Fishing Economy in the Sea of Galilee
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 (
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 (
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 (