They Left Their Nets Behind
Before Jesus' time, few Israelites were fishermen. There was only one Hebrew word for fish, and it covered everything from minnows to whales. In Jesus' time, a small, flourishing fishing industry developed around the Sea of Galilee. The town of Magdala (in Greek, Tarichaeae, "the place where fish are salted") was a sardine-pickling center. Many of the images Jesus used indicated that he was familiar with fishing and the sea.
The job of a fisherman in Jesus' day was difficult. Fishermen worked year-round in the heat of summer and the cold of winter, often at night. Certainly, Jesus' choice of Capernaum, on the Sea of Galilee, as his home brought him into contact with many fishermen. Several of his disciples - Andrew, Peter, James, and John - knew the trade well. It's possible that Jesus selected fishermen as his disciples not only because the imagery of their occupation fit well with the mission that he had called them to, but also because they were a hardy group of people, accustomed to difficult work and long hours. Jesus even asked them to return to the lake and fish again after a night of fishing without a catch (Luke 5:1-7).
THE SKILLS OF THE FISHERMAN
One of the most important skills of fishermen was making and mending nets. Made of linen, a common fabric used in the ancient Near East, these nets had to be carefully cleaned and dried each day or they would quickly rot and wear out. The majority of a fisherman's life probably was spent mending nets (Luke 5:2). Net weights, small pieces of stone with holes drilled in them, were fastened to the bottom of the nets. This too took time. Fishermen also had to be skilled, of course, in the use of the nets in fishing for various types of fish.
The Old Testament refers to catching fish with hooks, spears, and several types of nets (Job 18:8; Ecc. 9:12; Isa. 19:8). Several types of nets were used in Jesus' time. The seine net was probably the oldest. Several hundred feet long and as much as 20 feet high, this net was dropped by fishermen from boats several hundred yards from shore, and parallel to it. Cork or wood floats kept one edge of the net on the water's surface, while stone sinkers fastened to the other edge pulled it to the bottom. As the fishermen pulled the net ashore, the net trapped any fish in its path. When the fishermen had dragged the net ashore, they sorted the catch, throwing out animals without fins and scales. They cleaned and sold the fish, remembering to give Rome's share to the tax collector. Jesus used the seine net as an illustration in his description of the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 13:47-48). James and John were probably mending (preparing) seine nets when Jesus called them (Matt. 4:21).
The circular cast net measured up to 25 feet in diameter and was thrown into the water from the shore or a boat. Simon and Andrew were using this type of net when Jesus called them (Mark 1:16-18).
The trammel net was composed of three walls, reinforcing each other with increasingly smaller mesh. Fish passed through the layers until they found themselves caught against the inner wall and eventually became entangled. The net was retrieved and the fish extracted. This net was washed in the morning, as it traditionally was used at night. Sometimes fishermen encircled a shoal of fish with a trammel net and threw a cast net into the center. Fishermen may have jumped into the water to retrieve the cast net and catch the fish trapped in the circle of the larger net. Often more than one boat was used with the trammel net (Luke 5:1-7). The New Testament reference to Peter putting on his clothes before meeting Jesus probably indicated that he had been fishing in this way (John 21:7).
Besides the nets, fishermen of Jesus' day also used a hook and line. Jesus told Peter to cast a hook, catch a fish, and get a shekel from its mouth (Matt. 17:24-27). Archaeologists have found hooks from Jesus' time in the small fishing villages along the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
The character of the disciples is seen clearly in their willingness to leave their nets and their boats to follow Jesus (Matt. 4:20,22). They were apparently prosperous, even having hired help (Mark 1:20), but they left it all to follow the Rabbi and become like him. Their commitment and sacrifice were (and would be) enormous.
THE FISH THEY CAUGHT
Various species of freshwater fish in the Sea of Galilee were caught with the different types of nets. Renowned Galilee scholar Mendel Nun has described the three types of fish. Musht, called St. Peter's fish, was, according to tradition, the type of fish caught by Peter. This fish is found on the northern end of the sea, near the area of Jesus' ministry and Peter's fishing. It grows up to 15 inches long and three pounds in weight. It has relatively few bones and is very tasty. (Take my word for it!) It is likely that this is the kind of fish Jesus used to feed 5,000 people (Matt. 14:13-21). Biny, a member of the carp family, was used in Bible lands for feasts and banquets. Sardines are small fish that were caught in enormous numbers. Drying and pickling sardines was the main industry of Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene. These are probably the "small fish" referred to in the Bible (Matt. 15:34; Mark 8:7).
When Jesus asked the disciples to put the net on the other side of the boat near Capernaum and Bethsaida and they caught a large number of fish, they probably caught musht. Their skill in catching, processing, and selling fish provided a ready teaching tool for Jesus. He used imagery from their occupation to explain that they must use the same care and devotion in bringing his message to the world.
THE LESSONS HE TAUGHT
The fishing industry in the area where Jesus ministered, and the fishermen among his disciples, provided effective images for the lessons Jesus taught his audiences. The disciples' task was to become "fishermen" for the kingdom. The long hours, the carefully practiced skills, and the various techniques and nets used in catching specific kinds of fish all must have passed through their minds. Seeking people to follow Jesus would take the same care, dedication, and skill used in fishing (Matt. 4:18-19). The disciples learned that they must seek all kinds of people to follow Jesus, though some would eventually turn away.
The fishing motif apparent in Jesus' teaching about the kingdom was so strong that the Greek word for fish (ichthus) came to represent Jesus' name. The first letters of the Greek words meaning "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior" spell ichthus. The fish itself appropriately became a symbol for Jesus. As his disciples, we must learn the lessons he taught, becoming his new fishers of men and women and finding ways to bring all kinds of people to him.
1. Mendel Nun's excellent work can be found in a booklet entitled "The Sea of Galilee and Its Fishermen," published in Israel by Kibbutz En Gev. It is available from the museum Nun founded on the kibbutz called Beit Ha-Oganim ("House of Anchors"). Visitors to the Sea of Galilee are urged to see this small museum totally dedicated to the history of fishing around the sea where Jesus lived. Nun's writings have also been published in the Jerusalem Perspective.