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Fishing in the Bible and the Ancient Near East

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Fishing in the Bible and the Ancient Near East


       The art of fishing has changed little over the course of man’s existence. Though there are several methods for fishing, each method has been tried in nearly every area of the world. It is for this reason the format of this paper will not be categorized by area or culture. Rather it is my goal to expound on the skill of fishing in the ancient near east, and what that would have looked like during the times of the Bible. Types of fish, methods, boats, processing, the trade / commerce, and the fishermen themselves are some of the many aspects of fishing that played an important role in ancient near eastern civilization.



Types of Fish

       There are believed to between eighteen and twenty-four different species of indigenous fish in the Sea of Galilee alone. These fish were a little different than their counter parts than in other bodies of water as is stated in Schaff-Herzog: “In Palestine fish abound in the Jordan, the Sea of Galilee, and in perennial brooks. The Sea of Galilee has a few varieties not found elsewhere, except in tropical waters like the Nile.”1 For this paper there are three specific types of fish; the Musht, Biny, and Sardine that will be of importance. While unimportant to the Jewish people as it was seen as an unclean fish, the catfish will be discussed in short and thus mentioned in the section concerning unacceptable fish.


       The first of these fish is the Musht which means comb in Arabic which would describe the spiny dorsal fin. The most famous of this group is the Tilapia Galilea, also know as the St. Peter's Fish (more later about this fish). The Musht is and was one of the most popular fish to be consumed as there flat shape makes them ideal for the frying pan. They also have few small bones and an easily removable spine. These characteristics make this type of fish the primary fish of the Sea of Galilee. As the water cools for the winter the Musht is the only large fish that schools and moves to the shallow shoals (this will become important later). Another small detail that becomes more important is the diet of the Musht as its sole diet consists of plankton.




       The second type of fish is known as Biny fish. These fish are easily identified by the “barbels” or whisker type flesh that hangs from around the mouth. These fish are a hardy fish that was popular for the Sabbath feasts. These Biny fish can usually be found near schools of sardines as they are predatory fish eating everything from snail and mollusks to sardines.




       The third type of important fish is the Sardine. These are the smallest fish that are harvested commercially. These fish tend to stay together in large schools, which help their individualistic chances for survival against predator fish. This is also a down side for their survival concerning certain fishing methods, as a great number of fish can be gathered in one attempt. These Sardines where also commonly referred to as “small fish”. It was likely that these “small fish” are a better representation of the fish used in Matt. 15:34, Mark 8:7, and John 6:9 for the miraculous feedings of the multitude.



Methods of Fishing

       As mentioned fishing methods have not changed much over the years. Despite a great increase in technology the basic fishing methods of ancient times still exists today. Most of what technology has been able to do for fishing is to improve on the ancient methods. Except for the use of dynamite (which is illegal in most areas) today's fisherman is subject using similar tactics to gain the targeted species of fish they are after. These tactics can be divided in to three main areas; netting, spearing and using a hook and line.

Netting fish is and has always been one of the best ways to fish commercially. It is possible to catch a great amount of fish in a relatively short amount of time. There are three main components of a net; the head rope, the netting, and the foot rope. The head rope or “lead” rope is a thicker rope at the top of the net that usually has cork attached in order that this would be the rope closest to the surface of the water. From the head rope the net itself is attached. This net can vary in size depending on the targeted species of fish. A much smaller mesh net would be required to catch sardines, whereas a larger mesh would be used for larger species of fish. This netting material would be composed of smaller diameter line weaved in such a way to make many small squares. At the bottom of this mesh netting would be attached the foot rope. The foot rope would be of a similar diameter as the head rope, but attached to it would be stone weights. These weights would ensure that the foot rope would be the rope at was the closest to the bottom, thus stretching the net between the head and foot rope. While these are the basic components of a fishing net the configuration of nets was different due to different methods of fishing.


       One of the oldest methods in which we see all three basic components of a net is that in the use of the dragnet. As Burge writes: “The dragnet was the most ancient form, dating from the third millennium B.C. in Egypt.”1 The dragnet would start from the shore and be taken out by boat and than turned to go parallel with the shore for a bit and than back to the shore. Nun describes the dragnet as being “made of netting shaped like a long wall, 250 to 300 meters long, 3 to 4 meters high at it’s “wings” and 8 meters high at the centre. The foot-rope is weighted with sinkers, and the head-rope has cork floats. The dragnet is spread a hundred meters or more from the shore and parallel to it, and hauled toward the shore with towing lines consisting of sections of ropes tied together. These are attached to each end and hauled in by a team of 16 men for large nets, or a smaller team for smaller nets.”2 This method of fishing required the use of a least one boat and many men to help haul in the net. Some Biblical occurrences of this method are found in: Hab. 1:14-15, Eze. 26:5, 26:14, 47:10, and Matt. 13:47-48.




