An Analysis of Matthew's Fishers of Men
Commonly cited as "The Call of the First Disciples" or "The Call of Simon and Andrew," the pericope that contains Matthew 4:19 is popularly synonymous with the creation of he Church. 'The actual meaning of the verse, "And he said to them, 'To low me, and I will make you fishers of men," is in fact a great deal deeper than commonly understood. Scholars cast into mythology, ancient Hebrew text, Galilean fishing, first century group formation, Matthean . discipleship, and eschatology toward the end of understanding this verse. This bit of text provides a great deal of information about Jesus, his mission, and post-Jesus group interpretation of that mission. This verse is perhaps more than a mere narrative creation, but the spoken word of Jesus: the truth contained in these words as they were recorded in first century Palestine shines old light on modern Christianity and the goals of modern faith communities.
A number of scholars have tried to understand Matthew 4:19 as it was originally intended and they have come up with some slightly differing opinions concerning the Galilean fishing economy, ancient fishing metaphors, and New Testament discipleship. In the first of these categories, Jerome Murphy-0'Connor (1999) uses the reference to fishermen and some historical research into the Galilean fishing economy to draw a number of conclusions about the disciples themselves. The thrust of his research regarding this verse is that the four fishing disciples (Simon, Andrew, James, and John) were from "prosperous, assimilated Jewish middle-class families" [sic] (Murphy 0'Connor, 48). Being financially comfortable, they were able to drop their work to become disciples of John the Baptist and then Jesus.
K.C. Hanson (1997), on the other hand, refutes the idea of a middle-class in the Galilean economy. In "The Galilean Fishing Economy and the Jesus Tradition," he shows a model of embedded economics as the practiced system and not the free market system as many scholars misconstrue. Hanson also argues for the importance of fishing in the Jesus tradition, and that Jesus' primary audience and activities were in fishing villages.
Further developing information on the fishing processes of the filet century, Mendel Nun's 1993 article develops an understanding of the business these Level I disciples were participating in when they joined Jesus as men-fishers. Concentrating primarily on the Lukan version of this passage, along with the "miraculous catch of fish" associated with it (Luke 5:1-11), Nun argues that Jesus does not make the fish appear, but rather points them out to his fishermen so that the fish may be caught. Further, Nun shows the judgment symbolism of the fishing net in Job 19:6, Habakuk 1:15, and multiple Ezekiel passages.
Among the sources that construct a view a discipleship from Mt 4:19, Wuellner (1967) writes that this passage implies that Jesus' role is that of both teacher and prophet. Jesus offering the position of "fisherman" connotes Jesus' granting authority in teaching and judgment to his disciples, and, Wuellner argues, to his church. Wuellner further discusses fishing in two lights: that of Jesus' teachings as the new Torah and that of Jesus as the new Moses. These two views are linked by the concept of men-fishing: the fishing that occurs in the church by men-fishers and God's judgment.
The pericope Mt 4:18-22 is Carter's (1997) initial point of investigation for a study of Matthean discipleship. The main thrust of the article is that Jesus offers his disciples a marginalized existence in society and "the authority to preach the reign of the heavens" (68). The calling, occurring on a waterfront, changes the traditional idea of water as a place of sin to a place of salvation, and fishermen from wrathful judges of men to preaching saviors of men. Additionally, the disciples' acceptance of Jesus' call forms a link between God calling Jesus and Jesus calling the disciples.
Johnson and Buttrick (1951) break Matthew 4:19 down into two significant parts: "follow me" and "fishers of men." When Jesus says, "follow me" he is calling Simon and Andrew to be his disciples, a title that has the same connotations of becoming disciples of the priestly class in Jerusalem. This entails learning through the example of the teacher as well as through his instructions. The call to be "fishers of men" typically has a negative connotation. For instance, in Jeremiah 16:16 the statement conveys the image of hunting sinful men for judgment. Jesus, Johnson & Buttrick write, turns this negative statement around by using it in the positive sense of saving people from (rather than punishing people for) their sins.
