For more than 50 years, I have lived at Kibbutz Ein Gev on the shore of the Kinileret, the Sea of Galilee. For much of that time, I have been a fisherman. The Hebrew letter nun (N) means fish in Aramaic. My former name—I was born in Latvia—began with an N. When I became a fisherman, I simply took that first letter as my new surname.
I am continually surprised at how accurately the New Testament writers reflect natural phenomena on the lake. But we should not expect to find clear professional accounts of early fishing experiences in Biblical parables and vignettes, for several reasons.
First, the Gospel writers were already chronologically quite distant from Jesus’ life on the lakeshore; and they did not intend to write historical texts, but rather stories with a religious message. The problem of translation from the original—a question that has long occupied scholars—creates additional difficulties. But if we look closely at ancient life on the lake, we can better understand the stories about the sea of Galilee, the scene of most of Jesus’ ministry.
Fishermen and sailors were Jesus’ earliest disciples and followers. It was to them that he first preached, standing on the shore of the lake. As his audience grew, he began to preach from fishing boats, and especially from a small boat that his disciples kept ready for him (Mark 3:9). For longer trips, to teach in the towns and villages of the region, Jesus sailed in the boats of the fishermen.
The name “Sea of Galilee” appears for the first time in the New Testament, but it is also called the Sea of Tiberias and the Sea, or Lake, of Gennesar or Gennesaret. (Tiberias is a city on the western shore of the lake; Gennesar or Gennesaret was a city and a plain on the western shore. Galilee is the region of the country in which the lake is situated.) In the Hebrew Bible, the lake is called by an older name: Yam Kinneret, or Sea of Kinneret. Kinneret (the name of an early pagan deity) is the name by which it is known in Israel today. In the Hebrew Bible, it is mentioned only four times, all in connection with the borders of the tribal allotments in the Promised Land (Numbers 34:11; Joshua 12:3, 13:27; and Deuteronomy 3:17).
For more than 5,000 years, fishing methods on the Sea of Galilee remained the same. Arab and Jewish fishermen from Tiberias preserved the ancient traditions until the middle of this century. Then things began to change: Invisible synthetic fibers replaced cotton thread, making it possible to fish in the daytime with the same nets used at night. New species of fish were introduced and indigenous species declined. Motors replaced oars and sails; electronic fish detectors were used to locate schools of fish. All this changed the face of the Sea of Galilee.
But there are still those of us who remember how it was done in an earlier time, and those traditions help us understand the Bible better.
Perhaps one of the best-known Biblical fishing references to the Sea of Galilee is in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 5:1–7). Jesus saw two empty boats on the shore of Tabgha, where fishermen from Capernaum stayed in the winter. The fishermen nearby were washing their nets. Jesus went into Simon’s boat and preached. When he finished, he told Simon to put his nets back into the water. Simon answered that this would be useless; they had fished all night and caught nothing. But he and his men nevertheless got back into the boat and lowered their nets, as Jesus had told them. The nets enclosed a whole school of fish! The fishermen in Simon’s boat called their partners in the other boat to help them. They filled both boats with fish. The fishermen became frightened by this miracle. Jesus told them not to be afraid: “Henceforth you will be catching men.” When they returned, they left everything and followed Jesus.
I think we can identify the kind of fish caught, the kind of net Simon and his co-workers used and their fishing technique.
The previous night’s fishing, which had produced nothing, involved a partnership of two boats. Indeed, until very recently, this was exactly how fishing was organized in the limited fishing area at Tabgha; without a partnership, conflict could easily arise.
Although the indigenous fish population of the Sea of Galilee consists of 18 species, only 10 are commercially important. The remainder are small inshore species, insignificant in number and quality. The commercially important fish can be divided into three groups, the last of which, I believe, is the one referred to in the story from Luke; but the other fish are no less interesting and sometimes have their own Biblical connections.
First, and quite outside of these three groups and of no economic importance locally, is the catfish (Clarias 049lazera), whose Hebrew name, Sfamnun, means mustached fish. It has no scales, so it may not be eaten by Jews (see Leviticus 11:9–12). This of course reduces its economic importance and excludes it as a candidate for the fish referred to in Luke. Nevertheless, it is the largest of the indigenous fish in the lake, sometimes growing to a length of 4 feet and weighing 25 pounds. It is the sole representative of the African family of catfish in Israel. The first-century A.D. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus noted that the same fish was found in the Nile, and on this basis supported the then-popular belief that there was an underground connection between the Nile and the Sea of Galilee, and that it emerged from the ground at the largest spring at Tabgha.
