The Different Meanings of “Fishers of Men”

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by Neil Godfrey

Since we have been talking about “fishing for men” and how it can be interpreted in different ways . . .

  • Jindrich Mánek postulates that Jer 16:16 and cosmological myths involving the sea elucidate a sense of rescue in the expression [i.e. “fishers of men”].
  • Charles W. F. Smith argues that the dark motif of judgment in the Hebrew prophets and Qumran literature supplies the expression with an ominous ring.
  • Wilhelm Wuellner suggests that the multivalent usage of fishing in antiquity informs the call of disciples as one denoting partnership in Jesus’ eschatological mission.
  • And J. Duncan M. Derretí posits that the expression is derived from Ezekiel 47.
  • More recently, Joel Marcus has synthesized much of the relevant scholarship:

There may not be any need to choose among these different interpretations; the disciples’ fishing for people is probably a multivalent image that includes their future missionary preaching, their future teaching, and their future exorcisms (cf. 3:14-15; 6:7,12-13, 30; 13:9-10), all of which are understood as a participation in God’s eschatological war against demonic forces; this war, moreover, recapitulates God’s redemption of Israel from Egyptian bondage.

(Wassell 637, my formatting; my bolding in all quotations)

There was once a time when I thought the idea of “fishing for men” was not a particularly irenic image, certainly not for the fish or for comparing people to fish being pulled, gasping, out of the water to die a slow death. I recall trying to rationalize the metaphor. We are “alive in our sins in the world” today and have to “die” or “mortify the flesh” in order to live a new life in a new kingdom. But that didn’t really work because the image offers no pleasant lease of life for the fish.

There was once a time when I felt that the original metaphor as found in Jeremiah 16:16 was more judgmental than pastoral. Sure, if one reads the verse in the context of the previous two or three it does sound quite positive, presenting Jeremiah’s readers with a scene of drawing lost Israelites back from captivity to a restored happy kingdom:

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;

Reading in context

But when I studied the Book of Jeremiah more attentively I had to discard that shallow interpretation. In its fuller context the image is one of judgement.

10 And it shall come to pass, when thou shalt shew this people all these words, and they shall say unto thee, Wherefore hath the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us? or what is our iniquity? or what is our sin that we have committed against the Lord our God?

11 Then shalt thou say unto them, Because your fathers have forsaken me, saith the Lord, and have walked after other gods, and have served them, and have worshipped them, and have forsaken me, and have not kept my law;

12 And ye have done worse than your fathers; for, behold, ye walk every one after the imagination of his evil heart, that they may not hearken unto me:

13 Therefore will I cast you out of this land into a land that ye know not, neither ye nor your fathers; and there shall ye serve other gods day and night; where I will not shew you favour.

Verses 14-15 are in interpolation from Jeremiah 23:7-8 7

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.

17 For mine eyes are upon all their ways: they are not hid from my face, neither is their iniquity hid from mine eyes.

The image of fishing is associated now with the image of pulling people out of their land and exiling them to “a land they know not”. It is no longer an image of salvation but an image of judgment.

Contrast the Gospels of Luke and John

But in certain of the gospels it clearly is an image of salvation.

Luke 5:3-11

And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon’s, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship.

Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught.

And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.

And when they had this done, they inclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake.

And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink.

When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.

For he was astonished, and all that were with him, at the draught of the fishes which they had taken:

10 And so was also James, and John, the sons of Zebedee, which were partners with Simon. And Jesus said unto Simon, Fear not; from henceforth thou shalt catch men.

11 And when they had brought their ships to land, they forsook all, and followed him.

Jesus had been preaching to multitudes and the image of catching fish is clearly related to calling multitudes to Christ.

John 21:3-11

Simon Peter saith unto them, I go a fishing. They say unto him, We also go with thee. They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing.

But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus.

Then Jesus saith unto them, Children, have ye any meat? They answered him, No.

And he said unto them, Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find. They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.

Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, It is the Lord. Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea.

And the other disciples came in a little ship; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes.

As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread.

10 Jesus saith unto them, Bring of the fish which ye have now caught.

11 Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken.

Again the image of catching fish is a happy one of salvation, 153 thought to be the total number of different kinds of fish in the world.

Why the change in meaning?

We have good reasons for believing that the authors of the gospels ascribed to Luke and John were very familiar with the “Old Testament” scriptures. Why would they have reversed the image of “fishing for men” from one of judgement to one of salvation?

All fingers point once again to the regular culprit for so many innovations and ambiguities and dark meanings, the “second gospel” but believed to be the first one composed, Mark.

These Old Testament passages might be discounted as outmoded usage except that the same theme has appeared in the Hodayoth or “Psalms of Thanksgiving” from Qumran where it testifies to a period much nearer the time and temper of the Gospels. The passage is found in column 5 and reads . . . .

“. . . and thou has placed me in terror of many fishermen who spread nets upon the waters and hunters for the sons of unrighteousness. . . .”.

