Fishing Economy in the Sea of Galilee
by Alicia J. Batten
Despite ample evidence for its significance in understanding the New Testament and noncanonical texts (Gospel of Thomas 8), the Galilean fishing economy has been neglected by scholars. According to the New Testament Gospels, some of Jesus’ followers were fishers or from fishing villages (Mark 1:16-20, Luke 8:2). Jesus also spent time in Galilean seaside villages such as Capernaum (Mark 2:1) and Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). Magdala (Matt 15:39) was a fish-processing center. Economic and social issues arising from the daily lives of fishers and their families would have been familiar to Jesus, and references to fish emerge in gospel sayings (Matt 17:24-27), parables (Matt 13:47-48), and narratives (Mark 6:35-44).
Fishing was a fundamental part of the embedded agrarian economy of first-century Galilee. This region was ruled by Herod Antipas; a client king of the Romans. An “embedded” economy was one in which questions of production, processing, trade, and their regulation could not be separated from politics, religion, and family or village life. There was no free market that functioned independently from other dimensions of society, and little if any upward mobility. Most peasant fishing families were poor and lived at subsistence level, while a small minority of elites held the bulk of wealth and power. Fishing licenses were required for access to certain areas, and fishers needed various raw materials such as wood for their boats and flax for their nets. Evidently, families had to occasionally hire day laborers for assistance with the haul (Mark 1:19-20). Fish processors and distributors were required to pay taxes for the product and tolls for its transport. A reference to processed fish, opsarion, appears in John 6: 9-11.
In general, the economy of the Roman Empire was extractive insofar as production and distribution served the interests of the powerful, not those who actually performed the labor. Peasant fishers and processors had little to no control over fees for fishing licenses or tax and toll rates. It is reasonable to conclude that such an economic situation was largely one of exploitation. This exploitation may have intensified in the Galilee during Herod Antipas’s reign, due largely to his increased commercialization of fishing and his own luxurious living. At any rate, fishers, farmers and other laborers in the Galilee sought ways to resist exploitation by hiding goods, lying about the size of their families in order to pay fewer poll taxes, and other covert strategies.
Knowledge of the Galilean fishing economy raises interesting questions about the various “fish traditions” throughout the gospels. What are we to make of the catch of 153 large fish, for example, that, instead of being shipped off to those who could afford them, are eaten for breakfast by Jesus’ disciples (John 21:1-14)? Might this story have a subversive quality that has otherwise gone unnoticed? And why does the Gospel of Luke use a story of a great quantity of fish—so great that the fishing boats begin to sink—to stress that the disciples will likewise “catch” people (Luke 5:1-11)? And why, in this same gospel, does the risen Jesus eat a piece of broiled fish (Luke 24:42-43)? At the very least, more work on the fishing economy is needed, given the degree to which ancient traditions associate Jesus and his followers with fish and fishing in first-century Galilee.
Alicia J. Batten is associate professor of religious studies and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, Canada. Her current research interests include the Catholic Epistles (especially James), ancient economics, dress in antiquity, and the history of biblical interpretation.
Relating to agriculture, or (of a society) dependent on agriculture for food.
A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.
A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.
Of or related to textual materials that are not part of the accepted biblical canon.
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10On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida.
39After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.
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John 6: 9-11
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42They gave him a piece of broiled fish,
43and he took it and ate in their presence.