The miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5)

This Sunday’s lectionary reading is from Luke 5, the story of the miraculous catch of fish, as we jump forward into Jesus’ ministry before returning to the temptations in the desert at the start of Lent. It is a captivating story in its own right, but it also raises questions about the connections with the account in Mark 1 of the call of the disciples and the story in John 21 of a similar miraculous catch after Jesus’ resurrection. 

The narrative is both full of what looks like eye-witness detail, but told in Luke’s distinctive style. The opening sentence runs through verses 1 and 2, and is structured with several subordinate clauses (‘hypotaxis’) in contrast with Mark’s typical paratactical style in narratives (‘and…and…’). There is a vivid sense of the crowd pressing in on Jesus; I cannot think of another place in the gospels where this physical sense of crowding in is expressed in quite the same way. They have come to hear ‘the word of God’, which is Luke’s distinctive term for Jesus’ message of the kingdom (in Matt 15.6 = Mark 7.13 and John 10.35 the phrase refers to the Scriptures). Luke uses the phrase in the gospel where it is not present in the parallel accounts (as in Luke 8.11 and Luke 8.21) and in Acts it becomes a term for the message of the gospel (Acts 4.31, 6.2, 8.14, 12.24 and so on) as it often does in Paul (1 Cor 14.36, 1 Thess 2.13 and elsewhere) thus expressing the continuity between the Old Testament, Jesus’ teaching, and the apostolic proclamation. 


Luke (alone in the NT) calls the Sea of Galilee the ‘Lake of Gennesaret’, using the Greek expression derived from the OT name Kinneret (Num 34.11, Josh 13.27) meaning ‘harp’ (-shaped), another detail confirming that Luke is writing for a non-Jewish patron or audience. In Mark 1.16 Simon and Andrew are ‘net-casting’ and Matt 4.18 expands this into ‘were throwing casting-nets’, the amphiblestron being a round net with small weights on the end which would be thrown from the shore over a small shoal of fish. In this account, Luke uses a more general term diktuon, which must refer to ‘seine’ nets that hang in the water and are drawn in from the boat to catch a larger shoal. They were made of linen, so visible to the fish during the day and therefore only used at night, and needed to be washed each morning. Luke’s description of Simon and Andrew’s practice thus fits historical detail precisely. 

I love the detail that Jesus sees ‘two boats’ and that he gets into one of them; the other boat then comes into play in the second half of the story when Simon and his companions call on those with the other boat to help with the catch. (Luke also has an interest in numbers, for example in noting the 276 people in the shipwreck in Acts 27.37, a ‘triangular’ number, as well as in numerical composition, so it might be that the ‘two’ boats suggest the reliability of testimony as per Deut 17.6—but that is speculative, and I haven’t found this mentioned in commentaries.) It has been tempting for preachers to talk of Simon as a ‘poor’ fisherman, but this involves imposing a post-industrial configuration of wealth and poverty on an agrarian society. Fishing would fit with other artisan skills and be above subsistence or tenant farming, in turn above hired casual labour, and would not be especially ‘poor’. We see both here and in Mark 1.20’s mention  of the ‘hired men’ that these fishermen own their own boats and their business. 

This region of the shore of Galilee is characterised by a series of small, curved bays, and one of them is now known as ‘Sower’s Bay’ from the depiction in Mark 4.1 of Jesus telling that parable from the boat (Luke 8.4 doesn’t give the situation). The curved bank of the shore functions like the seating in an amphitheatre, making it easy to hear someone speaking from the edge of the water or sitting in a boat—I know because I have done it! 


There are several striking things about the second half of the narrative. The first is that the crowd quickly disappears from view, and we have an almost Johannine sense of personal encounter between Jesus and one individual, Simon. Although Simon’s business partners (referred to in v 7 with the almost technical term metochos, softened to the later ‘partner’, koinonos in v 10) are mentioned, the narrative keeps returning to Simon—his reaction and his commissioning. 

Secondly, his practical questioning of Jesus’ instruction (after all, it is Simon who is the expert at fishing!) and yet obedience to the command of the ‘master’ parallels the response of Mary to the angel Gabriel ‘How can this be…?’ in Luke 1.34. But the shape of the encounter overall has a stronger parallel with OT encounters with the holiness of God; Joel Green notes the structural parallel with Isaiah’s epiphany, despite the contrasts in setting:

Luke 5.1–11

Isa 6.1–10

vv 4–7 (9–10a)

epiphany

vv 1–4

v 8

reaction

v 5

v 10b

reassurance

v 7

v 10b

commission

vv 8–10

It is notable that Luke recounts this story in a different position from Mark, where in Mark 1.18 the response of the disciples to Jesus’ call seems strangely abrupt. We have been told little about Jesus’ teaching and ministry, his miracles being postponed to Mark’s account of a ‘typical day’ in the ministry of Jesus later in the chapter, including the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law. But Luke locates this commission within Jesus’ ministry, so Simon’s mother-in-law has already been healed (Luke 4.38–39) and others have been delivered from demons, which lends this account a ‘narrative plausibility’ which was highly valued by Graeco-Roman rhetoricians. 