The first important group of indigenous fish in the lake is the Kinneret sardine, Acanthobrama terrae sanctae. It is the smallest of the commercial fish in the lake. Nevertheless, it is economically important; it constitutes more than half of the yearly catch from the lake—about 1,000 tons. At the height of the sardine season, tens of tons of sardines are caught every night. This is why, already in antiquity, they were conserved by pickling. The center of this industry was the town of Magdala, hence its name Migdal Nunia, or Migdal of the fish, and Tarichea in Greek, meaning the place where fish are salted. In ancient times, pickled sardines were an important element of diet throughout the country—especially for those who lived near the lake.
The second group of important indigenous fish in the lake is the biny group (Barbels), which consists of three species of the Carp family (Cyprinideae). The identifying characteristics of this family are the barbs at the corners of the mouth; from these comes the Semitic name “Biny,” which means hair (in the Babylonian Talmud the fish are called “Binita”). Of the three members of the group, only two have major economic importance—the Long-Headed Barbel (Barbus longiceps), a handsome troutlike fish with a narrow silvery body and pointed head that feeds on mollusks and snails at the lake bottom and on small fish, especially sardines, and the Barbus Canis, “Kishri” in Arabic, meaning “scaley.” The Kishri is a predatory fish, feeding on small fry, and is therefore always found near schools of sardines, which are caught together with this fish. Both barbels are well fleshed and popular as the fish dish for the Sabbath and feasts. The Talmud describes how Tiberias fishermen brought seven barbels as a gift to the Patriarch Yehuda haNasi (2nd–3rd century A.D.) during his stay in the city. The third species of Barbel, the Hafafi (Varicorhinus damascinus), feeds on decaying matter found in mud, which affects the flavor; therefore its value is not great.
The third and largest category of indigenous fish is the musht, which means “comb” in Arabic, because the five species of this group have a long dorsal fin that looks like a comb. The biggest, the most common and the most important of these is the Tilapia Galilea, which can reach a length of 1.5 feet and weigh about 4.5 pounds. The body has a silvery color, which gives it the Arabic nickname musht abiad, meaning white musht. With the cooling of the waters of the lake as winter starts, the musht congregate and move in shoals, especially toward the northern part of the lake and the warm springs. When the water warms up in the spring, they disperse and we find pairs of these fish living together for as long as two months—a phenomenon unusual for fish. After a prolonged courtship, the pair digs a hollow in the soft bottom of the lake near the shore or in a lagoon and deposits its eggs. After fertilization, the parents take the eggs into their mouths for two or three weeks, until they hatch. Even after the young are hatched, the parents keep watch over the young fry for a few days; this is the source of its modern Hebrew name amnun—am in Hebrew meaning nurse, and nun meaning fish.
The musht is the only large fish in the lake that moves in shoals, which of course is a key to the identification of the fish in the story in Luke, although not the only one.
The flat shape of the musht makes it especially suitable for frying. The skeleton consists of an easily detachable backbone and relatively few small bones, and thus it is easy to eat. It has long been known as St. Peter’s fish. Recently, it has even been exported 051under this name. But, alas, the name is a misnomer.
Presumably the fish got its name because of an incident recorded in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 17:24–27). In this episode, the tax collectors come to Capernaum to collect the half-shekel Temple tax that each Jew was required to pay annually. Jesus tells Peter, “Go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and yourself.”
The musht was probably given the name St. Peter’s fish because of this miracle. However, this cannot have been the fish Peter caught with a hook and line. The reason is simple: Musht feeds on plankton and is not attracted by other food. It is therefore caught with nets, and not with hook and line. The fishermen on the lake have, since time immemorial, used a hook baited with sardine to fish for barbels, which are predators and bottom feeders. Peter almost surely caught a barbel. There can be only one explanation for the confusing change of name. It was good for tourism! The Sea of Galilee has always attracted pilgrims; musht (today raised mostly in ponds) is part of the unique local cuisine. It is delicious, especially when freshly fried. In ancient times, just as today, the fishing boats delivered their catch to the eating places on shore. Indeed, the proverbial metaphor for speed in the Talmud is “as from the sea into the frying pan.” This expression was part of daily speech in Tiberias and clearly refers to musht and not barbels; the latter are best when boiled.
The first Christians were local people and were therefore familiar with the various fish. They of course knew that the fish Peter caught could only have been a barbel and not a musht. However, as pilgrims began to come from distant regions, it no doubt seemed good for business to give the name “St. Peter’s fish” to the musht being served by the early lakeside eating houses. The most popular and easily prepared fish acquired the most marketable name! But even if Peter did not catch a musht, he deserves to have his name associated with the best fish in the lake.
