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Fish, Fisher, Fishing

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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FISH, FISHER, FISHING.—The present article is not concerned with the fish of the Mediterranean, nor with those which inhabit various watercourses in the Holy Land, nor even with those that belong to the lower course of the Jordan or of its southern tributaries, or of the other streams that flow into the Dead Sea. The only fish mentioned in the Gospels, the only ones, consequently, which come within the scope of this Dictionary, are those of the Lake of Gennesaret, to which we naturally add those that are found in the upper course of the Jordan or in the springs in the neighbourhood of the Lake.

Fish (OT דָּנָה דָּג,) are designated in the NT only by the general term ἰχθύς, alternating occasionally with its diminutive ἰχθύδιον, without the employment of the latter term necessarily marking any intended distinction; cf. for an instance in point, Matthew 15:34 with Matthew 15:36. Nowhere in the whole Bible do we find a special name for a definite species of fish.

Fish formed a large part of the food of the Lakeside population. This may be inferred from the threefold question of Jesus (Luke 11:11, cf. Matthew 7:10), in which the commonest foods are enumerated: bread, fish, eggs. The same conclusion is implied in what is related with reference to the two multiplications of the loaves. On the occasion of the first (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-15) it is said that there was present a lad with five loaves and two fishes; in the account of the second (Matthew 15:32-39, Mark 8:1-10) it is mentioned that, in addition to the seven loaves, there were also ‘a few small fishes.’ We may cite, further, Luke 24:42.

It is interesting to note that for the ‘small fishes’ of the other narratives the Fourth Gospel employs the term ὀψάριον, which properly signifies simply ‘nourishment,’ ‘food.’ Bochart (Hieroz. i. p. 41) has already shown that this word was employed in the same way by the best Greek writers, e.g. Plato, Menander, etc., and that σψοφάγοι, is met with as synonymous with ‘fish-eaters.’

It is legitimate to suppose that a trade in fish was carried on between the Lake of Tiberias and the rest of the country. The name of the town of Taricheae (Ταριχεῖαι), situated on the shore of the Lake, implies a business connected with salted provisions (τάριχοι). It may be that this traffic extended as far as Jerusalem; some have supposed that it was in this way that one of Jesus’ disciples, the companion of Simon Peter, was known to the high priest (John 18:15 f.); but this is nothing more than an ingenious conjecture.

‘Fisher’* [Note: So AV and RV in Matthew 4:18 f. and Mark 1:16 f., but ‘fishermen’ in Luke 5:2. See Hastings’ DB ii. 12a.] or ‘fisherman’ (Heb. חֵּג) is expressed in the NT by ἀλεεύς or ἁλιεύς; the verb ‘to fish’ by ἁλιεύειν. Several of the first and principal disciples followed the calling of fishermen. The Synoptics describe the scene when Jesus called them to follow Him (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11). These three narratives contain the promise, ‘I will make you fishers of men.’ Lk. connects the story with the miraculous draught; cf. in this respect also John 21:6-11. In one of the parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:47-50) Jesus compares the latter to a net; and the separation which the fishermen make, in their catch, between what is good and what is bad, is used to symbolize the separation of the righteous from the wicked at the Final Judgment. The criterion by which good and bad fish are distinguished is not expressly indicated. The point in view might be the difference between clean and unclean foods as defined by the Law (cf. Deuteronomy 14:9 f., Leviticus 11:9 f.); but there might be other motives, such as those which Lortet indicates in the case of modern fishermen, who reject certain fish on account of their inferior size (Poissons et Reptiles du lac de Tibériade, p. 52), their disagreeable aspect (ib. pp. 32, 82), or their unpleasant muddy flavour (ib. pp. 35, 58, 64).

The fishermen sometimes carried on their trade in partnership, as is still the case at the present day, when the fishermen of Tiberias form a kind of corporation with fixed rules. The number of fishing vessels on the Lake at the beginning of the Christian era must have been very considerable. Josephus (BJ ii. xxi. 8) speaks of 330 (v.l. 230); see also Mark 4:36, John 6:23. Forty years ago Furrer found only a single boat; Lortet saw three in 1875 and six in 1880; Frei counted nine in 1886, and the present writer saw the same number in 1894, while in 1899 he noted fourteen; and no doubt the number has increased since then.

The fishermen made use of nets. One of the Greek terms employed (Matthew 13:47) is σαγήνη, seine, ‘drag-net,’ a large net which two or more boats arrange in a circle in the lake, in such a way as to enclose a vast space with a kind of vertical wall. It is kept stretched by means of weights and floats. Then the two extremities are brought together, and the whole with its contents is dragged ashore. The other species of net mentioned in the Gospels (Matthew 4:18) is the casting net (ἀμφίβληστρον), which a single man throws with a skilful turn of the hand, and which is of circular form, like an umbrella. Once it has been plunged in the water it is drawn out with the captured fish. This is still the method most frequently pursued in our own time. The other passages where nets are spoken of (Matthew 4:20 f., Mark 1:18 f., Luke 5:2-6, John 21:6-11) use the general term δίκτυον, which might be applied to any kind of net. Some texts speak of washing and of mending nets (Luke 5:2, Matthew 4:21, Mark 1:19). See also Nets.

