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The Fish, appearing in the Old and New Testaments as the oldest Christian symbol, informs readers not only of the ancient profession of fishing but also of the admirable qualities Christians and biblical fishermen share as proclaimers of faith.


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Cast Your Nets: Fishing at the Time of Jesus

by Elizabeth McNamer

Until the Second Vatican Council, Catholics could be identified by their eating of fish on Fridays. Fish and Catholic seemed to go hand in hand.

A fish is the oldest Christian symbol. The Greek word for fish, ichthus, is an acrostic for the Greek words that translate to —Jesus Christ Son of God Savior.— The fish symbol is pervasive in Christian art and literature. The symbol is seen on mosaics in Christian churches, on frescoes, on a wall painting in the catacombs of Rome, on glasses, cups, sarcophagi, monuments in all parts of the Roman world.

The symbol of a fish was used by persecuted Christians as a code name for Christ in order to avoid arrest and execution by Roman authorities. When a picture of a fish appeared outside a Roman home it meant that the Lord—s Supper would be observed that night.

Fish in Scripture

The importance of fish in the Bible is well substantiated. In the Book of Genesis, we find that fish are the first creatures to appear (1:2). They are the only species not taken into the ark, suggesting that they were self-supporting! In Leviticus we read of laws regarding which fish are kosher and which are not.

Descriptions of methods of fishing are given in the Book of Habakkuk: a hook, net and seine are used (1:15). Job sarcastically asks if one can capture a leviathan with a hook (40:25).

In 1 Kings, fish are associated with the wisdom of Solomon (5:13). In the Book of Tobit, Tobiah is told, —Cut the fish open and take out its gall, heart and liver and keep them with you...its gall, heart and liver make useful medicines — (6:3-7). Later, Tobiah uses the fish gall to remove cataracts from his father—s eyes.

When Jerusalem was rebuilt by Nehemiah after the Babylonian captivity, a Fish Gate was built into its wall (Neh 3:3). Fishermen are mentioned by Jeremiah, when speaking of bringing back the Israelites from Babylon: —Look! I will send many fishermen, says the Lord, to catch them— (16:16). And a large fish prevents Jonah from going on his cruise of the Mediterranean and lands him back where he should have gone in the first place.

Jesus preached in terms of fishing, almost echoing Jeremiah when he says to Peter and the other fishermen: —From now on you will be catching men— (Lk 5:11). Two miraculous catches of fish are related in Luke 5:1-11 and John 21:1-8). All of the gospel writers attest that he fed thousands with fish and bread. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a dragnet (Mt 13:47-48). He paid taxes with a coin found in the mouth of a fish (Mt 17:27). Jesus is depicted as preaching from fishing boats and sailing in fishing boats. The crowds that followed him carried bread and fish (Mk 6:35-40). The hungry asked for fish (Lk 11:1). Jesus was given fish to eat after his resurrection in Jerusalem (Lk 24:42), and he cooked fish for his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Jn 21:9). He traveled to and from places in the company of fishermen. And, most importantly, Jesus choose fishermen for the important job of spreading his word and building his church.

Fishing in the First Century

The Sea of Galilee has been renowned for its fish from ancient times. There are 18 different species that are indigenous to the lake. They are classified locally into three main groups: sardines, biny and musht.

Sardines are endemic to the lake. Today at the height of the fishing season tens of tons of sardines are caught every night. Biny fish consist of three species of the carp family. Because they are —well fleshed— they are very popular at feasts and for Sabbath. Musht means —comb.— These are large fish, some of which are 16 inches long and weigh 2 pounds.

Two stories of Jesus involve the musht fish. When winter comes, the musht, which are tropical fish, congregate in shoals in the northern part of the lake where they are attracted to the warm water of the springs rising at the foot of the Eremos hill flowing into the lake. The attraction is fatal to the fish for it offers the fishermen an opportunity to make abundant catches. It was probably here that Jesus, having seen a shoal of musht, told Peter to let down his net, and he made a successful haul.

