Does Josephus intend to bring to mind an image of “fishing for men”?

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is a post-script to Why Joseph Atwill’s Caesar’s Messiah is “Type 2” mythicism

The synoptic gospels depict Jesus calling disciples to become “fishers of men”. The context indicates that Jesus wants them to gather people to Jesus, to have many Israelites repent and follow Jesus. The most obvious source for the image is Jeremiah 16:16. Look at it in context:

14 Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that it shall no more be said, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;

15 But, The Lord liveth, that brought up the children of Israel from the land of the north, and from all the lands whither he had driven them: and I will bring them again into their land that I gave unto their fathers.

16 Behold, I will send for many fishers, saith the Lord, and they shall fish them; and after will I send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain, and from every hill, and out of the holes of the rocks.

We know the authors of the synoptic gospels drew upon the “Old Testament” writings for many of their images and ideas.

Joseph Atwill, however, introduces an alternative explanation for the image of the disciples being called to fish for men in Caesar’s Messiah. Atwill sees “fishing for men” in the gospels as a cynical re-write of an actual battle on the lake of Galilee between Romans and Jews, and argues that the slaughter of Jews in that context was the original source for the concept of Jesus (a cipher for a Roman emperor) telling his followers to “fish for men”. Below I have copied his suggested source as Josephus narrates the battle along with my commentary on how it might relate to Atwill’s thesis. I have additionally raised a few questions about the narrative that I would be interested in following up — how much was Josephus fabricating the scene? The section is from the Jewish War 3:10

But now, when the vessels were gotten ready, Vespasian put upon ship-board as many of his forces as he thought sufficient to be too hard for those that were upon the lake, and set sail after them.

The battle on the lake of Galilee is about to begin. The Romans prepare in numbers to take on the Jews who had fled into the lake on their small boats.

[Question: Whose ships were the Romans boarding if the Jews had already fled in available ships?]

[Update 15th November 2018: My first question was based on the Whiston translation. Another translation speaks of “rafts” and I suspect that would be correct since it makes better sense in the context.]

Now these which were driven into the lake could neither fly to the land, where all was in their enemies’ hand, and in war against them; nor could they fight upon the level by sea, for their ships were small and fitted only for piracy; they were too weak to fight with Vespasian’s vessels, and the mariners that were in them were so few, that they were afraid to come near the Romans, who attacked them in great numbers.

The Jews who had fled in the ships were now isolated, unable to return to land because of the Roman forces there. Their ships were too small to take on the Roman forces, and they were too few in number, so they attempted to keep their distance from the Romans who were coming towards them in larger ships and greater numbers.

[Again, where did the Romans’ ships come from? It appears from the account that the Romans had larger ships than those of the Jews. If correct, did the Romans take time to build them? If they did, then could not the Jews in the smaller ships have sailed well away to some other part of the lake? Or were they completely surrounded? And if they were surrounded, then what need was there for the Romans to go to the trouble of building larger ships to pursue them? Why not simply let them die there?]

[Update 15th November 2018: As above — My first question was based on the Whiston translation. Another translation speaks of “rafts” and I suspect that would be correct since it makes better sense in the context.]

However, as they sailed round about the vessels, and sometimes as they came near them, they threw stones at the Romans when they were a good way off, or came closer and fought them; yet did they receive the greatest harm themselves in both cases.

They catapulted (presumably, rather than threw by hand) stones at the Romans. Some came closer to a Roman ship to engage in combat but only for the worse.

[Presumably the Romans in fact came up to the Jewish ships when they could catch them. Where did the stones that the Jewish forces threw come from? Did they gather them up before boarding? Did they have supplies for the light infantry slingers left over that they took with them?]

As for the stones they threw at the Romans, they only made a sound one after another, for they threw them against such as were in their armor, while the Roman darts could reach the Jews themselves; and when they ventured to come near the Romans, they became sufferers themselves before they could do any harm to the ether, and were drowned, they and their ships together.

Here we have an extension of the previous sentence. The significant difference of detail added this time is that Josephus tells us that those Jewish forces who made contact with the Romans in their ships were slaughtered. The Romans were able to sink their ships and fend off any Jewish attacker so that all the Jewish soldiers on board were killed by direct Roman action or indirectly by drowning.

Here we finally come closest to any conceivable image of “fishing for men”. For the first time “men” (Jewish) are said to be in the water, but drowned. They are not “fished” for in any sense that I can imagine.

As for those that endeavored to come to an actual fight, the Romans ran many of them through with their long poles. Sometimes the Romans leaped into their ships, with swords in their hands, and slew them; but when some of them met the vessels, the Romans caught them by the middle, and destroyed at once their ships and themselves who were taken in them.

Again we have an expansion on the previous image. Sometimes the Romans soldiers were able to leap into the Jewish ships and begin their slaughter; other times the Roman ships rammed and broke up the Jewish ships.