Thirdly, Peter’s reaction and cry that he is a ‘sinner’ is quite startling. There is no suggestion here that Peter is a particular bad or unworthy person for any specific reason, but he recognises the vast difference between himself and Jesus. The term Luke uses to express the ‘astonishment’ of Simon and his companions in v 9, thambos, is regularly used of the dread that comes over those who encounter the awesome holiness of God. In other words, they are not just astonished at the inexplicable miracle; they realise that they are in the presence of someone who is (w)hol(l)y other. This is Luke’s first use of the word ‘sinner’, and it introduces a theme complementary to the emphasis we have seen previously on God’s honouring the piously devout: Jesus came to ‘call sinners to repentance’ (Luke 5.32), a summary statement that gathers this sequence of stories together. This focus emphasises both the difference between Jesus and those he has come to and his boundary-crossing initiative as well as the content of his message, that of the transformation that comes with repentance, a theme we see all through the gospel which reaches a climax in the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. 


Fourthly, the catch of fish, and the whole activity of fishing, becomes a metaphor for the ministry of the gospel to which Simon and his companions are called—though it is worth noting that, in the gospel itself, the disciples are almost invisible, in contrast with Matthew and Mark, since the focus on their ministry will come in Luke’s second volume. (And, sadly, the Greek text does not offer the nice pun we have in English, changing fisher-men to fishers-of-men, as the Greek term is simply halieis who become halieis anthropon in Mark and Matthew—and Luke stays even further away by simply saying ‘You will catch alive [zogreo] people’ in v 10.) We will see the metaphorical boat of the early church filled almost to sinking throughout Acts, as on several occasions thousands come to faith in Jesus at a time, and the structural nets of leadership need expanding and reconsidering, not least when the ‘gentile mission’ takes off under Paul’s ministry.

In the Old Testament, the image of catch and landing fish was mostly negative, sometimes being an image for warfare, but often associated with God’s eschatological judgement:

The Sovereign LORD has sworn by his holiness: “The time will surely come when you will be taken away with hooks, the last of you with fishhooks.” (Amos 4.2)

You have made people like the fish in the sea…The wicked foe pulls all of them up with hooks, he catches them in his net… (Hab 1.14–15)

“But now I will send for many fishermen,” declares the LORD, “and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.” (Jer 16.16)

Although judgement is not absent from Luke’s description of Jesus’ ministry, here the strong association is between the crowd pressing in to hear the word of God, and the extraordinary catch of fish. Jesus’ commission to Simon (and the others) to ‘catch people alive’ is clearly offered as a parallel to his own ministry of teaching and calling people to repentance. Whereas a fisherman catches fish to kill and sell them, Simon will ‘catch’ people from death to set them free into the life of the kingdom. And this moment of grace in the message of the gospel delays the day of judgement and invites response. 

Fifthly and finally, there is an unmistakable emphasis on a decisive break with the past. ‘From now on’ they will be doing something quite different, and this means that, pulling their boats up on the shore (another nice ‘eye-witness’ detail) they leave everything—their business, their boats, their livelihood, and even this actual catch which could be sold. Where Mark emphasises the break with family loyalties (‘they left their father…’ Mark 1.20), Luke emphasises the economic consequences of the decision. 

Leaving all that has been of value, they will now find their fundamental sense of belonging and being in relationship to Jesus, the community being built around him, and the redemptive purpose he serves. (Joel Green, NIC commentary on Luke, p 235).


As a postscript, I note that commentators from a previous generation who were wedded to form-critical approaches to the text and postulated a long time period between the events of Jesus’ life and the writing of the gospels, in which the oral tradition allowed stories to develop in quite independent directions, saw John 21 and Luke 5 as two re-workings originating from one story. A summary of this is found in the footnotes to the New American Bible (NAB):

There are many non-Johannine peculiarities in this chapter, some suggesting Lucan Greek style; yet this passage is closer to John than John 7:53-8:11. There are many Johannine features as well. Its closest parallels in the synoptic gospels are found in Luke 5:1-11 and Matthew 14:28-31. Perhaps the tradition was ultimately derived from John but preserved by some disciple other than the writer of the rest of the gospel. The appearances narrated seem to be independent of those in John 20. Even if a later addition, the chapter was added before publication of the gospel, for it appears in all manuscripts.