In the spring, the musht couple off and lay their eggs on the bottom of the lake. After fertilization, the parents take the eggs into their mouths for three weeks until they hatch. They then watch over them for a few days. To prevent their offspring entering the mouth again, the parent fish take in pebbles so that —home— will no longer be so comfortable. They may also swallow coins with the pebbles and many coins have been found in the mouths of musht. This may have been what happened when Jesus asked Peter to find a coin in the mouth of a fish to pay taxes.

Several methods of fishing have been used for centuries on the Sea of Galilee. Some fishermen caught with their bare hands, some used wicker baskets or other kinds of fish traps made of nets or rope, some used spears, arrows or harpoons. But by far the most popular kind of fishing is by net. There were three methods of net fishing.

The dragnet is the oldest type of net. The netting was shaped like a long wall 300 feet long and 12 feet high. The bottom of the net had weights with sinkers, and the top rope had cork floats. The net was folded. A team of up to 16 men held the strong rope attached to the dragnet. Then the boat sailed out with another team until the net was fully stretched and then circled around and back to shore. Here the second team alighted and held the ropes. Both teams then dragged the net and its contents (hopefully a large number of fish), back to the shore. This method enabled one to catch the fish who were hiding out at the bottom of the lake. The fish were then handed over to be sorted and the operation performed again, as many as eight times in one day.

The cast net is circular, about 20 feet in diameter, with weights of lead attached to the border. One man usually flings the net in a round circle from the shore but it is also done from boats. It required great skill since it had to open completely when it landed on the water trapping the fish underneath it. Peter and Andrew were occupied with this type of fishing when Jesus— summons came to them. The weights come together as the nets sink and encircle the fish. Sometimes, the fishermen on a boat had to jump into the water to retrieve the net and so they often fished naked. They were probably fishing with cast nets when they spied Jesus standing on the shore (Jn 21:7).

The third method is the trammel net, which was actually composed of three nets, two large mesh walls about five feet high with a finer net in between. The boat went out into deep waters where there are no rocks so that the nets would not be torn. It was usually done by night. One end of the net was let down into the sea, then the boat made a circle creating a sort of tub in the water. The net gathered in every kind of fish, as they were unable to escape through the three layers of netting. When the fish were brought to shore, they had to be extricated from the nets and this took time and skill. The nets were spread out on the rocks to dry and be mended. Only in emergency situations were they mended on the boats themselves. Yet we find James and John mending their net in a boat in Matthew—s Gospel (4:21). And they abandoned this activity to follow Jesus—emergency or not—and left their father with the hired men.

The last method, still used, is the familiar hook and line. Peter and Andrew were said to be fishing with a line and hook when they caught the fish with the coin in its mouth (Mt 17:27).

The Fishing Business

Rules for fishing were stringent. When the haul was brought ashore, the fish first had to be sorted into clean and unclean fish. According to Leviticus 11:9-12, fish with scales and fins were regarded as clean, but those without them, such as catfish and eel, were unclean. Then they were counted. Counting was necessary for tax purposes and in order to ensure that each party received his due. Fish had to be sold while the water still remained on them.

Much of the catch was taken to Magdala. Salting of fish for preservation had been in vogue since the time of the Ptolemies. The center of this industry was Magdala, where fish was dried and exported to various parts of the Roman Empire. Magdala in Greek is Tarichaea, which means —dried fish.— There, the fish would be packed in baskets for export and the fishermen would take it on wagons pulled by mules to shops in Jerusalem, or to a seaport where they would be loaded on ships and taken to Rome. Dried fish from Galilee was considered a delicacy among the Roman aristocracy. We know, too, that fish from Galilee were also popular in Damascus.

Fishing in Galilee was a thriving industry. Fish was the main source of protein, and the market for fish extensive. The population of Palestine at the time of Jesus was about 500,000. The ordinary masses depended on fish along with bread as a staple food. Satisfying the epicurean appetites of the upper classses at home and abroad with dried fish was a profitable business.