More concern is given to the theological implications of the fishing intertext by Derrett (1980), who argues that Matthew 4:19 is derived from Ezekiel 47. Derrett casts his argument back to traditional Jewish thought where the fish represents the individual soul awaiting salvation. The fishermen, then, represent God's agent effectuating that salvation, and fishing and fishermen thus are typical agents of God's coming. Therefore Matthew 4:19 does not contain, as others write, overtones of judgment so much as a coming salvation.
Appealing to other ancient Semitic traditions that were possibly "common" in first century Galilee, MacLaurin (1978) states that the sending of fishermen in Ugaritic mythology is a divine function. MacLaurin tentatively agrees with Derrett in that individual worshiper are called "fish." MacLaurin continues with the theme of Semitic mythology and argues that Jesus' calling Andrew and Simon to the fishers of men is not only mythological but military in nature, known well enough that the men understand that they are being commissioned by God to catch men for God.
Manek (1957) furthers the mythological interpretation by citing the cosmological significance of water as sin and death and therefore a separation from God. In this framework, the term "fishers of men" 7 refers to salvation, rescuing men from the waters. This symbolism is reinforced with the episode of Jesus, free of sin, able to walk on top of the waters, never to be separated from God.
Smith (1959) assesses the term "fishers of men" as an eschatological call, explaining that the metaphor does not relate to the evangelistic function of the disciples as much as it relates to a metaphoric summoning to judgment. Smith draws his perceptions of this phrase from Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls references, where fishing seems to have a notably ominous presence. His conclusion is that this Markan pericope is the first call to judgment made by the eschatological Lord, Jesus.
Of the many scholars that examine Mt 4:19, their research falls into a few loosely defined categories - that of actual fishing, discipleship, and intertext. Murphy-O'Connor's work concerning fishing revolves around the middle-class fishermen that Jesus calls as disciples, while Hanson's shows peasant fishermen who make up Jesus’ primary social environment in the Gospels. Nun expands upon fishing techniques and dips into the eschatological symbolism of fishing that is discussed at length in the "intertext" articles by Derrett, MacLaurin, Manek, and Smith. Johnson & Buttrick try to define the major terminological axes of Mt 4:19, with a bit of eschatology. Wuellner further targets fishing intertext, but with more application to discipleship, and Carter also discusses ramifications of the fishing metaphor, but concentrates more fully on the meaning of Jesus' call to the disciples.
Meanings and Origins
The general cotext of Matthew 4:19 is the Gospel of Matthew, and so the theme of righteousness, the overarching purpose that Matthew applies to the Jesus story, is always in the background. The specific cotext of the passage is the recruitment of a faction. The necessity of this faction is apparent from both the immediately preceding and immediately proceeding storyline. Before calling Simon and Andrew, Jesus is recognized as a holy man at his baptism and is presented as the New Israel after resisting temptation in the desert (4:1-16).
Matthew also cements Jesus' role as prophet in 4:17 (as Jesus parallels John's prophesying words from 3:2). From this, Jesus needs to form his faction (or take over John's faction) if his work as a holy man, prophet, and as the new Israel is to be recognized. After the passage, Jesus begins to teach, preach, and heal (4:23-25), all of which are activities for which the honor code of the ancient Mediterranean demands witnesses. At the general level, these fishermen are the helpers that Jesus needs in order to bring God's righteousness to Israel; at the specific level of the cotext, this passage is the recruitment of a faction that will bear witness to Jesus' works.