And yet even the most cursory of assessments of the setting of the story, the people involved, the location of Jesus, and theological issues communicated, the reaction of those involved, and the narrative consequences, make this a completely unpersuasive argument. 


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21 thoughts on “The miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5)”

  1. Thank you for this, Ian, very helpful for my Sunday preparation.
    On the social status of fishermen, some years ago Richard Bauckham gave some very interesting lectures about Galilee and its surrounding areas to Otago University NZ (I’m sure they’re archived somewhere) in which he stated that fishermen were poor men, on the fringes of society, but I didn’t find this all that convincing, since a boat and all the necessary gear couldn’t have been cheap.
    I also recalled a comment Pope Benedict made on this passage (or its Matthean parallel) which pre-echoes your remark: He wrote:
    “The Fathers of the ancient Church made a very important point on this verse. For a fish, created for water, it is fatal to be taken out of the sea, to be removed from its vital element to serve as human food. But in the mission of the fisher of men, the reverse is true, because to draw men and women (rather than fish) from the water and to restore them to their proper element means life, not death.”
    And the talk continues: ‘What do we see today? We see people in their alien element, in the waters of suffering and death, in a sea of darkness without light.”
    It is notable that so much fishing on Galilee took place at night.

  2. Of course, it is well-known that Jesus only ever said whatever he said only once and never repeated or amplified it any occasions (unlike certain preachers I could mention who repeat my-, I mean, themselves) – if indeed he ever did say any of these things because we don’t have any extra-biblical testimony, unlike say, Julius Caesar, whose words and actions in Gaul are affirmed by multiple independent witnesses.

    • Furthermore, Andrew makes the strong point that the story must be assessed according to the Law of Historical Plausibility, Since we have learned from Hume that miracles cannot happen (or cannot be detected if they did) and from Troeltsch that history is an unbroken nexus of material causes and effects, it is clear that this story, involving a miraculous catch of fish, cannot be true but is only a fantastically embroidered story from a much later period. We must follow Thomas Jefferson’s example and take our scissors to the New Testament to arrive at the real Jesus: a humble teacher of morality and enlightenment.

      • Brian, your grasp of the course of historical-critical course scholarship is evident. Your grasp of where I’m coming from is less so. What’s more, I made no mention of the catch of fish.

        • No, *you didn’t mention the catch of fish – but I strongly suspect you doubt in happened. However, you can answer for yourself. My point was that historical scepticism in modern NT studies (and modern goes back to the 18th century!) is really based on anti-miraculism.
          As for when the summons to be ‘fishers of men’ was first made, Papias himself says Mark’s Gospel wasn’t written “in order”.
          The idea that Jesus never repeated, reworked or amplified his teachings sounds absurd to me. ‘Repetitio mater memoriae’.

  3. Andrew, I welcomed your comments when you were prepared to engage in reasonable dialogue.

    But coming on here and trashing my commentary serves no useful purpose. I am going to delete this comment. You will be welcome back if you can make a more positive contribution.

    thanks

    • Ian, your commentary wasn’t “trashed” – it was questioned in a reasoned way. Talking about “eyewitness detail” when its clear you can’t even decide what that is is what “serves no useful purpose”. If you cannot even handle such soft questioning as this on this supposedly robust blog then it seems clear that all you want is the freedom to spout your evangelical verities free from dissent. I’ll leave you to it.

      • Your previous comment was written in a dismissive way simply writing off those with whom you disagree. If you want to ask questions of method, in a way which is open to discussion, then that’s fine.

        But your first comment did not do that.

  4. All three passages on Sunday talk of someone having an encounter with God which changed their whole life direction. Isaiah, Simon Peter and Paul. For all of them the mission God called them to was not comfortable. What are we called to?

  5. The number of comments is growing (currently says 11), but I am only seeing the same four. Perhaps the other new comments are also comments about the missing comments. Comments on other articles seem to be appearing OK.
    (I have used two different browsers on two different systems)

  6. Thanks for all the insightful comments and thoughts.

    Is there some interweaving of stories going on – a bit clumsily even – as the nets are being washed and then they are there to be let down v4, and in daytime and from one boat. If they are throw nets then surely not in deep water, and if seine nets then would it not take both boats and would it not normally be at night, as Ian indicates?
    This would explain why the crowd “disappear”, as they are part of a story which is about being taught from a boat, but not part of the miraculous catch story.

    This then does ask some questions of how the John 21 story and the earlier version of the Luke story might be linked.

