Plunge into the origin of the phrase, “Fishers of men”

Feb 18 2021

Walking along the lakeshore, Jesus said to some fishermen, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mk 1:17). Great turn of phrase.

In Jesus’ experience, however, the phrase has an assorted history. In prophetic use, the phrase refers to God’s judgment of exile.

Prophet Amos warns the people of Israel, “The time is coming when you will be carried away in baskets, all of you in fishermen’s pots.” (Amos 4:2)

Habakkuk also describes, “The Chaldean brings all of them up with a hook . . . and gathers them in his fishing net…” (Hab 1:15; See also Ezek 38:4 for another reference to hooks.)

Jeremiah declares, “Look! I will send many fishermen,” announces Yhwh, “And they will catch them” (Jer 16:16).**

I conclude that Jesus knew his Hebrew Scripture. So is he using the fishing metaphor in spite of its earlier use? Or perhaps the disciples should have heard Messianic overtones. Who appointed fishermen? God did.

In broader first-century Jewish thought, we stumble across a reference to humanity-fishers in the Psalms/Hymns of the Dead Sea Scrolls that echoes the Messianic ring.

You made my lodging with many fishermen,
those who spread the net upon the surface of the sea,
those who go hunting the sons of iniquity.
And there you established me for the judgment,
and strengthened in my heart the foundation of truth.
The covenant, therefore, for those looking for it. (1QH XIII (=V) frag. 29 ++)

The entire psalm deals with rescue of the God’s approved ones, but the judgment of God toward oppressors.

There is an interesting reference to man-hunting in Plato’s Laws, 823b.

“There are…very many varieties also of hunts of land-animals—not of beasts only, but also, mark you, of men, both in war and often, too, in friendship [i.e. hunters of men]…”

Plato’s reference simply gives a larger Greco-Roman context to the use of the metaphor. Was Jesus aware of Plato? It’s worth considering but hard to build a case for or against. Some early Greek Gospel readers surely would have thought of Plato, however.

So what did Jesus mean, “Follow me, I will make you fishers of men”? The discipleship calling is clearly stated in the invitation, “Follow me.” Up to this time, it is God who appointed fishermen for epoch-transitions (Assyria-Israel, Babylon-Judah, Approved-Oppressors). The metaphor is startling because it was Jesus who was making this appointment.

** For more info, see Robert Eisler, Orpheus—The Fisher (London: J. M. Watkins, 1921), 75—83.

++ Florentino Gracía Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 337.

No responses yet

Leave a Reply