And for such as were drowning in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water, they were either killed by darts, or caught by the vessels; but if, in the desperate case they were in, they attempted to swim to their enemies, the Romans cut off either their heads or their hands;

Here we continue the extended elaboration of detail of the contact between the Romans and Jews on the lake. We have seen how the Jewish forces were overwhelmed by the ramming Roman ships so that many were struggling to stay alive after their ship was wrecked and they were left in the water. Some of the desperate Jews swam towards whatever ship they could see only to find that they had approached a Roman ship. They were duly dispatched.

One can understand “fishers of men” referring to a gathering of people in a way fish are gathered in nets. And that’s the image that comes to mind in Jeremiah 16:16. But I suggest the image is far removed from Josephus’s account. Simply hacking at drowning remnant of a force doe not strongly bring to mind an image of “fishing”.

The aftermath of the slaughter adds nothing to the idea of having “fished for men”.

 and indeed they were destroyed after various manners every where, till the rest being put to flight, were forced to get upon the land, while the vessels encompassed them about [on the sea]:

Survivors were forced back to shore.

but as many of these were repulsed when they were getting ashore, they were killed by the darts upon the lake; and the Romans leaped out of their vessels, and destroyed a great many more upon the land:

The slaughter was both on land and in the water.

one might then see the lake all bloody, and full of dead bodies, for not one of them escaped. And a terrible stink, and a very sad sight there was on the following days over that country; for as for the shores, they were full of shipwrecks, and of dead bodies all swelled; and as the dead bodies were inflamed by the sun, and putrefied, they corrupted the air, insomuch that the misery was not only the object of commiseration to the Jews, but to those that hated them, and had been the authors of that misery. This was the upshot of the sea-fight. The number of the slain, including those that were killed in the city before, was six thousand and five hundred.

That’s not the aftermath of a fishing expedition.


and He saw two boats lying at the edge of the lake; but the fishermen had gotten out of them and were washing their nets.

And He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little way from the land. And He sat down and began teaching the people from the boat.

When He had finished speaking, He said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Simon answered and said, “Master, we worked hard all night and caught nothing, but I will do as You say and let down the nets.”

When they had done this, they enclosed a great quantity of fish, and their nets began to break;

7so they signaled to their partners in the other boat for them to come and help them. And they came and filled both of the boats, so that they began to sink.

But when Simon Peter saw that, he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

For amazement had seized him and all his companions because of the catch of fish which they had taken;

10 and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not fear, from now on you will be catching men.”

11 When they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him. (Luke 5)

Ezekiel 47 similarly evokes symbolic meanings behind a future ideal picture of a new Israel:

Then he led me back to the bank of the river.

When I arrived there, I saw a great number of trees on each side of the river.

He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah,where it enters the Dead Sea. When it empties into the sea, the salty water there becomes fresh.

Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live.

10Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea.

11 But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt.

12 Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.”


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Neil Godfrey

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10 thoughts on “Does Josephus intend to bring to mind an image of “fishing for men”?”

  1. Hi Neil,

    Happy to see you change your position.

    Josephus’s passage “And for such as were drowning in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water, they were either killed by darts, or caught by the vessels;” does indeed bring “to mind” Jeremiah 16 and Matt 4.

    Note that your analysis is still not structurally correct as literary criticism, in that it places the burden of metaphorical coherency on the historicist. That burden actually falls upon the creator of the metaphor – though here, since the same group produced both passages, this is not a big problem.

    The real question is did the creator of the Gospels’ metaphor have Josephus’s passage “in mind” as a typological connection when they wrote “fishers of men”.

    I believe we may share enough facts at this point to be able have you agree with me that the author did. Let’s see.

    As I noted previously, random sampling would show that “fishing for men” comes to reader’s minds much more often than random chance. These readers would see the same conceptual parallelism you did.

    The fact that the Gospel’s writer created his metaphor at the same location as Josephus’ ‘fishing for men’ passage is suspicious on its face. Location was part of the Moses/Jesus typology that concludes only a few lines above Matthew’s ‘fish for men’ metaphor. Thus, it is not far fetched – but it is an unexplored idea – to posit that the author is maintaining his typological system in Matt 4 but with ‘fishing for men’ directing it towards the war. A thought experiment that clarifies is to imagine Josephus’ passage just as it is written occurring in Exodus 36. Matthew’s ‘fishing for men’ metaphor would then be indisputably considered part of the Moses/Jesus typology.

    Of course any single parallel could only be an odd circumstance. This is why it is the sequence that events occur in Jesus ministry that is the overlooked key to understanding it.

    Below are the headings of some of the parallels in the Flavian Signature chapter in CM that I gave in an earlier post– note that this is not in the edition of CM you are referencing.

    11) Binding and loosening

    13) On to Jerusalem – some sent ahead

    23) Divide the group 3 for 2

    24) Cut down the fruit tree

    26) How to build a tower

    27) Terms for Peace

    29) Jerusalem encircled with a wall

    33) Three Crucified One Survives

    I believed you have already accepted that there is some parallelism in the most conceptual – ‘Binding and Loosening’ and ‘Three Crucified’ – parallels so you have, in effect, agreed that there is a list of unusual Gospel/Josephus parallels that occur in a sequence.