       The Cast-Net is another type of net that was designed for the specific fishing method it is used for. This net is circular in shape, measuring from six to eight meters in diameter. There is no head-rope on this net; however, it does have the foot-rope that is attached to the outside diameter of this net. Attached to the foot-rope there are weights attached, to allow the net to sink quickly. As the name may imply this net cast or thrown by a single person either from a shallow area or water or from a boat. As this net is cast it spreads out and lands on the water like a parachute, descending quickly trapping any fish that are underneath of it. After the net is on the bottom there were two approaches to retrieving the fish from the net. The first way was that the fisherman would dive to the bottom and retrieve the fish individually placing them in to a pouch. The other method for retrieving the captured fish was to dive down and gather the foot-rope and bring up the catch all at once. It was common for the fisherman who was doing the diving to be naked as swimming suits were not on the market yet. As mentioned by Derrett: “Peter, impulsive as usual, throws himself into the water (not omitting to observe Exod. xx. 26, xxviii. 42), putting on a proper garment as a sign of respect, for he had been stripped to participate in hauling in the net.”3 There were two types of Cast-Nets; one of a smaller mesh for sardines, and one of a larger mesh for larger fish. The Cast-Net for larger would have typically had larger weights in ensure that the fish would not be able to get out from underneath the net. Some Biblical occurrences of this method are found in: Eze. 32:3, and Mark 1:16-18.




        Netting fish using a trammel net was the almost the most complicated and labor intensive method of capturing fish, yet it is the only netting method still in use on the Sea of Galilee today. The trammel net is actually three nets in one. There are the two outside nets which have a larger opening that fish can freely swim through, but in between the two there is a finer meshed net. The three nets share the same head and foot ropes, making it all one net. The way this net works is that a fish will swim through the first net without a problem, but than will encounter the fine meshed net and continue to swim through the outer net, thus getting tangled in the different layers of the net. The way this net would be used in fishing is that it would be loaded on a boat and transported to the desired location to fish. Slowly this net would be let out of the boat parallel to the shore, making a wall along the bottom. In deeper water different shapes could be used to set this net. After the net was set, Nun describes how the fish would be driven in to this net: “Now the boat enters the area between the net and the shore. The fishermen begin to make noise and turbulence by splashing with their oars and stamping on the bottom of the boat to terrify the fish (a performance which frequently irritated residents living on the shore). The frightened fish dive to the bottom, and in their flight toward deep water, find themselves facing the net. Now the fish passed easily through the large mesh of the first layer, but immediately comes to the narrow meshing of the middle layer. Pushing against it, he takes it through the third wall. Trying to retreat, he finds himself hopelessly entangled in a kind of net bag. Now the net is hauled out and the fish disentangled by hand, one by one. The net is prepared for the next operation, and the boat moves on.”4 One of the important things to note about this specific net that will give light in to the scriptures is that after a days use of this net it would undergo a through cleaning and mending and than be hung on a fence or wall so that it would dry thoroughly before the next use. This through cleaning and drying is specific to this type of net. Some Biblical occurrences of this method or a similar method using a different type of entanglement net are found in: Ecc. 9:12, Job 19:6-8, and Mark 1:19-20.


       There is one final method for netting fish in the ancient near east, and it is the most intensive and exhaustive way yet. This method uses one additional net than what has been discussed thus far. This net was called the Veranda Net. Basically this is just a Trammel net floated horizontally using reed canes. The purpose of this net is to catch any jumping fish. The way that the process started using this fishing method is that first a school of fish must be spotted. This could have been someone from a boat or common as well is an observer from the shore would direct the boats as to where to go. After a school of fish had been spotted, one boat would work to surround the school of fish with a Dragnet or Trammel net that went from the very bottom to the surface of the water. Once the Dragnet was in place the fish were surrounded, creating a barrel that the fish were in. When this barrel had been created than a second boat would go around the circle and the Veranda net would be spread along the top rim of the barrel so that any fish that decided to make a jump over the Dragnet would be caught in the Veranda net. Now that the fish were completely surrounded and there was no chance to escape by jumping over the nets, it was just a matter of getting the fish that were just swimming around in the middle of this barrel. This is when the fishermen would use the Casting net to throw it in to the middle and trap the fish from above. Once the casting net hit the bottom, one of the fishermen would dive and retrieve any fish that were caught in it. This method was very efficient in that most if not all of the fish that were in the original school that was sighted were caught, and if you are going to go to that much effort than it better be worth your while. By examining John 21:1-14 we can examine the different aspects of and conclude it was by this method that Peter and the other disciples were fishing.


