministry begins, not merely ‘after John was arrested’ (Mark 1.14), but ‘when he [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested’. We know from John 3.22 and John 4.1–3 that Jesus had spent some time in the southern area, apparently involved in ministry in parallel with John; as part of the undesigned historical coincidences in the gospels, this fits well with Matthew’s depiction of Jesus as part of John’s renewal movement. The word translated ‘withdrew to Galilee’ (ἀναχωρέω, anachoreo) can in fact mean ‘return to’, but Matthew typically uses it to refer to an escape from danger (as in Matt 2.12, 2.14, 2.22, 14.13). The movement from the danger of Herod Antipas in the South back to Galilee echoes the journey he took with his family when they first came back from Egypt.
Matthew gives us more geographic detail than Mark, though adapts it to suit his purposes. Nazareth was then a small village, whereas Capernaum was in a busy fishing area and on a trade route around the ‘sea’ of Galilee (which Luke corrects to being a ‘lake’), and at that time had a population of at least 10,000 according to archaeological excavations of the site. So it was a natural centre for a ministry which would have an impact on the whole area; it had its own centurion (Matt 8.9) who would have overseen a wide area, as Roman troops were spread comparatively thinly, as well as its own custom post (Matt 9.9) indicating its importance for trade.