The Importance of Fishing in Bible Times

Fishing and fishermen form an important element in the New Testament narrative. Most of Christ’s earthly ministry centered around the Sea of Galilee. It is where he imparted most of his parables and performed all of his miracles, and 4 of the 12 apostles were fishermen. 

Old Testament fishing

Bible scholars believe, however, that few Israelites in Old Testament days were fishermen. Partly because Israel was mostly an agrarian society. But also due to the fact that the Phoenicians and Philistines controlled the Mediterranean coastal waters.

Old Testament fishing tools were generally more primitive as well. Mainly hooks, harpoons, and spears, with a little net fishing. So even though the Sea of Galilee was already a fishing center, most inland fishing seems to have taken place at commercial fish farms, [Solomon 7:4, Isaiah 19:19].

In Old Testament times, Israel mostly depended on foreign trade for their fish supply. These Mediterranean fish entered the nation through ports such as Tyre and Sidon. Then preserved in salt in towns like Magdala (a known fish processing center), they traveled far and wide, eventually selling even at Jerusalem’s special “fish gate.”

Fishing in the New Testament

But by New Testament times, fishing had already become an integral part of Galilee’s agrarian economy, inseparable from the nation’s daily life.

Fish were plentiful in both the Mediterranean Sea and in the lakes of the Jordan valley, and it was an important food source and occupation for the Hebrews. The name of one important fishing village on the Sea of Galilee, Bethsaida, derives its name from its fishing industry — meaning “house of fish.” There was also, apparently, a regular fish market in Jerusalem, undoubtedly next to the “fish gate.”

Fishing, under Roman rule, was tightly controlled. Some areas required a fishing license. Fish distributors and processors, like those in the fish processing town of Magdala, had to pay taxes both for the products and to transport them.

With added costs of boat building and upkeep, net making, and the fact that it was often necessary to hire day laborers to help with the catch, most fishermen lived on a subsistence level income.

Because of this, and because farming was the main means of employment, fishing was considered a low-level form of occupation. One of the various activities or trades that farmers turned to during seasonal gaps in their work.

Fishing and fisherman were important in New Testament times, for fish was a common and essential part of the poor man’s diet. And a way for poor farmers to supplement their earnings.

Full-time or career fishermen existed mainly in the fishing villages. Particularly those along the sea of Galilee where, organized into companies or fishermen’s guilds, most of them owned their own boats.

Though crude in their mannerisms, with rough speech, fishermen were a hardy group of hard-working men. Their job was hard labor, toiling in summer’s heat and winter’s cold, usually at night. Pulling the nets, often several hundred feet long and weighted with stone sinkers, required a strong back and firm muscles. A fisherman was a real man’s man.

The daily life of a fisherman

Fishing was mostly done at night. Partially, perhaps, because it was easier than fishing under the hot Mediterranean sun. But mostly because they got their largest catches at night. Fish nets of those days, made of linen, were highly visible to the fish during the daytime.

But the fishermen had plenty to keep them busy in daylight hours as well. Much time was spent cleaning and mending the nets. After every day’s fishing, they had to carefully clean and dry them to keep the linen from rotting or tearing. They also had to attach stones to the nets, and each stone had to first be drilled through. And in addition to these time-consuming tasks, he also had to salt the fish, market it, and keep his boats in good repair.

The fisherman’s skill and tools

A good fisherman in New Testament times not only had to know where the best fishing spots were, he also had to develop skill in the various forms of fishing.

Dragnet or drawnet fishing

Probably the oldest type of fishing net, this typically long net, several hundred feet by 8-20 feet, was cast between 2 boats several hundred yards from shore.

Corks along one long side kept that side buoyant, while stone sinkers attached to the opposite made it sink lower. Rowing their boats closer together, they hauled the net into the boat, ever tightening the circle.

Dragnets required great skill, as they had to form the net into a bag for the fish, by pulling the bottom rope in faster than the top one. Sometimes this net would also be set from the shore, with a boat dragging it out as far as possible, and then pulling the fish to shore. But this method only worked on shorelines free of rocky protrusions.

This is probably the net which James and John were mending when Jesus called them (Matthew 4:21). And it was also the net in Christ’s parable comparing of the kingdom of God to a net, Matthew 13:47-48.

The casting net or hand net

Circular, 15-25 feet in diameter, with sinkers attached all around, this net was cast by hand from the shore or a boat near the shore, then drawn in by the cord attached to its center.

The fisherman usually had to wade in to gather up his catch. Simon and Andrew would have been fishing with such a net when Christ called them (Mark 1:16-18).

The trammel net

Made of 3 layers of increasingly finer mesh netting, this net was usually cast between 2 boats. Passing between these layers the fish became entangled in the inner wall. The fishermen then jumped into the water to retrieve them. Used principally at night, these were the nets washed out in the morning.

Peter had to put on his outer garment before going to meet the Lord in John 21:7 because they were likely fishing with trammel nets.

Hook and line fishing, or angling

Probably the least common method of fishing in the New Testament era. Yet we know that it was used on occasion, as Christ instructed Peter to cast a hook into the sea and take the coin from its mouth to pay their temple tax.

Archaeologists have also found fishing hooks from New Testament times along the shores of Galilee.

The importance of fishing in Bible times

Fish and fishing were an important part of ancient life, and mentioned throughout Scripture. Starting with the Old Testament’s most famous fish, which swallowed Jonah, and on to the New Testament’s famed fish with a shekel in its mouth. And concluding with the breakfast fish on the Sea of Galilee, shortly before the Lord was taken up to heaven.

Fish was an important source of food, especially for the common people. And because it was widespread in New Testament life, Christ often used fish and fishing as imagery in his lessons.

The sign of the fish even became known as a symbol for his name. This symbol of 2 intersecting arcs created the profile of a fish. The Greek word for fish, ichthys (IXΘYΣ or IXΘYC)  in the center was an acrostic for: Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr, which translated means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”

But perhaps the greatest fishing lesson for us lies with those fishermen in Luke 5 who so eagerly left all to follow in the footsteps of their Lord.

Like Peter, James, and John, may we always be willing to leave all and joyfully follow after him!

And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

Luke 5:11 ESV


Images: Fish symbol by Unknown author | 2 fishing boats;
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