There are seemingly two terms from this passage that require definition. The first is "follow me" and the second is "fishers of men." Much of the research done towards understanding this passage concerns the discipleship that begins with Jesus' request to "follow me." Malina (2001) explains this call as the common beginning of the formation of a small group around a single, purposeful person. His analysis of "to follow" shows that the Greek terminology involved in the Matthean text denotes persons "joining a noted teacher" (Malina and Rohrbaugh, 44). Contextually, Carter (1997) explains that "follow me" is Jesus' "calling" of his first disciples and that calling is a theme that is present throughout the opening of Matthew's Gospel. For instance, an angel of the Lord tells Joseph to "call his [son's] name Jesus" (Mt 1:21); Jesus is called Emmanuel in the birth announcement of Joseph's dream (1:23); the Gospel references Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt I call my son" (2:15). This calling is, until 4:19, a matter of God's call: when Jesus says, "Follow me," he is doing work associated with God and is therefore calling other people to help him do God's bidding. Ergo this call to follow is a call to join a teacher and, specific to the Gospel, participate in God's plan.
"Fishers of men" is a complex term, carrying social and theological ramifications that are not immediately clear. Fishermen and those that participated in fishing-essential economies in firstcentury Palestine make up most of Jesus' following in Matthew. (Hanson , shows that "Jesus' proclamations of God's Reign had its primary audience in Galilean fishing-villages and towns" .) Although Murphy-O'Connor (1999) and Wuellner (1967) both explain that Jesus' disciples were from middle-class upbringing, Hanson disagrees with them, arguing that the term is anachronistic and inaccurate. Rather, most scholarship supports the idea that all Galilean fishermen are, in a broad sense, peasants (103). Additionally, there is a great deal of evidence that shows the fishing economy subject to heavy taxation, and so it seems reasonable to say that the most (if not all) denizens of the fishing towns where Jesus performed most of his ministry were peasants.,
Also important to the definition of "fishers of men" is its intertextual implications. Matthew 4:19 references a number of fishing allegories in the Hebrew Testament; they are references which deal almost solely with God's call to judgment. The prophetic corpus contains most of this intertext: Job 19:6 denotes God's "net" as a judgment; Jer 16:16 shows the Lord fishing and hunting for men in order to punish them; Israel will become a place of doom, "a place for spreading nets" in Ezek 26:5; Hab 1:14-17 uses full fishing nets as an allegory for death. There are arguments which support Smith's (1959) view that fishing connotes a call to eschatological judgment, but most work indicates that Jesus appoints fishers of men to save men from the waters which are commonly associated in ancient Jewish cosmology with the underworld of Sheol (Manek, 1957; MacLaurin, 1978; Derrett, 1980). Jesus appoints these fishers of men as salvific figures, not eschatological judges.
Matthew, writing for his own Jesus-group, is mindful of placing this passage in this Gospel because it speaks to the early church. The author places this passage, from a story already to familiar to its original readers, to render the idea that God calls each person in that church group to be a member of the ingroup. Each church member is charged with the same responsibilities as the original disciples. Namely these responsibilities are to learn from and follow the teachings of the church, and to participate in a salvific role towards others. The second of these is somewhat ambiguous, and may mean either that the ingroup members were to preach and convert outgroup members to their church, or that each church member was to make sure others were following the faith laid forth by the Jesus group, or both. The second option seems to be most likely, according to research done by Malina (2001) in his chapter concerning small group formation. The post-Jesus group would "norm" (Malina 209), and in norming agree on certain patterns of behavior expected within the group. Performance, Malina writes, probably did not take place in post-Jesus groups except for the taking of social roles within the
group (210) - this seems to exclude the possibility that Matthew 4:19 contextually means that the church members should preach to the masses. At Level III, the salvific role of each Jesus group member is to remain righteous and to watch over the righteousness of the other members.
For Level II, this passage means much the same thing to forming social groups. Post-Jesus groups are primarily social and not task oriented like the original Jesus group. Moreover, small groups form around a central personage (Malina 208). These features coalesce with Mt 4:19 in the forming of post-Jesus groups - the Jesus group accepts even common peasants (like the fishermen Simon and Andrew) as long as the head of the group accepts the new members into the fold. At Level II, people expect a forthcoming kingdom of God if they believe the story of the risen Jesus, and so the men-fishing reference plays yet another role on this level. The passage pulls members into a group' that will effect, or at least benefit from, the forthcoming salvation. Therefore, Mt 4:19 makes sense at Level II as a welcoming/gathering call of new Jesus group members to a group awaiting the eschatological, salvific promise of the coming kingdom of God as promised by the risen Christ.
