Fishers of People
Jerome Murphy O’Connor
"And passing along by the sea of Galilee,
Jesus saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon
casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.
And Jesus said to them, 'Follow me and I will make you fishers of men'.
And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother,
who were in their boat mending the nets.
And immediately he called them;
and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with
the hired hands, and followed him." Mark 1:16-20
The First Followers of Jesus
The four fishermen - Simon (nicknamed Peter by Jesus), Andrew, James and John - became the nucleus of the group of disciples that Jesus gathered around him. Their accounts of Jesus actions and of his sayings form the core of the gospel traditions about his public ministry. The historical reliability of these traditions, in turn, hinges on the character and credibility of these witnesses. What sort of men were these "fishers of men"?
Their opponents, not surprisingly, took a dim view of them. According to Luke, the religious authorities in Jerusalem dismissed them as "uneducated, common men" (Acts 4:13). What is surprising is that this remains the dominant view among Christians even today. More importantly, it is a linch-pin of the scepticism of those who attack the general reliability of the gospel traditions. Such ignorant, labouring men, the argument goes, could not be expected to remember or report accurately. On the contrary, to increase their own importance, they were likely to invent and embroider at will, so little or no confidence can be placed in what they relate about Jesus' words and deeds. But is such a view justified?
The Status of Fishermen in the Ancient World
The New Testament tells us little directly about the two sets of fisher brothers, but we can learn more about them by looking at the fishing industry and the status of fishermen in the ancient world. You may be surprised.
One simple gauge of the importance of fish in the ancient world is the space given to the topic in the oldest encyclopaedia we possess, the Deipnosophistai (The Learned Banquet, or more wittily, The Gastronomers), compiled around 200 A.D. by Athenaeus of Naucratis in Egypt. In writing his encyclopaedia, Athenaeus drew on some 1,250 different authors and cited the titles of more than a thousand plays. In addition to numerous references to fish scattered throughout the work, book seven is entirely devoted to fish, 125 pages in the Loeb Classical Library edition. The contrast with meat could not be more striking: The Deipnosophistai has many references to meat but the largest block of material is only two and a half pages long.
These simple statistics betray an intense interest in fish, which confirms that "salted, dried and pickled fish was the staple food of the Greeks" and, it could be added, of the rest of the Mediterranean countries. "Bread and fish, with the addition of olive-oil and wine, formed in ancient times the most substantial parts of the diet of the people, rich and poor," writes one modern-day historian.
Significantly, the quantity of fresh fish available did not meet the demand. This inevitably pushed up the price. The Greek biographer Plutarch (c.50-120 A.D.) reports Cato the Censor's (234-149 BC) complaint that "a fish sells for more at Rome than a cow, and they sell a cask of smoked fish for a price that a hundred sheep plus one ox in the lead wouldn't bring, cut in pieces". According to Plutarch, the eminent Roman was not exaggerating!
Our sources complain bitterly at how expensive fresh fish was. Like moneylenders, fishmongers were considered murderous, wealthy thieves. The Roman emperor Hadrian (117-138 A.D.) tried to deal with the problem by regulating the sale of fish. He ordained: "Either those who catch the fish are to sell them all themselves, or the first people who purchase the catch from them. The resale of the same purchases by those who are third buyers adds to the prices". The use of inspectors to control the price of fish was proposed as early as the fourth century B.C.
High prices often put fresh fish out of the reach of the poor. In fact, there was a presumption that if a poor person bought fresh fish, he was a thief. "The first poor man, who is also young (i.e. with the strength to commit a crime) who is seen buying eels from Micion (a character in a play) is seized and dragged to the prison." The poor could afford only dried and salted fish, which was the basic food of the lower classes in the cities, slaves, peasants and soldiers in the field.
Since fish was an essential element in the diet of the majority of the population, every government had to give thought to its regular supply. If private entrepreneurs failed to meet the demands of the market, the government farmed out fishing contracts in much the same way as it farmed out tax-collecting contracts. Professional fishermen had to guarantee a stipulated supply. Anything over and above that they could sell on their own. A document from Tebtunis, Egypt, dated 235 B.C., confirms that capitalistic enterprises played a significant role in such a lucrative market and that the owners earned much more than those who did the actual work.
The Gospels clearly convey the importance of fish in the diet of first-century A.D. Palestinian Jews. Tellingly, the Gospels never mention meat. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus asks, "What man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent?" (Mt.7:9-10). The disciples who followed Jesus into the desert carried bread and fish (Mk.6:38; compare with Mk.8:7). The references, of course, are to dried or salted fish (Jn.6:9) which was broiled to make it palatable (Lk.24:42). In John 21:9, fresh fish was fried for breakfast by the lake.