At the archaeological site at Bethsaida (which means —house of the fishermen—), numerous fishing implements have been found: a clay seal, which was probably used to stamp jar handles, depicting two fishermen in a small boat; lead weights, hooks, bronze and iron needles, basalt and iron weights and anchors. There is no doubt that fishing was a major occupation of the people of Bethsaida. An unfinished fishing weight suggests that there may have been a factory in Bethsaida for the making of fishing equipment. Flax spores have been found in abundance. Fishing nets were made of flax, as were the sails for fishing boats.

At Bethsaida the government of Philip Herod sold fishing rights to wealthy individuals with the means of underwriting a large business, and they sublet the rights to fishermen. The fishermen paid a hefty tax to the investors and little love was lost between them. Matthew, the tax collector, may have been one of these. Five of the apostles—Peter, Andrew, James, John and Philip—came from Bethsaida.

The fishermen oversaw all aspects of the business. They furnished the boats and equipment for the actual fishing. They paid their help and paid the quota to the tax collector. They attended to the business of sale, were accountable for the preserving of the fish and shipment, and did their own bargaining.

The fishermen hired sailors and fishers (maybe day laborers) to do the work, care for the boats, mend the nets, sift and count the fish. These fishermen operated in legal partnership with others. They belonged to guilds (much like trade unions).

Zebedee, the father of James and John, owned his boats and hired day laborers. This leads to the presumption that he and his sons had a sizeable business, which would have required travel. Peter and Andrew were partners with them.

Is it possible that Jesus went to Jerusalem and to other places with a delegation of fishermen? The places Jesus traveled to were towns where fishermen took their fish. In Mark—s Gospel we find Jesus making a journey to Tyre for no particular reason. The fishing business would have taken the fishermen there. The city of Tyre had been built by the Egyptian Ptolemies and was an important Greek-speaking port on the Phoenician coast. Fluency in Greek would have been required of those doing business there. That the early Christian community lived here is evidenced from the Book of Acts (21:3-7). It is most likely that Jesus went there with his friends to export their fish.

James and John, according to the gospels, traveled frequently to Jerusalem where fish was required for the pilgrim feasts. It has been suggested that they supplied fish for the high priestly family (the gospel says that John was known to the High Priest, Caiaphas). Was it on these trips that Jesus went to Jerusalem? In John—s Gospel we find him there for many of the feasts, which would have been the times when fishermen went with their fish.

Jesus Chose Fishermen

Jesus entrusted fishermen from Bethsaida with the spreading of his message. They were the ones he commissioned to be fishers of men and to teach all nations. He may have done this for practical reasons. These were savvy businessmen. They were multilingual. Their native tongue was Aramaic. They would also have known Hebrew. A knowledge of Greek would have been essential for people like Peter and his co-workers who were involved in the fishing business. The gospels themselves suggest that they were able to carry on conversations with Greek speakers the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mk 7:26), people in the Decapolis where the curing of the deaf man took place (Mk 7:31), and the incident of Philip and Andrew conversing with the Greeks (Jn 12:20-23). They may also have had a smattering of Latin. Peter converses with the Roman centurion, Cornelius (Acts 10:25).

Fishermen had to develop attributes that others did not have. They had to be skilled at their trade, knowing the when, where and why of fishing, but they also had to be patient, not easily discouraged, strong, hard-working and community- oriented.

As businessmen they had to be judges of character, savvy about the market, conscientious about their civic and religious responsibility. They had to have respect for the law and learn to operate within its limitations. All of this was required in their new enterprise. And in bringing the skills of their trade to Jesus, these fisherman changed the world.

Elizabeth McNamer has a Ph.D. in adult education from Montana State University and an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University. Each summer she participates in an archaeological dig in Bethsaida.

Living the Scriptures

Go fishing—metaphorically if not in fact. Expect to come up with a catch.

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