Returning to the miracle of the fish caught in Luke (5:1–7), additional clues that the fish were musht are the kind of net referred to and the place and the time of the event. Several kinds of nets were used in the Sea of Galilee. The most important were the seine, the cast net and the trammel net.
The seine, or dragnet, is the oldest type of net. Until recently, it was the most important fishing method on the lake. The seine net is referred to in both the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud (
The seine is essentially a dragnet made of netting shaped like a long wall, 750 to 1,000 feet long, about 5 feet high at its “wings” and 25 feet high at the center. Its footrope is weighted with sinkers, while the head-rope has cork floats. The dragnet is spread 100 yards or more from shore and parallel to it. It is then hauled toward the shore with towing lines attached to each end by a team of 16 men for large nets, or a smaller team for smaller nets. From Egyptian tomb paintings from the third millennium B.C., as well as other sources, we know that this fishing method was widely used In ancient times.
I remember in the 1940s and 1950s sailing out in the early morning and arranging the heavy seine on the “table” of the stern of the boat. When we arrived at the shore of the fishing ground, half the crew would alight and take the first rope. We would then sail out with the trailing line until it was pulled straight. The boat would then turn and sail parallel to the shore until the net was “spread,” and then turn back to the shore trailing the second set of ropes. On reaching the shore, the remaining half of the crew would alight and take the end of the other towing line, leaving the boat on the shore.
The whole team would then harness themselves to the ropes and pull the net to the shore. The sinkers had dragged the net to the bottom, the floats had lifted the head-rope, and the net formed a rectangular wall that advanced to the shore with its lower edge at the bottom of the lake. The two groups would climb up the beach, moving toward each other.
The whole operation took an hour or more. A good catch could bring in hundreds of pounds of fish. After the fish were sorted, the net was again arranged on the stern, the ropes were coiled and placed in the boat, and the work started all over again at another location. This would be repeated as often as eight times during a day’s fishing.
An ancient tradition preserved in the Talmuda relates that the Biblical hero Joshua bin Nun granted exclusive fishing rights in the Kinneret to the tribe of Naphtali, entitling that tribe to set seines (
The prophet Habakkuk says that God sometimes treats men as the fisherman catches fish. “He drags 052them out with his seine, he gathers them in his trapnet” (Habakkuk 1:15). The prophet Ezekiel mentions three times the “place of the spreading of seines,” referring to the practice of drying seines by laying them flat on the ground (Ezekiel 26:5, 26:14, and 47:10).
The seine net is referred to metaphorically in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus explains the kingdom of heaven:
“The kingdom of heaven is like a seine net [Greek, sagene]b which was spread into the sea and gathered fish of every kind; when it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down, and sorted the good into vessels but threw away the bad” (Matthew 13:47–48).
This exactly fits the function of the seine. It is spread into the sea, then dragged to the shore; in the process all kinds of fish are caught, which the fishermen sitting on the shore sort out. The “bad” ones refer to the scaleless catfish, forbidden by Jewish law and not even offered for sale.
There is one inaccuracy in the Biblical description, however. The words “when it was full” seem to indicate that there was a waiting period for the net to fill. The basic feature of seine fishing is to start hauling immediately, as soon as the net is spread. If this is not done, the fish will escape and the whole operation fails. We may assume this slight inaccuracy is due to a desire to emphasize the theological message of the parable.
A second kind of net, a cast net, is used by a single fisherman. It is circular, about 20 to 25 feet in diameter, with lead sinkers attached to the edge. The fisherman arranges the net on his right arm and, standing in shallow water or in a boat, throws it on the water, 053where it is pulled down like a parachute by the lead, finally sinking to the bottom. There are two ways of retrieving the catch. The fisherman may dive down to the net, pull the fish through the meshing one by one and put them into a pouch. Or he may gather all the lead sinkers together, lifting the edges carefully over the bottom. He then takes the net up into the boat with the catch inside. When cast from shallow water, and especially if the catch is heavy, the net is dragged to the shore.
Like the seine, the cast net is an ancient device. Complete cast nets have been found in Egyptian tombs dating to the second millennium B.C. Two kinds were used in the Sea of Galilee, one for large fish and the other for sardines. The sardine cast net had a small mesh and a system of cords for retrieving it. The cast net for bigger fish had a larger mesh and heavier sinkers to prevent the fish from escaping before the net reached the bottom. In using the cast net, the fisherman must approach his prey silently and without casting a shadow.