The parable of the sorting of the catch in Matthew, "The kingdom of heaven is like a net which was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad" (Mt.13:47-48), identifies the fishermen as Jewish because they follow the Law, distinguishing between clean fish (fish with scales and fins) and unclean fish ( Leviticus 11:9-12; Deuteronomy 14:9-10). This was both good and bad for Jewish fishermen. On the one hand, they could not sell all their catch. But on the other hand, they had the advantage of selling to Jews in Jerusalem, even though they had to travel twice as far as the gentiles who controlled fishing on the Mediterranean coast. It was a two day journey from the coast to the Holy City and four days from Galilee. These figures make it most improbable that fresh fish was ever available in Jerusalem. How could a scrupulous buyer of salted fish know exactly from what type of fish the slices were taken? All looked the same, especially when processed. The Mishnah encouraged Jews to mistrust the offerings of gentile fish sellers. All fish (sold by gentiles) can be presumed unclean… All manner of brine can be presumed to be unclean.
From this it was but a short step to protectionism, as a story of Paul's teacher illustrates. "A Gentile once brought fish to Rabban Gamaliel. He said, 'They are permitted but I have no wish to accept them from him.'" In other words, Jewish buyers should seek out Jewish suppliers, who were presumed to respect the Law. The advantage to the Jewish fishermen from Galilee is obvious, but they still had to face competition from their brethren who worked the Jordan River.
Simon Peter, Andrew and Philip
Against this background, let us return to the small group of fishermen who were Jesus first followers. Simon Peter, Andrew and another apostle, Philip, came from Bethsaida, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee (Jn.1:44). For many years, the precise location of their hometown was disputed because the first-century A.D. Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Pliny locate it east of the Jordan River, in the lower Golan, while John 12:21 puts it west of the Jordan, in Galilee. To complicate the problem, three sites east of the Jordan, et-Tell, el-Araj and Masudiyeh were long considered candidates for Bethsaida. Archaeological probes, however, showed that the last two sites were occupied only in the Byzantine period. Et-Tell, on the contrary, revealed an occupational history beginning in the third millennium B.C., with substantial remains from the first century B.C. and the first century A.D.
In Jesus' time, the territory north-east of the Sea of Galilee was ruled by Herod Philip (22 B.C. - 34 A.D.), who had inherited the area from his father, Herod the Great. Philip proved to be a popular ruler with a reputation for efficient and fair administration of justice. Towards the end of his life, he moved a great number of settlers into Bethsaida, which he raised to the rank of a city and renamed Julias.
The expanded population meant an increased demand for fish, and the prosperity of at least one fisher family in Bethsaida is attested by a spacious 1,750 square-foot house built around three sides of a courtyard. Inside, excavators found a variety of fishing implements, including net weights and a long, crooked needle. Also unearthed were 156 shards of imported Roman fineware, further evidence of wealth.
A Galilean upbringing had a profound influence on Simon Peter, Andrew and Philip. As Jews they would have learned enough Hebrew to read the Scriptures, but their mother tongue would have been Aramaic.
This makes it all the more curious that all three have good Greek names. Simon is derived from the Hebrew name Shimon, but it is Greek, and he is only rarely called Symeon (2 Peter 1:1), a transliteration closer to the Hebrew original. The nickname Peter is also Greek, and Andrew and Philip have no Semitic counterparts whatsoever. The implication is that their families were subject to strong Greek influence.
John 12:20-22 provides one indication that Simon Peter, Andrew and Philip also spoke Greek. In that passage, a group of Greeks asks Philip to introduce them to Jesus; they likely did so because they had heard Philip speaking Greek. As business people, fishermen needed to know Greek. In the first century, Greek was as much the international language as English is today. Greek was the language of trade and commerce in the whole of the eastern Mediterranean.
Bethsaida was but one of 13 ancient harbours that decorated the coast of the Sea of Galilee. It is unlikely that all had the specialised facilities that were necessary to preserve fish so that it could be transported any distance. Given the size of the lake, it would have made economic sense to have a central fish factory to process the catch of the many small harbours. That such was in fact the case is strongly suggested by the name of one harbour, Taricheae, "the Fish Factory". The name comes from the Greek verb taricheuo, "to preserve by artificial means." In practice, however, the cognates of this verb deal predominantly with fish - for example: tarichas, "a dealer in salt fish", taricheion, "pickle factory"; taricheutos, "salted, pickled'; tarichegos, "salt-fish hawker."