       The type of fishing that many people today are familiar with is the hook and line method. Today this type of fishing is mainly used for recreational purposes. Hook and line fishing is used to catch nearly any fish that will bit, from sharks to blue gills. In the ancient near east, fishing was not seen as a recreational activity rather a source of food to sustain the body and the family. Though this was not a very popular method of fishing during the time of the Bible it is mention once in the Gospels and would not be much different than what we do today. There would have been a metal hook of some sort on the end of a line, and on that hook would have been the bait. The bait that would have been used was probably one of the sardines mentioned above. Some Biblical occurrences of this method are found in: Eze. 29:4, and Matt. 17:27.





       The final main method of fishing during the time of the Bible is not mentioned in the New Testament at all, as it was it was more popular in Mediterranean fishing. This method uses a spear or harpoon. Using a spear to fish with yields much less fish than that of a net and thus would not have been used for commercial use, rather for individual use or to feed a family. Spear fishing was done at night which makes it easier to see the fish. The use of a torch or “fire-basket” would have been used to lure fish close to allow for a better shot. The Bible alludes to this method in Job 41:7.






       Though most of the equipment that would have been used for fishing in the ancient near east has been mentioned about, such as; nets, hooks, lines, and spears. There was another piece of invaluable equipment that would have been a requirement if you wanted to make fishing you occupation. That piece of equipment would have been a boat. Anson describes these boats as having “a shallow draught, and most are very beamy, with an average length of from 15 to 20 feet. Wooden thole-pins are used when rowing. The oars are square in the loom, and very heavy. It is a common sight to see the Arab fishermen standing to their oars when rowing. The mast is fixed about two-thirds of the distance from stern to stem. Both fore and aft there is a small decked-in space; the latter being used to stow the net when the crew are not fishing. As has been already stated, a lateen sail is used. A normal crew consists of four men.”1 One of the best archaeological discoveries that have been found gives us a great image of what the boats were like during the time of Jesus. This discovery was an ancient fishing boat that has been dated back to the first century. Discovered in mud near Magdala, this boat is nine meters in length and two and a half meters in width and a little over a meter high. These dimensions are consistent with those of the boats used by Dragnet fishermen.


From the Nets to the Tables


        Once the harvest of fish has been caught we see the all important goal of turning this smelly pile of fish in to a heaping pile of money. The end goal for the commercial fishermen is to turn a profit off of the hours of hard work that have been toiled. There were two basic types of markets for fish. The first is the local market which would have been privy to the benefits of being close to a fishing community. This would result in the use of fresh fish for meals, and really getting the best of the best that was available. The non-local market did not have the advantage to have fresh fish. Many miles would have been traveled to bring fish to a city depending on its location, which could take many days. Since we do not see the modern invent of the ice-box during Biblical times the fish would have had to been preserved in other ways. Concerning the size of the Sea of Galilee; “it would have made economic sense to have a central fish factory to process the catch of the many small harbors. That such was in fact the case is strongly suggested by the name of one harbor, Taricheae, 'the Fish Factory.' The name comes from the Greek verb taricheuo, 'to preserve by artificial means.' In practice, however, the cognates of this verb deal predominantly with fish – for example, tarichas, 'a dealer in salt fish'; taricheion, 'pickle factory'; taricheutos, 'salted, pickled'; tarichegos, 'salt-fish hawker.”2 “To Aramaic speakers, Taricheae was known as Magdala, a name that evokes a different preservation process. The Aramaic name Magdala is known only from the adjective Magdalene, attached to the name of Mary, the disciple of Jesus who came from Magdala (Lk 8:2).”3 Once the fish were to their respective markets people were free to buy them and prepare them a number of different ways as stated in Baker; “Fish were prepared as food in a number of ways: boiling, steaming, frying, pickling, smoking, or salting. Salt curing was probably the most common method of preserving fish that were to be transported any distance or kept for any length of time”.4

One of the most famed fish from ancient near eastern world is what is commonly called today “St. Peter’s Fish”. One can not go to the area of the Sea of Galilee and not try this special fish which gets is popularity from the scriptures:


After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma tax came to Peter and asked, "Doesn't your teacher pay the temple tax?"

