Tag Archives: Fishers of men

From Adapa to Jesus

Adapa Sumerian deity of healing, with healthy catch of fish
Creative Commons Attribution

That the gospels recycled themes, motifs, sayings, can be found across the Middle East from Mesopotamia to Egypt and stretching back millennia to before the Neo Babylonian empire and even before the time of any Jewish Scriptures will be of no surprise to anyone who has read The Messiah Myth by Thomas L. Thompson.

Of the myth of Adapa and the South Wind “the earliest known version is a Sumerian text from Old Babylonian Tell Haddad”, made available by Cavigneaux in 2014. I have part translated, part paraphrased the opening section of Cavigneaux’s French translation of the often broken Sumerian text, and added a distinctive note on one comment that I found particularly interesting.

In those distant days …

After the Flood had swept over,

and brought about the destruction of the land …

The world is reborn

A seed of humanity had been preserved …

Four legged animals once again widely dispersed …

Fish and birds repopulated the ponds and reedbeds …

Herbs and aromatic plants flowered on the high steppe …

The state is born

An and Enlil organized the world …

The city of Kish became a pillar of the country …

Etana becomes king

Then the elected shepherd …

Founded a house …

The South Wind during his reign brought blessings …

Humanity without a guide

Humanity did not have a directive …

[Nobody knew how to give or follow orders]

The Story of Adapa begins

[A loyal devotee of Enki he goes fishing in the quay to supply his master’s temple in Eridu.]

In later exorcistic texts … the quay (Akk. kārum) is a trope for the liminal space between worlds.

At the New Moon he went up to go fishing

Without rudder he let the boat go with the flow

Without pole he went up the stream

On the vast lagoon …

[He is capsized by the South Wind]

He curses the South Wind …

And broke the wings of the South Wind …

Jesus stills storm. Interestingly the South Wind was said to be beneficial; it appears to me that Adapa’s technology, apparently directed by the power of his words, was being frustrated by the South Wind.

The narrative is thus a reference to the destruction of the old world and the restoration of the new, through a Flood or through water bringing about the end of one world and nourishing the emergence of the new. As Thompson observes in The Mythic Past new worlds emerge through parting waters (Creation, Noah, Exodus, Elijah-Elisha, Jesus’ Baptism/heavens divided).

Adapa has a special gift. Though mortal, he has power over words, or rather his words have power over the world. Adapa will become the great mythical sage of scribes, of all who can with the magic of words change the face of the earth and the organization of society: engineers, architects, legislators, ….

We are familiar with astronomy and astrology being all one branch of knowledge in these times; similarly magic and medicine were indistinguishable at this stage. The skills of the scribes, the amazing feats they accomplished with words, appear to have been supernatural gifts.

After Adapa by merely speaking causes the wind to cease the supreme god is astonished and invites him up to heaven. Adapa’s personal god, however, warns Adapa not to accept certain gifts [bread, drink, a coat] that will be offered to him there but to only accept an anointing. The chief god laughingly tells Adapa that he has just refused the gifts that would have given him eternal life.

And so forth.

We see here a story opening with the water, a flood, separating the old and the new. We see the wise hero wielding power over the elements, even stilling a “storm”, by his mere commands. Others are amazed at his ability. In this case, it is the gods who are amazed.

The plot of the story begins with the sage “going fishing”, a scene that is found to have mythical or metaphorical significance of life and death, entering a space between two worlds.

I find such literary comparisons interesting. I’m not saying the evangelists were adapting the myth of Adapa, of course. I am thinking about the way certain mythical tropes have been recycled and refashioned through changing human circumstances and experiences.


Cavigneaux, Antoine. 2014. “Une Version Sumérienne de La Légende d’Adapa (Textes de Tell Haddad X).” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 104 (1): 1–41. https://www.academia.edu/26276183/Une_version_sum%C3%A9rienne_de_la_l%C3%A9gende_d_Adapa_Textes_de_Tell_Haddad_X_

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 42


 

The Different Meanings of “Fishers of Men”

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. read more »

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

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”. read more »