The cast net, too, is referred to in the prophecy of Ezekiel, in which the Lord says: “I will therefore spread out my net [cast net] over you with a company of many people; and they shall bring you up in my seine” (Ezekiel 32:3).
The cast net is mentioned by name (the Greek word amphiblestron means “to throw around”) in Mark’s Gospel (and its parallel in Matthew). Jesus sees Simon and his brother Andrew throwing cast nets and says to them: “‘Follow me and I will make you fishers of men. And immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:16–18/Matthew 4:19–20).
The third type of net is the trammel net, the only one used in ancient times that is widely used on the lake today. Unlike other nets that have only one “wall,” this is a compound net consisting of three layers held together by a single corked head-rope and a single leaded footrope. The identical outermost and innermost walls are 6 feet high with large meshes measuring 5 inches from knot to knot. The middle layer is made up of a fine meshed net. It is higher than the other two walls and hangs loosely between them. It can slip in and out between the other two walls. The trammel net has another special characteristic: It is always used with at least five such units attached to each other. Each unit is over 100 feet long, so the total assemblage is at least 500 feet long.
One type of trammel net was used for catching musht and another for barbels; they differed in thickness of thread and size of mesh. In the Roman period, fishing nets were made of linen thread; a section of linen net from the time of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132–135 A.D.) was found in a cave near Ein Gedi.
When I used to fish with a trammel net, we would meet on shore in early evening, mending our nets and tying them together while arranging them on the stern of the boat. Sailing or rowing to the fishing grounds, we would quietly lower the net into the water so that it formed a wide curve, with the open side parallel to the shore. The leaded footrope pulled the net to the floor of the lake, and the floating line kept the net upright. In deep water, the net could be spread in different shapes, even in spiral form. After the net had settled, it would stand like a wall on the lake floor. Gourds, and later empty tin cans, were used as floats, tied to the two ends of the net, serving as signs in the dark to mark the position of the net.
Then the boat would enter the area between the net and the shore. We would make noise and turbulence by splashing with our oars and stamping on the bottom of the boat. The frightened fish would dive to the bottom and, in their flight toward deep water, find themselves facing the net. The fish would pass easily through the large mesh of the first layer, but immediately come to the narrow meshing of the middle layer. Pushing against it takes the fish through the third wall. Trying to retreat, he finds himself hopelessly entangled in a kind of net bag. The net was hauled out and the fish disentangled by hand, one by one. The net would then be prepared for the next operation, and the boat would move on.
Usually a trammel net is lowered and hauled up 10 to 15 times during a night’s work. A good night’s catch can bring 100 to 200 pounds of fish. When a 055trammel net is lowered around a school of fish during the musht season, hundred of pounds may be caught. Veteran fishermen speak of memorable single hauls of as much as half a ton.
When the catch is large, the fish are not extracted one by one; instead the net is hauled into the boat like a bundle with the fish entangled inside, and the fishermen spend considerable time disentangling them.
When the night’s work is finished, the sections of the net are separated, and each part is washed and rinsed in the lake so that it will be free of silt. Then it is hung up to dry on poles or on a wall. The process of washing a net in the morning is specific only to the trammel net.
Traditionally, fishing with the trammel net has been done at night or at dusk, when the fish cannot see the threads of the net; during the day, they would avoid it.
The Hebrew Bible refers to entangling nets as metzuda, or matzod (“trap” in Hebrew). The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes uses nets to express his pessimistic view of the fate of mankind. “For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken [“entangled,” in the Hebrew text] in an evil net … so the sons of men are snared” (Ecclesiastes 9:12).
In Job these nets symbolize a situation from which there is no escape: “Know then that God has put me in the wrong, and encompassed me with his [entangling] net” (Job 19:6).
When the trammel net is used in a particular way in combination with another net it is called a veranda net. This net was used by day to catch wily leaping fish like musht. (In the Mediterranean, it is used to catch grey mullet, another leaping fish.) The veranda technique is effective with fish that move in shoals, another characteristic of the musht (and grey mullet).
Here is how the veranda net works: As soon as a school of musht is detected, usually with the help of an observer on shore, the school is surrounded by a net and enclosed in a kind of barrel extending from the lake bottom to the surface. As soon as the school is thus contained, a second boat comes to spread a trammel net horizontally around the “barrel.” The horizontal trammel net, attached to reeds, floats on the surface around the edge of the barrel. When the musht try to escape by jumping over the rim, they become entangled in the floating horizontal trammel net. In order to startle the fish and make them jump, more trammel nets are spread out in a spiral within the barrel. Finally, those brave and cautious fish that do not jump over the barrel rim are caught by cast nets thrown into the center of the barrel. These nets, as we have seen, must be retrieved by divers.