"Yes, he does," he replied.

When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. "What do you think, Simon?" he asked. "From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own sons or from others?"



"From others," Peter answered.



"Then the sons are exempt," Jesus said to him. "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours."

(Mat 17:24-27)


Famed as it may be the musht that is served under the “St. Peter’s Fish” title is not the actual type of fish that Peter would have caught. The first important thing to notice from the passage is what method of fishing Peter is using. Jesus tells Peter to “throw out your line”. This indicates that Peter will be using a hook and line method for catching this fish. As mentioned above this method would have required the use of bait being placed on the hook. This bait would have been some type of minnow or sardine. There is no way that such a method would have caught the popular musht as it is a fish that feeds solely off of plankton. More likely is that Peter had caught one of the fish in the Biny species as they are predatory feeder and would have no problem taking the bait. As Nun writes: “There can be only one explanation for the confusing change of name. It was good for tourism! The Sea of Galilee has always attracted visitors and pilgrims, and the musht is part of the unique local cuisine (today raised mostly in ponds).” “…as pilgrims began to come from distant regions, it must have seemed good for business to give the name ‘St. Peter’s Fish’ to the musht being served by the early lakeside houses. The most popular and easily prepared fish acquired the most marketable name!”5


Acceptable / Unacceptable Fish to Eat


       As most food the Bible gives the nation of Israel instruction as to the fish they eat, and the fish that they should not eat. The book of Leviticus states: "'Of all the creatures living in the water of the seas and the streams, you may eat any that have fins and scales. But all creatures in the seas or streams that do not have fins and scales—whether among all the swarming things or among all the other living creatures in the water—you are to detest. And since you are to detest them, you must not eat their meat and you must detest their carcasses. Anything living in the water that does not have fins and scales is to be detestable to you.” (Lev 11:9-12). This brings us to the Catfish, which is a scale-less fish and thus seen as unclean to the Jewish people. Since this was an unclean fish it would not have been eaten and because of that the catfish had very little economic importance. Not only was this fish not eaten, but hated. There is evidence that Jesus was referring to this fish when He said; “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?”(Mat 7:9,10). This “snake” that Jesus is referring to could have been a type of scale-less fish as noted in Anchor; “what made some fish unclean was their resemblance to snakes. Odd as it many seen to us, this comparison was fairly widespread. The Babylonians apparently avoided catfish (Akk girītu, Sum murra) on the same grounds (Salonen i970: 185-87). The identification of the girītu as a form of snake survived the end of Mesopotamian culture. Its Arabic derivative, jirrit, is compared in classical Arabic lexica to Persian marmāhi, ‘snake fish’ (Lane, 404). Another example of the comparison of scale-less fish and snakes is Akk kuppu, ‘goby (?),’ which is determined not only by mus, the sign for snake, but also by ku6, that for fish.”6



The Fishermen


       When most people picture a fisherman they probably envision a working class man with little education that is rough around the edges. This would not be a person that many would feel comfortable going up to and making a new friend of. “The strenuous life of fishermen required a strong physique (Lk. 5:2), and their speech was sometimes rough (Mk 14:70f.).”7 While this picture of a fisherman is fairly close to accurate there may be more to the fisherman than what we normally realize. As fishing was a trade occupation a fisherman would have come into contact with many people from different backgrounds. It was likely that the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee would have been fluent in at least Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, as the merchants buying the fish may have been coming from different areas. The fisherman would have also needed to be more than proficient in mathematics, as they would have had to know how many of each type of fish they had caught and what kind of market value it should bring. It is also probable that average fisherman would have had a decent income in comparison to many other trades. This income would be even greater the higher one would get in the hierarchy of the fishing industry. This was because: “The income from the catch was divided according to the ancient fishing tradition of 'shares' (Arabic 'housa'). Forty percent went to the owner of the boat and net, the remainder to the crew. The skipper ('raiss' in Arabic received two shares together with certain other benefits from the owners. His second in command and menders of the net received one and a half parts, and those who hauled the net – one share each.”8 From this perspective we can get a more complete picture of the life of Peter and Andrew as Murphy-O'Connor writes: “We have a surprisingly good picture of the scale of Simon Peter and Andrew's fishing operation. They worked on partnership (Luke 5:7) with James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Luke 5:10), who had employees (Mark 1:20). They were free to start (John 21:1-3) and stop work (Luke 5:11) when it suited them. The impression that they were men of substance who controlled their own lives is confirmed by the quality of their house at Capernaum. Known as the House of Peter since the fourth century, it is larger than most of the other houses excavated in Capernaum.”9 It is by this evidence that we want to change our view of the ancient near eastern fisherman.