Thus, as the name indicates, Taricheae was the place where fish were salted. The process has not changed throughout history. Gutted fish are rubbed with coarse salt. According to R.J. Forbes, an expert in ancient technologies, "alternate layers of salt and fish are covered by dry matting. After standing from 3-5 days the pile is turned over to stand for a similar period. During this drying the body fluids drain away and salt solution penetrates the fish. After this drying they are firm and hard, though in some cases left to dry in the air somewhat longer".
To Aramaic speakers, Taricheae was known as Magdala, a name that evokes a different preservation process. The Aramaic name Magdala is known only from the adjective Magdalene, attached to the name of Mary, the disciple of Jesus who came from Magdala (Luke 8:2). Magdala is a Hellenized corruption of the Hebrew migdal, "tower". In Europe, where wood provided inexpensive fuel, a tower might have been used to smoke fish. The ancient Near East however, was wood-poor, so the tower was probably used to hang fish to dry in the sun and wind.
From Bethsaida to Capernaum
This tax problem explains why Simon Peter and Andrew moved across the Jordan from Bethsaida to Capernaum, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Both Matthew and Luke describe Jesus miraculously curing Peter's mother-in-law in Capernaum (Mt.8:14-15; Lk.4:38-39). We might assume that Simon Peter
had moved in with his wife's family for some personal reason, but Mark identifies the house as the home of both Simon Peter and Andrew: "[Jesus] entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John" (Mk.1:29).
We have a surprisingly good picture of the scale of Simon Peter and Andrew's fishing operation. They worked in partnership (Lk.5:7) with James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Lk.5:10), who had employees (Mk.1:20). They were free to start (Jn.21:1-3) and stop work (Lk.5:11) when it suited them. The impression that they were men of substance who controlled their own lives is confirmed by the quality of their house at Capernaum. Known as the House of Peter since the fourth century, it is larger than most of the other houses excavated in Capernaum.
But that is not all. Although no evangelist was interested in providing his readers with a detailed picture of the families of Jesus' disciples or of their business practices, we can read between the lines. Given the average size of families at the time, it seems very likely that more of the family must have been involved in the fishing business on the Sea of Galilee than just Simon Peter and Andrew, and the family income would have been proportionally greater than that of two men working alone. Against this background of a relatively well-off family, it becomes possible to understand how Simon Peter and Andrew were financially able to drop their work and become, first, disciples of John the Baptist (Jn.1:40-42) and then disciples of Jesus.
How Reliable are the Gospel Accounts?
Let us return to the key question raised earlier: How reliable are the gospel accounts? Radical scepticism regarding their historical reliability began with form criticism, a way of studying the Gospels that developed in the years immediately after the First World War. Form criticism insisted that the reliability of the Gospel tradition was marred by the "creativity" of the believing community. No longer were the stories about Jesus regarded as authenticated by a chain of tradition; instead, the stories could not be attached to any specific individual and could not be verified. Reports were treated as rumours.
In 1962, however, the German scholar Heinz Schurmann pointed out that there was also a pre-Resurrection community of disciples who had known Jesus personally and who had preserved memories of what he had said and done. The post-Resurrection community, according to Schurmann, was simply the continuation of the group that Jesus had gathered around him. The dominant members of the pre-Resurrection community became the leaders of the much larger post-Resurrection community. These were the Galilean fishermen, and it is precisely at this point that what we have learned about them becomes significant.
When read carefully against the background of this ancient industry, the scattered references to Simon Peter and Andrew coalesce into a coherent picture. They came from a prosperous, assimilated Jewish middle-class family. Speaking both Aramaic and Greek, they were brought up to serve in an administrative as well as a practical role in an essential major industry. They knew how to plan and organise. As experienced businessmen, they were astute enough to move their home in order to take advantage of a tax break. Such shrewdness, one can be sure, also manifested itself in the way they handled competition from the many other Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. They were anything but "uneducated, common men."
Business and profit, however, did not completely satisfy them. They looked for something more spiritual and were prepared to make sacrifices to attain it. Their background and training, ensured that they would carefully balance risk against gain. They were not gullible, and nothing in their personalities even hints at a tendency towards self-deception.
From what we know of their characters, it is clear that Simon Peter and Andrew would have functioned as a conservative control in the creative ferment of the post-Resurrection community. They had the authority of eyewitnesses, the sobriety to report accurately and the intelligence to discern between developments that Jesus would approve of and those that he would reject.
Fishers of People first appeared in the Bible Review, June 1999 under the title Fishers of Men
Aerial view of Capernaum and House of the fisherman: BiblePlaces.com