This is an ongoing occasional series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B.
The Sea of Galilee is the ecological and social setting of the first half of the gospel of Mark. A large freshwater lake about seven miles wide and 13 miles long, its shore is dotted with villages connected with the local fishing industry, the most prosperous segment of Galilee’s economy. The lake (also called Sea of Genneseret, Lake Kinneret or Lake Tiberius) is fed by the Jordan River, which flows in from the north and out to the south. Some 209 meters below sea level, it is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth. Due to this low-lying position in a rift valley, the sea is prone to sudden violent storms, as attested in the gospel stories.
The known harbors of the first century strongly correlate with locations named in the gospel tradition, including Bethsaida, located near the inflow of the Jordan River (cf Mk 8:22-26), Gadara (cf Mk 5:1), and Migdal. Migdal’s Greek name was Tarichaeae, or “processed fish-ville,” and Dominic Crossan calls it “the most important town on the lake before Herod Antipas built Tiberias around 19 CE… [it’s] Hebrew name comes from migdal, a tower, presumably a lighthouse.” It was likely the village of Mary “the Magdalene” (Mk 15:40), who may well have been a refugee from its fish processing sweatshops. But of central importance to Mark is the harbor village of Capernaum, introduced respectively in 1:16 and 1:21.
In 14 C.E., Caesar Augustus died and Tiberius became ruler of Rome. To curry the new emperor’s favor, Herod Antipas (the client-king Tetrarch of Galilee) began building a new capital city called Tiberias on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Antipas hoped to demonstrate that he was the best candidate to intensify Romanization of the region by establishing Tiberias as a thoroughly Hellenized administrative and military center. The primary function of this city was to regulate the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee, putting it firmly under the control of Roman interests. There Antipas built a royal palace, where it is likely he beheaded John the Baptist (Mk 6:7ff).
The construction work at Tiberius may have drawn Jesus, as a carpenter/construction worker, to the Sea from Nazareth, and as an itinerant laborer he might have moved up the coast from harbor to harbor. This explains how Jesus appears in Capernaum, a major harbor and an important center of the fishing trade, and the narrative center of gravity in Mark 1-3.
K.C. Hanson offers a compelling portrait of the political economy of the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee during this period, which provides detail of the matrix of oppression narrated in Mark. We know that at this time the fishing industry was being steadily restructured for export, so that the majority of fish were salt preserved or made into a fish sauce and shipped to distant markets throughout the empire. All fishing had become state-regulated for the benefit of the urban elite—either Greeks or Romans who had settled in Palestine following military conquest or Jews connected with the Herodian family. They profited from the fishing industry in two ways. First, they controlled the sale of fishing leases, without which locals could not fish. These rights, and often capitalization as well, were normally awarded not to individuals, but to local kinship-based “cooperatives” (Gk koinōnoi)—such as the brothers Simon and Andrew or the Zebedee family we meet in Mk 1:16-20. Second, they taxed the fish product and its processing, and levied tolls on product transport. Local administrators handled royal leases, contracts and taxes—such as “Levi son of Alphaeus,” whom we meet in Mk 2:14.
This transformation of the local economy, made possible by the infrastructural improvements (roads, harbors and processing factories) carried out by the Herodians, functioned to marginalize and impoverish formerly self-sufficient native fishing families. Leases, taxes and tolls were exorbitant, while the fish upon which local people depended as a dietary staple was extracted for export. Thus fishermen were falling to the bottom of an increasingly elaborate economic hierarchy. Elites looked down on them, even as they depended upon their labor: “The most shameful occupations are those which cater to our sensual pleasures,” wrote the Roman poet Cicero pejoratively, “fish-sellers, butchers, cooks, poultry-raisers and fishermen” (Hanson:99). “The fisher,” attests an ancient Egyptian papyrus, “is more miserable than any other profession.”
