By Ched Myers, comments on John 21 for May 1, 2022
I’ve long been fascinated with today’s gospel reading. The story is roughly parallel to Luke 5:1-11, and notably Luke places his version at the beginning of his narrative of Jesus’ ministry (in place of Mark’s call of the fishermen), while John puts it at the end of his gospel. This tradition must have been strong in the early church, and seems to signal a restoration of divine abundance in place of the scarcity of the exploited fishery in defiance of official regulations.
John brackets this story (21:1,14) with assertions that this was a “revelation /manifestation” (phaneroō, 6 times in John, e.g. 3:21); this is the final revelation. John places it at the “Sea of Tiberias,” a name only he uses in the N.T. for the Sea of Galilee” (see 6:1), which seems to emphasize the imperial renaming of the lake. In C.E. 14, Caesar Augustus died and Tiberius eventually became Emperor. To cultivate the new emperor’s favor, in C.E. 19 Herod Antipas began building a new capital city, which he named Tiberias in a bald demonstration of fealty. Right on the Sea of Galilee, this city was part of a new wave of Roman economic colonization. Its primary function was to regulate the fishing industry around the Sea, the most prosperous segment of ancient Galilee’s economy, putting it firmly under the control of Roman and Herodian elites, who endeavored to control the industry for export markets.
Scholar K.C. Hanson has drawn a compelling portrait of the political economy of the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee during the time of Jesus. All fishing had become state-regulated for the benefit of the urban managerial class—either Romans who had settled in Palestine following military conquest, or Jews connected with the Herodian family. They profited from the fishing industry first by controlling the sale of fishing leases (without which locals could not fish). Fishing rights 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, all of whom we meet here in v. 2.
Elites taxed the product, processing and transportation. Fish formally caught in a sustainable fashion for local consumption by peasant fishermen were now being processed into salt preserve or fish sauce for export. The traditional local subsistence economy was being structurally adjusted by imperial interests, made possible by the infrastructural improvements (roads, harbors and processing factories) carried out by the Herodians.
These economic changes 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. Elites looked down on local fishermen, even as they depended upon their labor: “The fisher,” attests an ancient Egyptian papyrus, “is more miserable than any other profession.” So when Jesus of Nazareth showed up at the sea as narrated in all four of our gospels, he was walking right into a distressed economic landscape. As a tekton, Jesus may also have gotten work repairing boats, moving up the coast from harbor to harbor as an itinerant laborer.
The first part of John’s scene is poignant, for two reasons. First, “Peter announces “I am going fishing” (halieuō, v 3), which seems to signal that the discipleship story is over: he is going back to his job, his old way of life. Second, it indicates the increasing scarcity of resources because of Romanization: these peasant fishermen had worked all night but caught nothing. (The trammel net system was used mainly at night; a series of complex nets weighted at the bottom with buoys on top were typically put out in a circle.) The local waters were being fished out; this much romanticized gospel scenario might be seen as the equivalent of a modern sweat shop or diamond mine or coca plantation, populated by poor workers amidst increasing scarcity.
So when Jesus of Nazareth originally showed up at the sea, as narrated in all four of our gospels, he was walking right into a distressed economic landscape—boom for a few, bust for most. Top-down strategies of economic and infrastructure development inevitably enrich the few and impoverish the many, as we still see in our world. It is with this social sector that Jesus, himself a marginalized worker, built his movement. Like Gandhi’s mobilization of the “untouchable” classes in India in his 1930 Salt March to the sea. Or Martin Luther King’s fateful decision to stand with the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike in 1968. True change can only come from below.
This depressing episode turns dramatically “just after daybreak” (21:4a). Given the symbolic significance of night and day in John, I think this symbolizes that the darkness of the empire’s economy of oppression is about to be eclipsed by the divine economy of original abundance. Jesus appears anonymously on the beach, asking them with a certain knowing resignation: “Children, you have nothing to eat with your bread, do you”? (v. 5: prosphagion, literally “eaten w/ bread” implying fish relish).
It is testimony to the fishermen’s desperation that they simply follow this stranger’s strange advice to “cast your nets to starboard” (v. 6). Then comes the mystical-yet-material moment of hope: the “miraculous catch.” The disciple whom Jesus loves realizes “it is the Lord,” at which point Peter literally “goes overboard” (v. 7). Perhaps this is because of excitement, but it doesn’t say he swam toward Jesus, only that he “jumped into the sea” while the others came in the boat.
It is just as likely that Peter bailed out in terror at this apparition, giving him a glimpse of how their waters used to be, before the artificial scarcity wrought by extractive colonization. Sociologist Avery Gordon, in her important book Ghostly Matters, talks about the animating power of lingering, ghostly presences of unresolved past and continuing violence among places and people. Peter would have been amazed, but also paranoid. This subversive memory of abundance might animate a Messianic “uprising” against unjust resource over-extraction by the Romans. On the other hand, this copious catch would certainly be criminalized by the authorities as contraband, inspired by an itinerant preacher without a fishing license! So: should these hard-pressed peasants joyfully gather the illegal windfall —or run for the hills? Wildcat resource redistributions were, and still are today, very risky business.
The scene then quickly switches from the labor of the chaotic, perhaps manic windfall haul of flopping fish (v. 8), to Jesus sitting at a contemplative charcoal fire (v. 9: anthrakian means burning coals, and only otherwise appears in Jn 18:18—does this symbolize a reversal of Peter’s denial there?). There is “fish on it, and bread”—the same pairing as earlier in John’s story in the wilderness feeding (6:9,11; and 6:23 associates these with “boats from Tiberias”).
Jesus now “calls in” the fish (v. 10; in his account John uses both opsariōn, fish/fish relish, and ichthuōn). Peter responds by hauling in “153,” which we have to imagine represents a symbolic number, though I can’t find a plausible explanation in the commentaries (Jerome claimed there were 153 species of fish in the Sea, while others look to numerology). The net still doesn’t break (v. 11)—though perhaps their cycle of their poverty now will! Jesus calmly extends an invitation to “breakfast” (v. 12). So humane and beautiful! Then “Jesus took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish” (13).
In John’s gospel, the bread in the wilderness and the fish on the shore stand in for the “missing Last Supper” moment! These vignettes don’t peddle “magic,” but lessons in community sustenance, moments of restored “original abundance.” Jesus’ “uprising” pushes back against unjust overextraction by the Romans, and feeds hungry workers.
Postscript: We were in Tabgah a decade ago, where I fulfilled a lifelong dream to stand at the shore of Lake Galilee, at the putative site of Peter’s home, just yards from the water. We visited the church of the Loaves and Fishes, where just beneath the altar is the rock which tradition says was the “table” for Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes. In front of that rock is a 5th century Byzantine mosaic of the loaves and fishes (above). I think it is profoundly significant that fish and bread—representing the contested economic landscape of first century Palestine—were the earliest symbols of the Christian movement. These iconic reminders of Sabbath Economics were much harder to spiritualize when they were still the staples of a peasant fishing family’s diet; perhaps that is why they eventually were replaced by other symbols. Time to jump overboard and dive back in to the mystical waters of God’s vision of justice.