       While there is little written about ancient fishing practices as it was something that was passed on generation to generation, fish played a vital part of everyday life. Fishing was a vital part of the Ancient Near Eastern culture as it provided both food and revenue. The impact that fishing had on the culture was far reaching and to this day fishermen still use similar tactics that were used thousands of years ago.








Anson, Peter F. Christ and the sailor : a study of the maritime incidents in the New Testament. London : Burns & Oates, ©1954.


Burge, Gary M. "Fishers of Fish: The maritime life of Galilee's north shore, Jesus' headquarters." Christian History. 59 (1998): 36-37.


Derrett, J Duncan M. "Esan gar halieis (Mk 1:16): Jesus's fishermen and the parable of the net." Novum Testamentum. 22.2 (Ap 1980): 108-137.


Douglas, J.D., Ed. The Illustrated Bible dictionary. Vol.1.Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, ©1980.


Elwell, Walter A. Ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, ©1988


Freedman, David Noel, Ed. Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2 & 6. New York : Doubleday, ©1992.


Hanson, K C. "The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition." Biblical Theology Bulletin. 27 (Fall 1997): 99-111.


Jackson, Samuel M. Ed. The new Schaff-Herzog encyclopedia of religious knowledge. Grand Rapids, MI. : Baker Book House, ©1977.


Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome. "Fishers of Fish, Fishers of Men: What We Know of the First Disciples from Their Profession." BR (Washington, D.C.). 15.3 (Je 1999): 22-27,48-49.


Nun, Mendal. The Sea of Galilee and its Fishermen in the New Testament. Kibbuts Ein Gev, Israel: Kinnereth Sailing Co., ©1989.


Pritchard, James B. The ancient Near East in pictures relating to the Old Testament. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, ©1969.

1 Jackson, Samuel M. Ed. The new Schaff-Herzog encyclopedia of religious knowledge. Grand Rapids, MI. : Baker Book House, ©1977. Pg. 310.

2Burge, Gary M. "Fishers of Fish: The maritime life of Galilee's north shore, Jesus' headquarters." Christian History. 59 (1998): Pg. 37.

3Nun, Mendal. The Sea of Galilee and its Fishermen in the New Testament. Kibbuts Ein Gev, Israel: Kinnereth Sailing Co., ©1989. Pg 16.

4Derrett, J Duncan M. "Esan gar halieis (Mk 1:16): Jesus's fishermen and the parable of the net." Novum Testamentum. 22.2 (Ap 1980): Pg. 132.

5Nun, Mendal. The Sea of Galilee and its Fishermen in the New Testament. Kibbuts Ein Gev, Israel: Kinnereth Sailing Co., ©1989. pg 32.

6Anson, Peter F. Christ and the sailor : a study of the maritime incidents in the New Testament. London : Burns & Oates,

©1954. Pgs. 19,20.

7Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome. "Fishers of Fish, Fishers of Men: What We Know of the First Disciples from Their

Profession." BR (Washington, D.C.). 15.3 (Je 1999): Pg. 27.

8Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome. "Fishers of Fish, Fishers of Men: What We Know of the First Disciples from Their

Profession." BR (Washington, D.C.). 15.3 (Je 1999): Pg. 27.

9Elwell, Walter A. Ed. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, ©1988 Pgs. 100,101

10Nun, Mendal. The Sea of Galilee and its Fishermen in the New Testament. Kibbuts Ein Gev, Israel: Kinnereth Sailing Co., ©1989. pg 46,48.

11Freedman, David Noel, Ed. Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 2 & 6. New York : Doubleday, ©1992. Pgs. 1146,1147.

12Douglas, J.D., Ed. The Illustrated Bible dictionary. Vol.1.Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, ©1980. Pg. 509

13Nun, Mendal. The Sea of Galilee and its Fishermen in the New Testament. Ein Gev, Israel: Kinnereth., ©1989. Pg. 19.

14Murphy-O'Connor, Jerome. "Fishers of Fish, Fishers of Men: What We Know of the First Disciples from Their

Profession." BR (Washington, D.C.). 15.3 (Je 1999): Pg. 27.

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