Now we can appreciate more fully what happened in the story described at the beginning of this article in Luke.
While Jesus is preaching from the boat, he sees a school of musht nearing the shore, as often happens during the morning hours of the winter. Following Jesus’ instruction, Simon’s boat immediately takes off. The trammel nets, having been already washed, are lowered at the spot indicated by Jesus. The catch is enormously successful! In fact, the nets are so full that they begin to tear as they are hauled into the boats (Luke 5:6). There isn’t room for the overflowing nets on the one boat.
Simon’s crew calls to their partners’ boat for assistance. The boat swiftly arrives and takes some sections of the nets on board.
It is clear that a trammel net was used, for the text uses the plural “nets.” Only the trammel net consists of more than one net.
The miracle in Luke is not unlike the recollections of many veteran Kinneret fishermen who even today recall extraordinary catches of musht with a single haul of a trammel. It is an experience that cannot be repeated today: The musht population has been decimated by the extreme efficiency of modern fishing.
The story in Luke continues:
“When Simon Peter saw [the enormous catch], he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he was 056astonished, and all that were with him, at the catch of fish which they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.’ And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:8–11).
A parallel to this miracle story is told in John 21:19, with some slight variations. Again it occurred “just as day was breaking.” The night before, the fishermen had caught nothing. In the morning Jesus told them to “cast the net on the right side of the boat.” When they did, they could not haul in the net for the quantity of fish in it. Then, “when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea. But the other disciples came in a [small] boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.”
This is a new element: Peter’s dive into the water implies that the trammel net was used here by the veranda method. As we know, in this method two boats work together. In the final stage of this strategy a cast net is thrown over the “barrel” to catch those cautious fish that have not jumped over the rim of the barrel onto the floating trammel net that surrounds it, veranda fashion. The cast net, after being thrown into the bottom of the barrel, must be retrieved by a diving fisherman. That is what Peter is doing here—retrieving the parachutelike cast net after it has fallen to the bottom. Incidentally, the distance—“about a hundred yards off” the shore—also fits with the use of the veranda method.
But this is not the end of the story in John. Jesus asks Simon to bring a few fish. Simon obeys, but 070instead of bringing fish from the full load in the boats, he hauls a new net up to the shore (John 21:11). It is clear that the reference is not to the nets already in the boat. This new net that Simon hauls alone could be only a cast net, which can be cast and hauled in by just one man. A seine, like a trammel net, requires a crew; furthermore, the seine cannot be used on the rocky shore of Tabgha, where, according to Christian tradition, the story takes place.
Hauling up his cast net, Simon finds a catch of 153 large fish—musht, of course, because no other fish could be caught in this time and place. This is the area where musht schools concentrate in the winter. Such a catch is seen as a miracle. But of course, 153 fish would be a minor miracle compared to the exploit of the two fully loaded boats, previously recounted. Apparently John added another tale, not mentioned in Luke—the tale of a miraculous catch with a cast net.
The study of these Biblical excerpts about fishing on the Sea of Galilee and the details of the craft reveals to us a hitherto unknown world—one not found in any ether source. This is the world of Jewish fishermen, living and working on the lake during the crucial period toward the end of the time of the Second Temple. The picture that emerges is rich in its simplicity, and is centered on a search for answers to life’s basic questions.
Mendel Nun’s The Sea of Galilee and Its Fishermen in the New Testament is available through the Biblical Archaeology Society as item #7N93. The 64-page booklet, published by the Kinnereth Sailing Company of Kibbutz Ein Gev, offers detailed information about Galilee’s fish, fishing trade and history. The author also analyzes several ancient reliefs and mosaics of fishermen and their prey and examines recent archaeological finds, including the ancient boat from the time of Jesus found at Magdala, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Illustrated with almost 80 black-and-white photographs, maps and drawings, the booklet brings to life the world of fishermen on the Sea of Galilee.
Item #7N93 costs $6.00 plus $3.95 for U.S. shipping. Please send checks to the Biblical Archaeology Society, 3000 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 300, Washington, DC 20008.
For more than 50 years, I have lived at Kibbutz Ein Gev on the shore of the Kinileret, the Sea of Galilee. For much of that time, I have been a fisherman. The Hebrew letter nun (N) means fish in Aramaic. My former name—I was born in Latvia—began with an N. When I became a fisherman, I simply took that first letter as my new surname. I am continually surprised at how accurately the New Testament writers reflect natural phenomena on the lake. But we should not expect to find clear professional accounts of early fishing experiences in Biblical […]