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Guest Column: Biblical facts about fishermen, fishing and fish

Guest Column: Biblical facts about fishermen, fishing and fish

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In the best known book (and film) about Montana, Norman Maclean begins his semi-autobiographical "A River Runs Through It," by noting that in his family there was no clear distinction between religion and fly fishing. He jokes that his father, a Presbyterian minister, always drew the attention of his sons to the fact that "all first class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen, and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman."

Is there something extraordinarily spiritual about fish and the pastime of angling? Well, no other sport even comes close to the quantity or the quality of literature devoted to it. The most widely printed book in the English language is the Bible. The second most widely printed book in English is the "Complete Works of William Shakespeare." Ranking third in the number of copies printed in the English language is "The Compleat Angler," by Izaak Walton, first printed in England, in 1653.

When the Son of God initiated his ministry, his first act was to travel to the Sea of Galilee and select four fishermen to be his apprentices (Matt. 4:18). Biblical scholars believe that at least seven of the 12 disciples were fishermen. Incidentally, the Greek word translated fishermen in English language Bibles is a broader term that actually means seamen, referring to any group of men who made their living on or near the sea (sailors, fishermen, longshoremen, etc.). It is because Peter and Andrew were casting a net that Bible scholars must infer from the context that they were fishermen.

The Sea of Galilee is the world’s lowest fresh-water lake with a surface approximately 680 feet below sea level and a maximum depth of 150 ft. It is roughly 13 miles long and 8 miles wide. It is also referred to in scripture as Chinnereth, Sea of Tiberas or Lake Genneseret. The lake is completely encircled by a beach and the water is cool and clear. Fishing was an important occupation in Galilee during Jesus’ time. Bethsaida, an ancient Galilean fishing village mention seven times in scripture was located on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. The place derives its name from words meaning place of nets or fishery.

In the two scriptural accounts (Matt. 15:34 and Mark 8:7) of feeding the lesser crowd of 4,000, both texts specifically mention small fish in addition to the seven loaves that Jesus used to feed the multitude. Most likely, these were Kinneret sardines, the smallest commercially important fish in the Sea of Galilee. In ancient times, these salt-brine pickled sardines were an important element of diet throughout the country, especially for those who lived near the lake.

In John 21, we find the resurrected Jesus assisting his disciples in catching 153 large fish. He then builds a charcoal fire to broil the fish and fixes his disciples a shore breakfast. This is interesting from several standpoints. It is the first and only time that scripture records Jesus cooking anything. Fisheries science professors also point to this as the earliest written example of fisheries statistics records (153 large fish). Careful readers of John 21 will note that the disciples were fishing at night. This is because the nets of that day were constructed from linen, and were less visible to fish at night. And finally, by noting that these were large fish, it probably means that they were tilapia, the most desirable and commercially important fish in the Sea of Galilee. Tilapia remain a popular food fish today, though they are usually raised in ponds by commercial growers rather than wild caught.

Another Sea of Galilee fish possibly referenced in scripture is the eel-like sfamnun. This is the sole species of African catfish (sfamnun means mustached fish) in Israel, and the largest indigenous fish in the lake (up to 4 feet in length and 25 pounds). Its lack of scales made it religiously unlawful to eat (Lev. 11:9-12).

Because of the serpentlike appearance of the sfamnun, local fisherman are presumed to have derogatorily referred to them as snakes. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus teaches a parable about God’s perfect love for his people, stating that even an imperfect, earthly father knows not to give his son a snake when he asks for a fish. Some Bible scholars believe it would be more in context with Galilean folks’ understanding of their seaside environs if the “snake” Jesus referred to was the serpentlike, sfamnun fish rather than some deadly, desert viper. Rather than presenting extreme contrast (that no loving father would substitute a horrific, poisonous serpent as a gift to a son who asked for a fish), Jesus may be merely inserting logic: if a son asks for a fish, a good Jewish father would never consider giving him an “unclean,” snakelike catfish. While this can’t be proven, it is certainly contextually reasonable, especially since Bible scholars believe Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) was probably presented near or overlooking the Sea of Galilee.


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