Translations of this passage vary but it is clear in all of them that the figure of the fishers is one of judgment and the fishermen are its agents.
(Smith 190)

Mark 1:14-18

14 Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God,

15 And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.

16 Now as he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea: for they were fishers.

17 And Jesus said unto them, Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.

18 And straightway they forsook their nets, and followed him.

The way “Mark” tells it Jesus comes upon Simon and Andrew suddenly, unexpectedly, and as happened with prophets of old when going about their daily business God would abruptly come to them and pull them away to a new mission so with the first four names called.

All commentators have been impressed with the apparent abruptness of Jesus’ call, the lack of preparation for it, the immediate response of the disciples without question or qualification as though to an inescapable imperative, involving a complete severance with their former way of life. Lohmeyer has best expounded this impression. He recalls the imperative which caused an Amos or a Jeremiah to become prophets, Jesus’ words having the compelling nature of “a sharp military command” which made it impossible for them to act otherwise than as they did. This naturally poses the question, “Who, then, is this who calls?” Lohmeyer says, “He commands as God commands. . . He makes of the fishermen something new, what he will” (my italics). This sudden impact and its immediate result have prompted the form critics to call the incident an “epiphany-story.” For Dibelius it is a legend rather than a true paradigm. For Bultmann, who deals with it under “biographical apothegmata,” it is an “ideal scene” constructed out of the life of the early community and he asks whether it may not have been spun out of the metaphor from the Old Testament.

(Smith 191)

Notice what does not follow, however, in that second gospel. The disciples do not appear as “helpers in the work of teaching”. We do not read that Jesus prepared them to carry on his teaching work after his death.

The term “fishers of men” does not necessarily involve either a capacity for learning or confidence in Jesus as an able teacher, but only that the call come with force and the demand be irresistible.

(Smith 193)

Jesus enters the stage with an urgent message: the kingdom of God is at hand. He has to rush through the land of Galilee with this warning; he cannot afford to stay in any one area where he is popular (Mark 1:37f). The demons who hear see him are in terror at what they know is about to befall them.

In this context, might we not better see the call to become “fishers of men” as a call to join with Jesus gathering people for the coming judgment? (Smith, 195) Are we perhaps reading yet one more of those ubiquitous “Markan reversals”, this time . . .

The appearance of the (later unused) term “fishers of men” may cause us to reread the previous verses and to ask whether an imminently arriving Kingdom of God is necessarily good news — for instance to those who prefer their own will and their own institutions to God’s will and His Kingdom?

(Smith 195)

Through that first chapter of Mark we are reading of Jesus moving urgently through Galilee. There is no time to pause and rest. The urgency is “consistent with an eschatological reading of ‘fishers of men.'”

There is at least a continuing impression of urgency. If we ask whether this applies to the function of the Four (later Twelve) we detect that not far below the surface this is so. Verse 37 then reads as an aberration on the part of Simon and his associates when they want Jesus to stay where he is popular. In Mark their commission, overlaid as it is in the variety of recensions, is fundamentally to keep moving, rapidly and without delay, proclaiming the Kingdom and testifying to that proclamation by the signs they will find accompany it (e.g., Mark 3:14-15; 5:6-13; cf. Matthew 9:35-10:16). It may be suggested that an original stratum envisages them as engaged in the task of “fishing,” that is, of gathering the people for judgment. They go out, briefly, as “fishers of men.” Only in the later strata have they become “apostles” of the Church.

(Smith 196)

So the eschatological or judgmental association of “fishers of men” belongs to an earlier stage of the gospel in Charles Smith’s view.

The Jesus who issues this “call” or perhaps more correctly “military command” is not a teacher or rabbinical figure but one who carries the status of the divine Lord.

Even more clearly it is not the Master who calls them to follow him in the rabbi-disciple relationship or in the Christian-disciple sense, but the eschatological Lord who associates them with himself in his task of proclaiming the impending Kingdom. Their function as “fishers” would be to go where he goes, proclaiming as he goes, and to gather the people for the impending event — eventually to go where he has not gone and themselves to proclaim and gather. All this is set in a framework of eschatological urgency which is here reflected in the sudden call to a function which the Old Testament metaphor makes clear . . .

(Smith 201)

The image of any of the disciples “fishing for men” is dropped after that first chapter of Mark. Then in later gospels we find the image has become one of salvation and hope. What is going on here?

But there appear signs that the primitive Church found it necessary to develop the figure before it acquired this (more benevolent) meaning. A difficulty in placing the section in its Church-setting is the limitation of the disciples called to four. There is an obvious purpose in the story to tell something about these men (their occupation and local origin) and how they came to be “numbered among” the Twelve. It is not so clear how a calling so expressed can be interpreted of all Christians. Christians are not invited to become fishers but to take up their cross and follow or to be baptized and receive the Spirit. The obvious connections to be explored are those which concern the mission of the Twelve and passages which visualize the work of any of them as fishermen. The mission, in the Synoptic context, seems to precipitate a crisis, the nature of which has been obscured by the developing tradition which lacked interest in it even though the marks of it remain.