The remnants of a first century fishing boat, discovered in 1985 under the Sea of Galilee, symbolizes the hard life of peasant-fishermen. The 27 X 7 foot boat had both oars and a sail, and could hold up to 13 persons. It evidenced having been rebuilt at least five times from seven different kinds of wood in all manner of patching, indicating cannibalization of other boats. Indeed, all reusable material had been removed from this boat before it was finally jettisoned into the Sea, no longer reparable. This remarkable artifact, possibly from the time of Jesus, indicates the marginal existence of the fishermen.
With such rigid state control of their livelihood and the oppressive economics of export, it is hardly surprising that in Mark’s story fishermen are the first converts to Jesus’ message about an alternative social vision! If Tiberius was ground zero in Herod’s project of Romanizing the regional economy, then Capernaum up the coast, a village profoundly impacted by such policies, was the logical place to commence building a movement of resistance. Restless peasant fishermen had little to lose and everything to gain, by overturning the status quo. Thus Jesus’ strategic decision was not unlike Gandhi’s attempts to mobilize the “untouchable” classes in India in campaigns such as his famous Salt March, or M.L. King’s fateful choice to stand with the sanitation workers of Memphis in 1968.
“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people’” (Mk 1:17b). This famous phrase is beloved to evangelicals, who have traditionally interpreted it to connote the vocation of “saving souls.” But we miss the point if we remove this text from its social matrix, and if we ignore the roots of this metaphor in the Hebrew Bible, where it appears in no less than four prophetic oracles.
Jeremiah envisions YHWH “sending for many fishermen” in order to catch the wayward people of Israel, specifically “those who have polluted the land with idols” (Jer 16:16-18). The prophet Amos targets the elite classes of Israel, whom he calls “cows of Bashan,” warning that YHWH will haul them away like sardines to judgment: “The time is surely coming upon you [who oppress the poor and crush the needy] when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Am 4:1f).
The most clearly anti-imperial version is found in Ezekiel’s rant against Pharaoh, denouncing the empire’s delusion that it “owns” the Nile. God vows to yank the “dragon” of Egypt right out of the River, “hook, line and sinker,” along with all the fish that it claims exclusive rights to (Ez 29:3f). A fourth text from Habakkuk, on the other hand, could well capture the lament of those hard-pressed fishermen about how the enemy “emptied” their marine resources:
You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler. 15The enemy* brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his seine; so he rejoices and exults. 16Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his seine; for by them his portion is lavish, and his food is rich. 17Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying nations without mercy? (Hab 1:14-17)
Jesus—who knew the prophetic literature and sought to embody it anew in his context—was using an idiom that “exposed and provoked” the conflict in order to address it. It mixed both the prophetic sense of warning to the oppressor classes and the lament of those oppressed by the privatizers of the Sea of Galilee’s commonwealth. He was summoning these marginalized workers to join him in, to use modern parlance, “catching some Big Fish” and restoring God’s justice for the poor.
Little wonder, then, that Mark records the response of these exploited fishermen to Jesus’ “good news” as immediate (a scenario he repeats twice, 1:18,20). They had little to lose. In antiquity, leaving the workplace would have entailed both loss of economic security and a rupture in the social fabric of the extended family as well. In that sense, to join this movement demanded not just an assent of the heart, but an uncompromising break with “business as usual.” But the verb “they left their nets” (Gk aphiemi) is used elsewhere in Mark to connote release from debt, as well as forgiveness of sin and liberation from bondage. It is, in other words, a “Jubilee” verb. In fact, an epilogue to the later call of the rich man story defines “leaving” home, family and work specifically in terms of the discipleship community’s practice of social and economic redistribution (Mk 10:28f). Jesus is calling these disaffected workers out of an exploitive system and back to a network of “fictive kinship” that practices mutual aid and cooperation.
The revered image of “fishing for people,” then, should be understood more in the sense of Dr. King’s struggle “for the soul of America” than in terms of Billy Graham’s altar calls. But as the story makes clear, we can be assured that Jesus’ summons to discipleship was both profoundly political and personal—then and now.