    Luke seems to have a number of places where his editing reveals the joins, and here he seems to have taken Mark’s call of the fishermen, and spliced in a crowd-teaching scenario, and a miraculous catch story.

    Do others have wisdom and enlightenment on this aspect of the passage. It is not the stuff of the sermon, but it is integral to our preparation.

    • Thanks Peter, that’s an interesting question. And it raises questions about what methodology we have to judge whether there are ‘editorial seams’ or ‘clumsiness’ in the text.

      The moment you are pointing to is in the move from verse 2 to verse 3:

      ‘2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore.’

      There is no mention of what Simon does with the nets he has been washing–and why should we assume that he would leave (expensive?) nets unattended, rather than gathering them into the boat? The issue here is that, compared with any contemporary literature we are used to, the gospels are highly compressed.

      So I am not quite so sure that we see evidence of editorial clumsiness here (in contrast, for example, with Mark Goodacre’s argument about editorial fatigue in Matthew).

      And the differences between John 21 and Luke 5 are so multiple that I think you really have to drawn on the most hardened form- and source-critical assumptions to argue that they derive from a common core…

  7. Thanks Ian,
    It is not just the shift from v2 to v3 but the subsequent going out fishing and whether the fishing requires both boats working together, and / or really should be at night? Also the disappearance of the crowd and the response of Peter. You also highlight how Luke has moved the event and changed it from the version in Mark.
    Clumsiness / editorial seams – yes neither is a great word, but the first I guess highlights that there may be a “gap” and the second the idea of some stitches. Given Luke changes Mark, and adds other sources, it is inevitable that there must be editorial stitching going on.
    With regard John 21 and Luke 5, there are obvious similarities as well as clear differences. Some of the differences are easily explainable if you accept that John has worked the original to fit at the end of his gospel, while Luke has emphasised and shaped the story to fit near the beginning of his. I am not arguing for a common core, but noting that a similar (ish) story in John sharpens some of the questions about the Luke passage.

    The ‘leaving of everything’ (Luke 5:11) of course is also a challenge given John 21 suggests that they are back fishing, so there is also the ideal image of discipleship being promoted as one of the conclusions of this story.

    Other points where I see the editorial seam showing would be in the parable of the pounds (Lk 19) where the servants vary between 10 and 3; Luke 19:10 is an intriguing connector between Zacchaeus and this parable, though it is not clear how this verse should help us read the parable that follows. There is another but different kink in the seam at the end of the parable of the steward accused of squandering property in Luke 16, where any way you cut it, v8a and v8b seem to show a gap, and the rich man kurios and Jesus kurios seem to have got conflated or confused. Others will probably know of other places where there is a bit of dink as two separate sources are combined or attached to each other.

    Maybe if we called it editorial evidence rather than clumsiness that would help the discussion?

  8. Ian, I know you like numbers but I think you sometimes go a little too far – is it not possible that there just were 2 boats, and that number means nothing?!

    I think if you read too much into the text, you can end up implying the writers made things up just to make a point, instead of relaying what actually happened…

    Peter

  9. Thanks for so much detail, Ian.
    I wonder why the encounter in Luke 5 cannot taken as the third call of the chief disciples? They first met Jesus (in John 1) when they were disciples of John Baptist. The second time in Mark’s account where, as you point out, they were using a different style of fishing. Following that, Jesus goes to Peter’s house to heal his mother-in-law and consolidates his Messiahship. The third and final time (when using different nets and fishing at night) the call to discipleship is finalised with Peter’s revelation of his need for a Saviour. It seems odd that Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law before Luke’s encounter in contrast to Mark’s order of events. The idea that Jesus was proving his credentials and that the disciples’ call was a process would make good sense when we consider how people respond to the call to a total change of life.

  10. It is difficult to determine Peter’s wealth or poverty, but the scant evidence we have suggests that he was not all that great with a net and may have struggled to make a living. In fact, save for Jesus’ miraculous interventions, none of the fishermen in any of the four Gospels ever catches so much as a minnow.

    • “scant evidence” is surely just that? Absence of evidence not being evidence of absence. Quote /unquote…

      It was a family business so I guess it provided the necessary income. Whether they were wealthy or poor might be difficult to pin down by today’s measurements.

      • It seems to me they were the equivalent of our working class, and relatively poor (wealth is always relative). It is interesting in their reaction to Jesus to the rich young man. They assumed the rich were blessed by God, and given Jesus words as to how hard it was for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom, they were worried they wouldnt if even the rich dont. Which implies they thought of themselves as ‘poor’.

        • “It seems to me they were the equivalent of our working class”

          That’s the usual take… I wonder if such an equivalence is accurate or to what extent it is.

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