Miraculous Catch of Fish

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Gospel of John

Jn 21:1-14

1 After this, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way.

2 Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples

3 Simon Peter said to them, "I am going fishing." They said to him, "We also will come with you." So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore; but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.

5 Jesus said to them, "Children, have you caught anything to eat?" They answered him, "No."

6 So he said to them, "Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something." So they cast it, and were not able to pull it in because of the number of fish.

7 So the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord." When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea.

8 The other disciples came in the boat, for they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards, dragging the net with the fish.

9 When they climbed out on shore, they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread.

10 Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish you just caught."

11 So Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn.

12 Jesus said to them, "Come, have breakfast." And none of the disciples dared to ask him, "Who are you?" because they realized it was the Lord.

13 Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish.

14 This was now the third time Jesus was revealed to his disciples after being raised from the dead.

Gospel of Luke

Lk 5:1-11

1 While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret.

2 He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets.

3 Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

4 After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch."

5 Simon said in reply, "Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets."

6 When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing.

7 They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come to help them. They came and filled both boats so that they were in danger of sinking.

8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."

9 For astonishment at the catch of fish they had made seized him and all those with him,

10 and likewise James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon. Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men."

11 When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.

Comparisons

John Luke
Name of the Lake/Sea Sea of Tiberias Lake of Gennesaret
Characters named Seven disciples: Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples Three disciples: Simon, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were partners of Simon
Time of day "When it was already dawn, Jesus was standing on the shore." "After he had finished speaking" to a crowd.
Sitz im leben After the resurrection Toward the beginning of the public ministry
No fish "That night they caught nothing." "Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing."
Boat owner "So they went out and got into the boat." Simon
Location of boat on the water Close enough to shore for conversation: "they were not far from shore, only about a hundred yards." "Put out into the deep."
Instruction "Cast the net over the right side of the boat and you will find something." "Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch."
Recognition of Jesus "The disciples did not realize that it was Jesus." The fishermen listened to Jesus preach from the boat.
Jesus' location Jesus was on shore. Jesus was in the boat.
Peter's response When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad, and jumped into the sea. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at the knees of Jesus and said, "Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."

Features Unique to John

  • "The disciples did not realize that it was Jesus."
  • Jesus makes a fire and has some bread and fish on it already, even before the boat reaches shore.
  • Jesus and the disciples eat breakfast together. There are Eucharistic overtones in the story, but not a perfect parallel to the bread and wine used in the Eucharist: "Jesus came over and took the bread and gave it to them, and in like manner the fish."

153 Fish

The natural reading

The count of fish in John's gospel seems fishy to some readers (pun intended; you may laugh now) because to us it seems unlikely that the disciples would stop to count the number of fish or that the exact number would be remembered years after the event.

Nevertheless, strange things do happen. After breakfast and the conversation with Jesus was over, the disciples must have done something with the fish--divided them among themselves for consumption or sale, or, perhaps, shared them with others. Counting the day's catch seems to me like a normal activity for fishermen, and it does not seem like a hugely difficult number for a fisherman to remember, even late in life.

No part of the text requires seeking deeper meanings in the number.

Most natural symbolic reading

The unexpectedly large number of fish caught in the net, regardless of whether it is a historically accurate count from the day itself or was doctored up by the evangelist, teaches us a great deal about being "fishers of men" (Mt 4:19). Here are some possible morals suggested by the story:

  • When we go fishing on our own initiative, we are liable to catch nothing.
  • The fact that we have caught nothing does not mean there is nothing to catch.
  • When the Lord commands us to try again, we ought to obey.
  • The Lord gives the fish to the fishermen when He wills.
  • The harvest of souls is huge.
  • God wants us to succeed in the work He has given us.
Playing the numbers game
From Canterbury Tales Blog:
"In First Century Judaism, “Torah” and “Word of God” were synonyms: Torah is the Word of God. Again we see John taking the synoptics to a higher level, taking us deeper into the Gospel. Jesus promised to bring Torah to its completion (cf Mt 5:18); the final Gospel reveals that Torah has become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.
At the end of his life, “when Moses had written down this Torah,” he gave this order: “[Every seven years] you shall read this Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel.” (Deut 31:9-11). Over the centuries, an annual cycle of readings was adopted to fulfill this requirement. The cycle of Torah readings – or “portions” – varied from century to century and place to place.
The 1910 Jewish Encyclopedia reports that a three-year Torah cycle used in Palestine around the First Century had 153 Torah portions. “The 153 parts into which the Torah was divided in the cycle of three years, which prevailed in Palestine till the exiles from Spain brought their customs into the Holy Land, are known as 'sedarim'.” (“Parashah,” Cyrus Adler, Lewis N Dembitz)"
Gematria
Numbers have a special significance for Jews. In both the Hebrew and Greek alphabets the letters served as both letters and numbers and every; word can also be a number. In writing and explaining the Bible, Jews regularly make use of the numerical values of words. This is evident in various places in the Bible. The book of Proverbs contains exactly 375 proverbs from Solomon (Proverb 10:1 and 22:16) which exactly matches the numeric value of his name 'Solomon' in Hebrew. Proverbs 25:1 to 30:1 consist of 140 proverbs gathered and edited by the appointment of King Hezekiah. The numeric value of Hezekiah's name is 140. The number 666 from Revelations is probably one of the most well known examples of the numeric value of a word or name.
It is interesting to note that 153 is the numeric value of the expressions: 'The Passover (Ha Pesach),' and also of the words 'Sons of God (Bene Ha Elohim).'. . . "
Numerology from the Fathers:
St. Augustine: "The catch of fish tells us of the salvation of men, but man cannot be saved without keeping the 10 commandments. But, on account of the fall, man cannot even keep the commandments without the help of grace and the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the number 7 signifies holiness, since God blessed the 7th day and made it holy (Gen 2:3). But 10 plus 7 equals 17, and if all the numbers from 1 to 17 are added together (1+2+3…+17), they equal 153. Hence, the 153 fish signify that all the elect are to be saved by the gift of grace (7) and the following of the commandments (10).
St. Augustine also notes that there were 7 disciples in the boat (Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, the sons of Zebedee, James and John, and two other disciples), who had all been filled with the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. 7 times 7 equals 49. 49 plus 1 makes the perfection of 50. Now, 3 is the number of the Trinity and also of our faith (which is founded on the Trinity); but 50 times 3 (for our faith) is 150, plus 3 (for the Trinity) is 153. Hence, the 153 fish signify the fullness of the Church (7), filled with the Holy Spirit (7), perfected (50) in her faith (3) in the most holy Trinity (3).
St. Gregory the Great: 10 and 7 are perfect numbers, which added together make 17. This, times 3, for the perfection of faith in the Trinity, makes 51. This, times 3 again, makes 153.
St. Cyril: breaks 153 into 100 (the great number of gentiles to be saved), plus 50 (the smaller number of Jews to be saved), plus 3 (the Trinity who saves all). Others follow St. Cyril, but modify this as follows: 100 (the multitude of married lay faithful in the Church), plus 50 (the many faithful who commit themselves later in life to continence either living as widows or living with their spouse in a brother-sister relationship), plus 3 (the precious few who commit their whole lives to celibacy as virgins) equals 153 (the whole Church taken together as a single body). [!]
St. Jerome: It was thought at that time that there were only 153 species of fish in all the world. Hence, the disciples caught 153 fish, signifying that men of every class and time would be saved through the Gospel.

Features Unique to Luke

"Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man."

In John's account, Peter may well be aware of his sinfulness (see speculation below), but, if so, his remorse causes him to head toward Jesus. In Luke's story, this is Simon's first meeting with Jesus, and his awareness of being a sinful man makes him want to get away from Jesus.

"Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men."

Mt 4:19 gives us the more poetic promise, "I will make you fishers of men."

Some observations

"When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment, for he was lightly clad."
The Greek seems more provocative than this translation: τὸν ἐπενδύτην διεζώσατο, ἦν γὰρ γυμνός--"he tied his tunic around himself, for he was gymnos." "Gymnos" is the root of "gymnasium," which is related to the fact that Greek athletes competed in the nude. The same adjective is used in Gen 2:25, where Adam and Eve are described as naked and unashamed.
In the cultural context of 30 AD, "gymnos" almost certainly cannot mean "totally unclothed," for being seen nude was shameful for the Jews, but must mean something like "stripped for work," i.e., stripped down to his undergarments; in the same way in our modern culture, we wear "gym clothes" that are appropriate for exercise in the gymnasium but are too skimpy for an important meeting.
If Peter is already wearing his outer garment, but loosened so as to make it easier to cast and haul in the nets, then perhaps the better translation would be, "fastened his outer garment" rather than "tucked in his garment."
In either case, I believe that the author is saying that Peter put his outer garment on or kept his outer garment on in order to swim to shore, contrary to the common sense principle of wearing less clothing when swimming, because he did not want to appear "gymnos" before Jesus.
We don't know what Peter and Jesus said to each other on the shore before the others arrived. It may well be that this was Peter's first opportunity to apologize to Jesus in private for his three denials. If so, then the act of clothing his nakedness out of shame for his sins is a perfect parallel with God clothing the nakedness of Adam and Eve, which had caused them shame after they had sinned.
Peter, James, and John named in Luke's account.
This same trio were chosen to witness the Transfiguration of Jesus as well as His Agony in the Garden. None of these passages explain the choice of these three special witnesses. There is room for us to wonder about what this choice might mean.
"When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him."
In Luke's account, the miracle of the fish is interwoven with the first call of the disciples. The Lord manifests His abundant power, and the disciples respond with whole-hearted devotion. In John's account, this is the last miracle that Jesus worked while visibly in the company of His disciples. [Hmm. I haven't checked yet, but this may be the only post-Resurrection miracle in the whole of the New Testament. Well, it depends on how you count miracles, I guess: road to Emmaus, passing through locked doors, other people raised from the dead in Matthew's gospel, the Ascension.]

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