Fishing on the Sea of Galilee
WHAT was life like for a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee back in the first century? The answer sheds light on many Gospel accounts, such as those considered in the preceding article.
That “sea” is actually a freshwater lake measuring some 13 miles [21 km] by about 8 miles [12 km]. Fishermen have long exploited its abundant supply of fish. Jerusalem’s Fish Gate was evidently the location of a fish market. (Nehemiah 3:3) The Sea of Galilee was one source of the fish sold there.
The apostle Peter came from a town on the Sea of Galilee called Bethsaida, which may mean “House of the Fisherman.” Another town on the lake was called Magadan, or Magdala, to which Jesus led his disciples after he walked on the water. (Matthew 15:39) According to one writer, the Greek name of that town could be translated “Processed-Fishville.” It was noted for its extensive fish factories, where locally caught fish were dried and salted—or pickled to produce a sauce that was preserved in clay jars called amphoras. These products were packed and shipped, likely to all parts of Israel and even beyond.
Catching, processing, and marketing fish was thus big business in the Galilee of Jesus’ day. It would be easy to assume that this brought economic advantages to many people in the area. Yet, that was not necessarily the case. Fishing “was not the ‘free enterprise’ which modern readers of the New Testament may imagine,” says one scholar. It was part of “a state regulated, elite-profiting enterprise.”
Herod Antipas governed Galilee as the district ruler, or territorial prince, appointed by Rome. He thus controlled his territory’s roads, harbors, and natural resources, such as mines, forests, agriculture, and fisheries. Those resources were a major source of tax revenue for Herod. We do not have detailed information on tax collection policies in first-century Galilee. However, it appears that Herod’s general approach did not differ greatly from that of Hellenistic rulers or from that used by the Romans in their other eastern provinces. Much of the profit derived from the area’s economic activities and the exploitation of its natural resources may have gone to the elite rather than to the common people, who did most of the work.
The Burden of Taxes
In Jesus’ day, the best lands in Galilee belonged to the royal house and were divided into large estates, which Herod Antipas parceled out as gifts to his grandees and other beneficiaries. Herod’s subjects had to finance the huge costs of his luxurious living, his ambitious building projects, his elaborate administration, and his various grants to friends and cities. The burden of taxes, tolls, and duties levied on the common people is said to have been extremely oppressive.
Herod also held a complete monopoly over the exploitation of inland waters. Fishing would thus be managed either as part of a large-scale royal concern or by the holders of individual gift estates. For areas under direct royal administration, tax brokers or chief tax collectors—wealthy individuals who bought at auction the right to collect taxes—would have authority to stipulate contracts with fishermen for the lease of fishing rights. Some commentators have suggested that since Matthew’s tax office was in Capernaum—an important fishing center on the Sea of Galilee—he may have worked for these chief tax collectors as a local “contractor of royal fishing rights.”*
Evidence from the first and second centuries B.C.E. shows that taxes in Palestine were often paid “in kind,” rather than in cash. Some professional fishermen thus paid some 25 to 40 percent of their catch in exchange for the right to fish. Ancient documents indicate that in at least some areas under Roman administration, fishing remained a State monopoly overseen by inspectors. In Pisidia, a sort of fishing police made sure that no one fished without authorization and that fishermen sold their catch only to authorized middlemen, or wholesalers, whose activity was also subject to State supervision and taxation.
What all these controls and taxes finally meant, says one analyst, is that “the king or holder of the estate made a large amount of profit, whereas the fishermen made very little.” The profits made by those employed in other sectors of economic activity were similarly limited by oppressive taxation. Taxes have never been popular with those who have to pay them. However, the general hostility toward tax collectors that emerges from the Gospel accounts was doubtless augmented by the real dishonesty and greed of men who grew rich by extorting all they could from the common people.—Luke 3:13; 19:2, 8.
Fishermen in the Gospels
The Gospels reveal that Simon Peter had partners in his fishing business. Those who came to help Peter haul in a miraculous catch were his “partners in the other boat.” (Luke 5:3-7) Scholars explain that “fishermen could form ‘cooperatives’ . . . in order to bid for fishing contracts or leases.” This may have been the way that the sons of Zebedee, Peter, Andrew, and their partners obtained authorization to carry on their fishing business.
Whether these Galilean fishermen owned the boats and equipment they used is not specifically stated in the Scriptures. Some believe that they did. Jesus, in fact, is said to have boarded a boat “which was Simon’s.” (Luke 5:3) However, notes one specialized article on the subject, “it is at least possible that the boats were actually owned by the brokers and used by the cooperative.” Be that as it may, the Scriptures speak of James and John mending their nets. Fishermen would presumably also have to bargain to sell their catch and, as necessary, to hire day laborers.
So there was more to the activity of first-century Galilean fishermen than meets the eye. Their business was part of a complex system of economic relationships. Bearing this in mind gives greater depth of meaning to the Gospel accounts and to Jesus’ words about fishing and fishermen. More than that, this information also helps us to appreciate the faith of Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Fishing was their livelihood. Whatever their exact economic condition when Jesus called them, they readily abandoned the trade that they knew—and that provided them with a reliable source of income—in order to become “fishers of men.”—Matthew 4:19.
The apostle Peter evidently moved from Bethsaida to Capernaum, where he was involved in a fishing business with his brother, Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee. Jesus also resided at Capernaum for a time.—Matthew 4:13-16.
[Map on page 25]
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Sea of Galilee
Todd Bolen/Bible Places.com
[Picture Credit Line on page 26]
Todd Bolen/Bible Places.com