(Smith 197)

In the Gospel of Matthew we begin to see the effects of the “Church’s” concern. Matthew shifts all the judgment from the “about to befall us all here and now” to the end-time, and it’s not done by men but by angels. Charles Smith posits Matthew as the beginning of the transition from Mark’s imminent judgment to the other gospels’ apostolic saving association.

Matthew 13:47-50

47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind:

48 Which, when it was full, they drew to shore, and sat down, and gathered the good into vessels, but cast the bad away.

49 So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just,

50 And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The purpose of the fishing net is to gather all together, indiscriminately, for the final judgment which is carried out by angels, not the disciples. The judgement is set in the indefinite future.

We see further changes to the meaning of the image in the Gospels of John and Luke — as set out at the beginning of this post.


Smith, Charles W. F. 1959. “Fishers of Men: Footnotes on a Gospel Figure.” The Harvard Theological Review 52 (3): 187–203.

Wassell, Blake E., and Stephen R. Llewelyn. 2014. “‘Fishers of Humans,’ the Contemporary Theory of Metaphor, and Conceptual Blending Theory.” Journal of Biblical Literature 133 (3): 627–46.

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11 thoughts on “The Different Meanings of “Fishers of Men””

  1. The net metaphor implies capture, e.g.:

    Winning Capturing hearts and minds (and souls) is a concept in which one side seeks to prevail by making emotional or intellectual appeals to sway supporters of the other side.

    Cf. Davis, W. (1975). The Significance of the Net Metaphor in the “Oresteia”. CEA Critic, 38 (1), 21-24.

    The net metaphor, first introduced by the Chorus in reference to the actions of the Gods in helping the Greeks destroy Troy, rapidly assumes major significance in the play as Aeschylus develops his metaphor through the careful accretion of additional detail until it becomes the key image not only of the Agamemnon but of the entire trilogy as‘well.
    Since a “dragnet,” according to the OED, can be thought of as a vehicle of entrapment in terms which apply equally well to either fish or game, Lloyd~Jones. in rendering gaggamon (1. 361) as “dragnet” would seem to have hit upon a term which avoids much of the controversy surrounding the image Aeschylus had in mind. —(p. 21)

  2. I am still amused by the ‘shepherd of his flock’ imagery. You know, protecting the flock from predators so that they can be delivered for shearing and/or slaughter for the shepherd and their family.

    This imagery still prevails and the ‘sheep’ accept it.

  3. In the ancient Egyptian books of the netherworld, the sun god and his companions sail on a boat and there are divine fishermen who capture the souls of those who are unworthy of entering the divine realm and wont pass the judgement in a large net.

    Journey Through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead edited by John H. Taylor:
    “Fig. 59 Nakht escapes from the clap-net in which the divine ‘fishermen’ seek to trap him(spell 153A)…Three gods are shown hauling on a large net which they are dragging through the water to catch those who are unworthy of entering the next world.”

  4. One can find mythological stories of fish, fishing, nets, water-creatures, water births, fishermen, the world over. Some of these can be tantalizing when compared with certain Christian images. But unfortunately that cannot be brought into any discussion solely on the grounds of parallel concepts. What is needed is a clear link in the actual evidence. If that clear evidential link doesn’t exist then we have to be cautious and shelve what we think might be possibilities until such a link does appear.

    1. Sure, I don’t think there’s necessarily a direct connection. I just think that the original meaning of “fishing” as judgement is very similar to the meaning of the Egyptian “fishing”. Not only that, the sun god also goes through a baptism, transfiguration, raises the dead for judgement, dies and resurrects while he’s on his journey through the netherworld. So I think knowing the other myths/stories that have similar concepts may help in figuring out meanings in the gospel stories.

  5. I think all of those other explanations deal with the passage in isolation. My assessment of the passage deals with it in the context of all of the other literary allusions in GMark.

    “This is a passage that would have been seen as very relevant immediately after the war. …
    We see in this literary allusion that the author is identifying these three individuals as agents of destruction—as harbingers of the coming war.”
    (Deciphering the Gospels pp. 10)

    Jer 16:16 is a passage within a passage that talks about how God is going to punish the Jews by sending foreign armies to destroy them. In the context of all the other such passage in GMark, that itself is the meaning behind the reference. Being “fishers of men” is being the instruments of God’s wrath.

      1. • More literally perhaps:

        Wassell; Llewelyn (2014). “”Fishers of Humans,” the Contemporary Theory of Metaphor, and Conceptual Blending Theory”. Journal of Biblical Literature. 133 (3): 627. doi:10.15699/jbibllite.133.3.627.

        And Jesus said to them: “Come after me, and I will make you to become fishers of humans.” (Mark 1:17)

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