Life in Bible Times—The Fisherman
“Walking alongside the sea of Galilee he [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, letting down a fishing net into the sea, for they were fishers. And he said to them: ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’”—MATTHEW 4:18, 19.
FISH, fishing, and fishermen are mentioned often in the Gospel accounts. In fact, Jesus used a number of illustrations about fishing. And no wonder! He spent much of his time teaching near or on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. (Matthew 4:13; 13:1, 2; Mark 3:7, 8) This beautiful freshwater lake is some 13 miles (20.92 km) long and 7 miles (11.27 km) wide. As many as seven of Jesus’ apostles—Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thomas, and Nathanael—may have been fishermen.—John 21:2, 3.
What was it like to be a fisherman in Jesus’ day? Why not learn a little about these men and their trade? You will deepen your appreciation for the apostles and enhance your understanding of Jesus’ actions and illustrations. First, consider what it was like to work on the Sea of Galilee.
“A Great Agitation Arose in the Sea”
The Sea of Galilee is cupped in a rift valley, its surface being some 690 feet (210 m) below sea level. Rocky slopes flank its shores, and to the north, majestic Mount Hermon juts into the sky. In winter, frigid winds may at times whip up choppy waves. In summer, hot air blankets the surface waters. With little notice, violent storms tumble down from the surrounding mountains and release their fury on sailors traversing the sea. Jesus and his disciples were caught in just such a storm.—Matthew 8:23-27.
Fishermen sailed wooden boats that were approximately 27 feet (8.27 m) long with about a 7.5-foot (2.3 m) beam. Many of their boats had a mast and a cabinlike shelter under the stern deck. (Mark 4:35-41) These slow but sturdy craft bore the stress of winds that pushed the sail and mast in one direction while the weight of a net tugged in the other.
Men maneuvered the boat using oars mounted on both sides. A crew might consist of six or more fishermen. (Mark 1:20) In addition, the boats likely carried gear and supplies, such as a linen sail (1), rope (2), oars (3), a stone anchor (4), warm, dry clothes (5), food provisions (Mark 8:14) (6), baskets (7), a pillow (Mark 4:38) (8), and a net (9). They may also have carried extra floats (10), as well as sinkers (11), repair tools (12), and torches (13).
“They Enclosed a Great Multitude of Fish”
Today, as in the first century, the most productive fishing grounds in the Sea of Galilee are located near the mouths of the many springs and rivers that feed the sea. At these locations, vegetable matter enters the sea and draws the fish. To catch their quarry, fishermen in Jesus’ day often worked at night, using torches. On one occasion, some of Jesus’ disciples fished all night without success. But the next day, at Jesus’ direction, they let down their nets again and caught so many fish that they almost sank their boats.—Luke 5:6, 7.
Sometimes the fishermen sailed to deep waters. At the fishing grounds, two boats worked as a team. The men stretched a net between the boats; then the crews rowed strenuously in opposite directions, letting out the net as they encircled the fish. The boats completed the circle, and the trap closed. The fishermen then heaved on the ropes attached to the corners of the net, hauling the catch into the boat. The net might have been more than 100 feet (30 m) long and about 8 feet (2.44 m) deep, large enough to trap an entire shoal of fish. The upper edge was buoyed by floats, and the lower fixed with weights. The fishermen set their net, and then hauled it in again and again, hour after hour.
In shallower waters, a team of fishermen would use a different technique. A boat took one end of the dragnet from the beach out to sea and circled back to shore, enclosing the fish. Men on shore then hauled in the net, dumped the catch onto the beach, and sorted the fish there. They placed the acceptable ones in vessels. Some were sold fresh locally. Most were dried and salted or pickled, stored in clay amphoras, and exported to Jerusalem or foreign lands. Creatures without scales or fins, such as eels, were considered unclean and were discarded. (Leviticus 11:9-12) Jesus referred to this method of fishing when he likened “the kingdom of the heavens” to a dragnet and the different types of fish to good and bad people.—Matthew 13:47-50.
A lone fisherman might use a line with baited bronze hooks. Or he could use a small casting net. To cast the net, he would wade into the water, position the net on his arm, and then toss it up and away from his body. The dome-shaped net would spread out, land on the water, and then sink. If the fisherman was fortunate, the net enclosed a few fish as he drew it back by its center rope.
Nets were expensive and required hard work to maintain, so the men used them with care. Much of a fisherman’s time was spent mending, washing, and drying nets—chores he performed at the completion of every fishing trip. (Luke 5:2) The apostles James and his brother John were sitting in their boat mending their nets when Jesus invited them to follow him.—Mark 1:19.
Among the species of fish sought by first-century fishermen was the abundant tilapia. This species was a regular part of the diet for most people in Galilee, and Jesus likely ate this good-tasting fish. It could have been dried-and-salted tilapia that Jesus used when performing the miracle of feeding the thousands with two fish. (Matthew 14:16, 17; Luke 24:41-43) This same species of fish often swims with its young in its mouth. However, when not carrying its young, it may carry a pebble in its mouth, or it might even gather up a shiny coin lying on the bottom of the sea.—Matthew 17:27.
In the first century, successful fishermen were patient, hardworking, and willing to endure hardship in the pursuit of a worthwhile reward. Those who accepted Jesus’ invitation to join him in the disciple-making work likewise needed such qualities if they were to be effective “fishers of men.”—Matthew 28:19, 20.
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