The Gospels only once mention line-fishing, namely in Matthew 17:27, where we read of Peter casting the hook (ἄγκιστρον), which was certainly placed at the end of a cord or line, but we cannot say whether the latter was attached to a rod or long reed or was simply held in the hand. In the NT there is no mention of harpooning fish (contrast Job 41:7 [He 40:31]). At the present day we still meet with examples of this practice.

The waters of the Lake of Tiberias are exceptionally rich in fish, especially by the shore of el-Batiha (to the east of the mouth of the Jordan), and in the bay of et-Tabigha. These were in former times the favourite grounds of fishermen, and these spots are still preferred by them in our own day. There, on the shore of el-Batiha lay Bethsaida-Julias; and, if there were two Bethsaidas (a much controverted question; see artt. Bethsaida and Capernaum), the second was at et-Tabigha or in its vicinity. Now Bethsaida means ‘house of fish,’ ‘fishery.’ It was the native town of Peter and Andrew, of James and John,—all four fishermen,—as well as of Philip, whose occupation is unknown to us. According to John 21:2 Thomas and Nathanael (of Cana) appear also to have been fishermen, at least occasionally. The dress of the fishermen was more than simple; according to John 21:7 Peter was γυμνός, ‘naked’; it is not quite easy to see why so many exegetes maintain that this term does not imply complete nudity. It is certainly most natural to suppose that Peter had discarded all his clothes; the fact that he afterwards hastily girds on his ἐπενδύτης, lit. his ‘upper garment,’ does not necessarily prove that he was wearing another under it.

The fish of the Lake of Tiberias have been minutely studied and described by two experts, Dr. Lortet, dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Lyons, and Dr. Tristram. Out of 39 (Lortet) or 43 (Tristram) species known in Palestine, from 22 to 24 are found in the Lake of Tiberias and its immediate vicinity. They belong to a number of different genera. The genus Chromis has the richest representation of species: Niloticus, Tiberiadis, Andreœ, Simonis, Microstomus, Flavii Josephi, Magdalenœ; belonging to a genus near of kin is Hemichromis Sacra. These fish are the most abundant and make the best eating. The genus Barbus is also extremely prolific; three species belonging to it are found: Canis, which swarms, but is little appreciated; Longiceps, esteemed; and Beddomii, rare. Then, in the family of the Cyprinides come Discognathus Lamta; four species of Capœta: Syriaca, Damascina, Socialis, Sauvagei; Leueiscus (or Phoxinellus) Zeregi; Alburnus Sellal; Acanthobrama Centisquama; three species of Nemachilus: Tigris, Galilœus, Leontinœ. In the family of the Blennides: Blennius Varus and Blennius Lupulus. Finally, in the family of the Silurides we have the strange Clarias Macracanthus, already noted by Josephus (BJ iii. x. 8) under the name κορακῖνος, which, in spite of its forbidding aspect, supplies an article of food not to be disdained. This fish has the strange peculiarity that, when it is withdrawn from its natural element, it utters cries like the mewings of a cat, and that it can live for several days out of the water.

A considerable number of the above species belong properly to Palestine, but the fauna of Palestinian fish shows, nevertheless, a close connexion with that of Africa and not with that of the Mediterranean basin. The ancients, e.g. Josephus, had already noted this fact, and they raised the question of the possibility of a subterranean communication between the waters of Egypt and those of Palestine. See also Animals, p. 66a.

Literature.—Bochart, Hierozoicon, i. pp. 36–44; Lortet, Poissons et Reptiles du lac de Tibériade, 1883, and the same author’s La Syrie d’aujourd’hui, 1884, pp. 506–510; Tristram, ‘Fauna and Flora’ (PEF [Note: EF Palestine Exploration Fund.] , SWP [Note: WP Memoirs of the Survey of W. Palestine.] ), 1888, pp. 162–177, also Natural History of the Bible8 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , 1889, pp. 282–294; J. G. Wood, Bible Animals, 1869, pp. 561–582; Ad. Frei in ZDPV [Note: DPV Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins.] , 1886, pp. 101–103; Libbey and Hoskins, Jordan Valley and Petra, 1905, vol. i. p. 130 f.; G. R. Lees, Village Life in Palestine, 1905, p. 5 [with photograph of two fishermen of the Lake of Tiberias casting their nets].

Lucien Gautier.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Fish, Fisher, Fishing'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​f/fish-fisher-fishing.html. 1906-1918.
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