Peter Goes Fishing

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I did some research that now makes Peter’s fishing expedition in the 21st chapter of the Fourth Gospel a little more vivid to me. First of all, Peter’s “I go a  fishing” (as the King James Bible has it) was hypago halieuein in the Greek, something like “I’m going down a-salting,” reminding me that Peter was going fishing in a freshwater lake and speaking in Aramaic, in which the activity of fishing (unlike the Greek word for it) didn’t imply having salty fingers. The Sea of Tiberias was one he might have drunk from, cupping the water in his hand.

If Jesus was crucified in the year 33 C.E., the month of Aviv would have begun at sundown on April 17 (by the modernized Julian calendar), the approximate time of the first new moon after the Spring Equinox. So Passover, the 14th day of Aviv, would have begun at sundown on Thursday, April 30, the night of the Last Supper, and Jesus would have been met His death on May 1. The stone would have been rolled away from His tomb under a moon that reached perfect fullness during the dark early hours of Sunday, May 3. On the evening of May 3, according to the Evangelist, the resurrected Jesus appeared to all the disciples but Thomas Didymus and Judas Iscariot. Then on May 11, eight days later, He had Thomas put his fingers into the healing wound in His side – a wound then ten days old.

Allow the disciples at least a week to return to Galilee after that, and it’s a new lunar month: the days are long, and the nights are short and warm – warm enough to be almost naked in a fishing boat (I read the Greek gymnos as meaning “stripped down to his undergarments,” sure that a first-century Palestinian Jew would not willingly expose what King James’s translators would call his “nakedness”). Peter might have had moonlight to embark and lower his net by, and – as we modern city-dwellers easily forget – he would have
had starlight all night by which to orient his boat to the compass points. As the evening stars came out, the Summer Triangle would have been climbing toward the zenith. Around midnight the Scorpion’s claws would have thrust upward and Westward from the South. After moonset – assuming that the moon wasn’t yet full – it would have grown darker; fishermen would have known how the presence or absence of a moon might affect their catch. The Great Square of Pegasus would have been near the meridian when first light appeared in the East, heralded well in advance by the morning star. For Venus was the morning star all that Spring, and for almost the whole month that began with the new moon of May 17 it would have been at more than 45 degrees Western elongation from the sun, stretched out to its maximum.

We aren’t told why Peter went fishing. Was the larder depleted? Was he hoping to catch fish to sell at market? Whether or not there was a pressing need for fresh fish, Peter might well have sought out the overnight fishing expedition as an opportunity to meditate in solitude, away from the cramped, smelly house with the wife, the children, the animals, the chores to do, and the visiting disciples – a chance to be under the countless peaceful, changeless stars that the God of Israel called each by its own name.

But if Peter had wanted solitude, he didn’t get it; six other disciples, including Thomas, Nathanael, John and James, insisted on coming too – making it a party of seven. Perhaps it was better to have their company. If they were all fishing, the others would have been quiet enough to allow Peter most of the benefits of solitude. One does not want to alert the fish that they’re being hunted. One tests the net with great caution.

On the shore, about a hundred yards from the boat, the risen Messiah was making a fire of coals. Did He make any noise? Was any tell-tale open flame visible to the disciples in the darkness, or did He merely bring smoldering embers silently from some household’s hearth, their red glow veiled by a film of ash? The disciples would then have seen Him standing on the shore only as the birds began to sing and the dim twilight grew bright enough to make out shapes. And then, as the Evangelist tells us, they “knew not that it was Jesus.”

Eventually the Stranger called to them, asking them if they had caught anything, oddly enough calling them “children” – teknia. Not till He had directed them to the miraculous draft of fishes did one of them, John the Favorite, cry out “It’s the Lord!” – prompting Peter to put on his coat, dive into the water with a startling splash, and swim to shore.

After Peter had breakfasted on some of the enormous catch and affirmed his love for Jesus through tears, he learned that he was to be led to a death in bondage in his old age. He sought more information, but was rebuked and silenced for asking an envious question about Jesus’ favorite, the beloved John. The reproof must have stung even as it began its work of healing, as no doubt so many of Jesus’ words to him had. But Peter, now looking on his Lord through fresh tears, would have had behind him a huge, silent night of vaulty stars wheeling over the vast, gently moving sea, a greatness cradling his smallness, readying him for this encounter that was to seal his apostleship. Jesus’ command, “Feed my sheep,” would have then gone very deep into his awed and quieted soul. And that’s just as Jesus might have planned it.

But somehow I can’t imagine Jesus planning such a preparation for Peter. I like to imagine things just happening around Jesus, of their own accord, all at the right time. This Man, after all, was God’s Door into the world of space and time; all space and time would have served Him with joy without His having to take thought of it. Seen from this point of view, Peter’s impulse to go fishing at nightfall was as much an aspect of time’s providential service to Him as the morning star’s rising early for those forty blessed days that the Risen Lord walked the earth before His Ascension.

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One Response to “Peter Goes Fishing”

  1. kevin Says:

    Hi John- I’ve always been intrigued by the various chronologies in Scripture. The crucifixion and Passover is a puzzling one, to me. Was Jesus crucified the day after eating Passover with his disciples, as it says in Mark 14:14-16, and Mark 15:25? In Mark, the Last Supper is the Passover supper.

    Or was he crucified the same day as the Passover he never eats, as it says in John 19:14-16, and 19:31? In John, the Last Supper is the unnamed “evening meal” Jesus eats the day before Passover.

    (The “forty days” is a thorny one, too. Luke mentions it only in Acts, whereas in his Gospel, Jesus ascends late in the evening of his day of resurrection.)

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