what is a “fisher of men”?

Apr 19

Posted by Matt Anslow

Mark 1:17 and Matthew 4:19, in which Jesus calls Andrew and Peter to be “fishers of men”, is a well-trodden piece of biblical narrative, at least as heard from the pulpit.

Many a preacher has exhorted their church or audience to be “fishers of men”. This normally refers to their evangelistic efforts, whereby fishing for men means something like bringing them in to the faith, in the same way you might land a swordfish on a 30-footer (fisherman may correct my ignorance at this point…)

But let me cut to the chase – is that what Jesus meant?

This is in no way intended to speak derogatorily of evangelism; I believe evangelism is central to Christian life. I’m just asking the question of whether or not Jesus was referring to that specific practice in said verses.

This, my friends, is no mere nit-picking exercise. Our understanding of the “fishers of men” saying is important because it is a way of talking about the mission that Jesus is calling the early disciples to, and by extension the mission he is calling his subsequent followers to.

Almost every commentary on Matthew and Mark interprets the above verses in a way comparable to what I have described (even N.T. Wright, of whose scholarship I am an avid fan). There is however at least one major exception.

In his commentary on Mark entitled Binding the Strong Man, Ched Myers makes the claim that the term “fishers of men” does not refer to missionary activity, or indeed to “saving souls”, but rather to “overturn(ing) the existing order of power and privilege.” (2008*, 132)

Before I briefly outline Myers’ reasons for saying such, I will warn that, for those who love alternative interpretations, we must avoid simply accepting what is novel for novelty’s sake. Equally deserving of caution is the tendency to simply hold to ‘what we have always believed’ (sometimes “always” is only 400 years or less…)

Myers points to references of “fishers of men” in the Old Testament as his cause for believing that Jesus was referring to the overturning of power:

“Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the LORD, and they shall catch them. And afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. (Jeremiah 16:16)

“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’
The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness
that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fishhooks. (Amos 4:1-2)

“Behold, I am against you,
Pharaoh king of Egypt,
the great dragon that lies
in the midst of his streams,
that says, ‘My Nile is my own;
I made it for myself.’
I will put hooks in your jaws,
and make the fish of your streams stick to your scales;
and I will draw you up out of the midst of your streams,
with all the fish of your streams
that stick to your scales. (Ezekiel 29:3b-4)

It should be clear that these are not references to evangelism.

Jesus, using images from the Hebrew Scriptures (the central socialising force in Palestinian Judaism), speaks of the same realities which those images originally conveyed – God’s judgement of the rich and powerful for their exploitation of and injustice against the poor.

Is this what Jesus meant? I’m entirely sure opinions will be split.

But what I like about this interpretation, besides its continuation of Old Testament imagery and tradition, is that it is narratively consistent with what Jesus actually went out and did in his ministry on earth; Jesus did not hold evangelistic rallies, but he did constantly challenge the Roman and priestly powers because of their exploitation of the peasantry and injustices against the poor (in the case of Jewish powers, these things were violations of their covenant with YHWH).

Jesus after all announced not a gospel whereby people should look forward to being able to leave earth one day, but one whereby the kingdom of God was coming to earth!

The captives were to be released. The blind given sight. The oppressed were to be liberated. The Year of the Lord’s favour (the Jubilee) was to be proclaimed – God’s redistributive economic order.

Could it be that fishers of men are those that join Jesus in his nonviolent revolution to overthrow the current order of things, where those with power and privilege oppress others, with the new order of God’s kingdom on earth?

If Myers is correct, and I believe he is, what would this mean for modern Christians, especially those of us living in the locus imperium?


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