    So where does the ‘Fishing for Men at the Sea of Galilee’ parallel fit into this sequence?

    The ‘Fishing for Men’ parallel occurs at the one and only correct position to be part of the sequence and this simply cannot be circumstance. Literary parallels that will reliably be seen by a number of readers greater than random chance are quite rare and they cannot and will not occur in a sequence of any length by chance.

    Thus, when someone sees the parallelism between fishing for men events at the Sea of Galilee a reader should try and move through both works in sequence to see if there are other connections.

    Consider one of the parallels given above – Divide the group 3 for 2

    “And thus that sedition, which had been divided into three factions, was now reduced to two. Wars of the Jews, 5, 3, 104-105

    “Do [you] suppose that I came to give peace on earth?
    “I tell you, not at all, but rather division.
    “For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three.” Luke 12:51-53

    This is what I call a high level parallel – more than 8 out of ten readers will recognize it. Thus, it really should be part of NT scholarship but like the ‘3 crucified’ parallel and so many others, until CM no one ever commented upon it.

    In my opinion, if NT scholars had even bothered to try to look at how the sequence of events of Jesus’s ministry related to the sequence of events in Josephus, Christianity would be long gone. They never did and so we are still burdened with it.

    Neil, can I ask a favor? Would you mind just thinking about what I have written above for a few moments before responding? I know it is a lump to get one’s head around.


    1. Happy to see you change your position.

      Josephus’s passage “And for such as were drowning in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water, they were either killed by darts, or caught by the vessels;” does indeed bring “to mind” Jeremiah 16 and Matt 4.

      Only in your imagination on both counts, Joe. My criticism of your claim that some Jewish soldiers at the end of a battle were killed while drowning as told by Josephus contains no association with gathering people for a final judgement (in which the good and bad are to be separated) at all. You are seeing what you want to see in both Josephus and my own post; or as per Jeremiah were fisherman haul people out from all the land to drag them off into a new land “they do not know”, as exiles. Type 1 mythicism will work by a study of the texts involved and look for evidence and work within the constraints of acceptable criteria. You do none of that. You even lump Matthew’s and Luke’s versions together as one.

      1. Hi Neil,

        First, please note you did change your position.

        You wrote: “Once again, Joe, such a “test” is gratuitously imputing the image into the Josephan narrative. Josephus makes no fishing analogy.”

        But then you wrote: “But I suggest the image is far removed from Josephus’s account. Simply hacking at drowning remnant of a force doe not strongly bring to mind an image of “fishing”.

        “Far removed” and “not strongly bring to mind” are nuanced and can imply brought to mind weakly, an obvious improvement over the closed minded position of “no fishing analogy”.

        As I mentioned earlier, the structure of your critique is incorrect and this is preventing you from thinking clearly. Josephus is claiming to be a historian; thus he is not supposed to be bringing any metaphor to mind. Matthew uses the metaphor, so the question is whether or not he is ‘bringing to mind’ Josephus’ passage, not the other way around.

        I mentioned that my proposition that Matthew’s ‘fishing for men’ is a coherent metaphor for Josephus’ ‘fishing for men’ depiction can be demonstrated by testing the two expressions to determine if a greater than random percentage of readers would see parallelism.

        I then noted that if the ‘Fishing for Men’ parallel was seen by such a percentage and did occur at the correct position in a sequence of such parallels that this simply could not be circumstance. Literary parallels that will reliably be seen by a number of readers at a greater than random chance are quite rare, and they cannot and will not occur in a sequence of any length by chance.

        You dismissed this approach as gratuitous. However, I am trying to show that there is a dependency between the story of Jesus’s adult ministry and the Flavian campaign.

        Please explain what other phenomena than dependency could explain the sequence I maintain random sampling would reveal.


        1. I don’t see any explicit fishing analogy in the Josephan passage under discussion. The only fishing analogies I can see are from your own suggestions.

  2. I feel Jeremiah 16:16 should be viewed alongside Matthew 3:12 and Luke 3:17, in references to the wheat and chaff and totally agree with you Neil that fishing for men refers to building supporters and defenders in Christ. Those fishermen are the callers to the faith. In fishing there is a hook, then some fish will take the bait others will not. So this directly applies to sending out the message and waiting for people to willingly take and accept the message and join the fold, becoming the wheat distinct from the chaff.

    Regarding Josephus and his take on it – I’m gonna have to read a bit more on it and reflect on the accounts.

  3. As the Gospel according to Mark is a raucous comedy describing the career of a confidence trickster called Jesus the Nazarene, the recruiting of fishers off men can only mean he needed wingmen to facilitate his healing/exorcism scams. The disciples were very stupid though and didn’t understand the rules of successfully pulling off such ploys, they spilled the beans in calling him by his name. The frustration of the scam artist with his bungling minions shows through the whole story, silencing or instructing them when needed and still to little avail, they only start to believe the scam themselves. Brilliant.

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