As a final note on traces of Level II, this passage appears in all of the Synoptic Gospels, which means that it is a Markan passage It is important enough in the Level III tradition to warrant inclusion by both Matthew and Luke. This evidence suggests that the tradition of the men-fishers was so instantiated in Jesus groups in Level II that it could not be excluded from the Level III writings. The question that arises then is, what instantiated this passage so heavily in the tradition? The answer to that is an exploration of its meaning on Level I.
Perhaps this passage can be traced back to Jesus at Level I. There is a great deal of evidence suggesting that this is an occurrence in the life of Jesus, including general cultural relevance, social-science criticism, and narrative consistency. First, Jesus needs a faction to follow him if he is to gain honor from performing works as a prophet and a holy man. He also needs people to help him accomplish his goal. Clearly, from the 2,000 year history of Christianity, Jesus gains that honor and so must have had the group help that his faction provides. To create that faction he must invite them into the assembly himself, which he does in Mt 4:19. As more evidence Jesus, as the prophet and teacher that he proves himself to be, knows the entire prophetic corpus and is able to incorporate it into his the intertextually loaded sense of "fishers of men" would not be uncommon language for him. In alluding to a fishing metaphor, Jesus probably does not mean to mention an eschatological salvation in which his disciples will participate. Rather, Jesus' statement at Level I probably has more to do with the people of Israel.
K.C. Hanson provides the most compelling data for dating Mt 4:19 to Jesus' historical call of the disciples. He explains that Jesus spends a disproportionate amount of time in Galilean fishing villages throughout the Gospels (109). If most of the Jesus tradition lies at the shore of Kinneret, if "the lives of these real fishing families became the fabric from which he wove many of his metaphors and told his stories" (109), if he lived in a fishing village, then he mostly associated with those people involved in the Galilean fishing economy. Jesus forms his group out of those with whose lives he is familiar, fishermen, and so the call of Simon and Andrew is not surprising because of their social status. The fishing-centered language Jesus uses is familiar to him because of his surroundings, and so this call to be men-fishers is a play on words that, because of his social background, would already be at the tip of Jesus' tongue. This passage can be traced to Level I for a many reasons - faction formation, consistency in Jesus' knowledge of scripture, men-fishers' meaning to the kingdom of God - but most cogently because this passage is absolutely consistent with the picture that scholarship draws of the historical Jesus.
Putting it Back Together: Contemporary Relevance
Reading Matthew 4:19 the way the author intended it 1900 years ago leads to the question of contemporary Christian relevance, and the knowledge gained from examining the call of men-fishers is applicable to the modern Church. Jesus calls common men to do extraordinary things for God’s sake. Whether that call has to do with the kingdom of God, eschatological salvation, righteousness, or all three, it is important to remember that it is for God that calls God's people. Perhaps the task that modern Christianity must bear is simply the recognition of God's centrality and the importance of God both now and in the forthcoming. No matter what the call, in order to hear it modern Christianity must remember that it is Jesus who channels that call, and it is in following Jesus as an ancient scholastic follows and learns from a peripatetic philosopher, in living with Jesus and learning his way of life that a Christian can do God's work. A necessary component of this way of life is the group into which the members are incorporated - in modern times, this means that every Christian needs a faith community with which to share the work of God's tasks. This call to God's work and call to modern discipleship in a faith community requires everything it did in first century Palestine: God, Jesus, a Believer, and the simple sense to say "yes."
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Smith, C.W.F. "Fishers of Men. Footnotes on a Gospel Figure." In Harvard Theological Review 52.3 (1959): 187203 as summarized in New Testament Abstracts 4.3 (1960), 228 #660. Wuellner, Wilhelm. The Meaning of "Fishers of Men". New Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967.