Precarious economic times – Jesus would have been familiar with that

Capernaum sits north of the Sea of Galilee, which is 21km long and 13km wide – actually a fresh-water lake ideal for fishing. It was along the shores here that Jesus spent much time during his ministry, with Capernaum as a primary base. Up to seven of his apostles may have been fishers.

Jan 09, 2021

By Anil Netto
Many people have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Other workers are being encouraged to apply for voluntary layoffs.

Photos circulating on social media appear to show long lines of people queuing up for food aid in certain parts of Kuala Lumpur. Other photos showed long lines of people queuing up to withdraw their Employees Provident Fund retirement savings.

This has made income and wealth disparities more pronounced.

Would Jesus have been familiar with such economic insecurity? When an angry mob tried to throw him off a hill after Jesus had spoken at a synagogue in Nazareth, he moved to Capernaum, a fishing locale of a few thousand residents. Some believe Mary and Jesus may have had relatives here.

Why Capernaum? Capernaum lies along the Via Maris (Way of the Sea), earlier known as Way of the Philistines. This was an ancient trade route from Egypt along the Mediterranean coastline to Syria.

Capernaum sits north of the Sea of Galilee, which is 21km long and 13km wide – actually a fresh-water lake ideal for fishing. It was along the shores here that Jesus spent much time during his ministry, with Capernaum as a primary base. Up to seven of his apostles may have been fishers.

Peter and Andrew were originally from Bethsaida, itself a fishing centre further east along the northern shore, which falls within the tetrarchy of Philip. They had moved to Capernaum in Galilee, then ruled by Herod Antipas. There these two sons of Yonah would have teamed up with James and John, the sons of Zebedee.

Perhaps Peter and Andrew moved to make it easier for the transport of fish for processing and preservation at a place like Magdala Nunayya (Tower of the Fishes in Aramaic, just 10km from Capernaum, along the western shore of the Lake of Galilee.

Magdala, where Mary Magdalene could have come from, lies just a few miles north of Tiberias, a town built along the shore of Galilee that served as the centre of one of Herod Antipas’ tax districts.

It would be easy to think, based on our 20th century neoliberal middle-class perspective, that the fishers whom Jesus called were entrepreneurs who had regular, stable jobs.

After all, some of them like James and John’s father could even hire casual workers to help them with supporting work like mending the fishing nets (Mark 1:16-20). So that would mean they were fairly comfortable, some have argued. But fishing rights in the Galilee were probably highly regulated in Roman-occupied Palestine.

The Romans operated an extractive taxation system from the bottom up through their puppet ruler Herod Antipas in Galilee. Local rulers like Antipas probably had to pay tribute and return patronage to their bosses in Rome, and even bestow riches in their wills to their Roman overlords.

Herod Antipas would have had chief tax collectors under him. Local tax collectors, toll collectors (for use of the road, ports and harbours) and brokers reported to these chief collectors, who would have these tax rights from Herod Antipas.

These local tax collectors would dish out fishing leases and fishing rights to local syndicates. They would also hand out licences to those involved in processing and preserving the fish and vendors selling the fish. In return, the local tax collectors would expect a share of the fish and money from the syndicates and their fishers and keep a part of it as their own profit.

It is no wonder that as Jesus walked along the lakeshore, he came across Levi, son of Alphaeus, sitting at his tax booth. Levi could have been a contractor for local fishing rights.

Ordinary people despised these tax collectors and their chiefs, who could be abusive and even resort to torture. They saw these collectors as Jews collaborating with Roman occupiers to unfairly grab a chunk of what they had produced from their sweat and toil.

Although there is some debate over how exploitative the system was, Antipas and his father Herod the Great were involved in several mega-projects requiring massive funding, partly through taxes.

Besides, in first century Galilee, there was hardly a middle class to speak of. What you had were the aristocrats supported by a retainer class on one side and then the peasants and the destitute on the other. Among the aristocratic class, Herod Antipas, that “fox” (as Jesus referred to him), stood out as a “lover of luxury”, according to the historian Josephus. Where did he get the money to finance his extravagant lifestyle?

The fishers may only have been slightly above the hired hands in the peasant class of this social hierarchy. To acquire the fishing rights from the local tax collectors, they would probably have had to come together in little cooperatives, guilds or alliances.

Peter and Andrew must have teamed up with James and John, whose father also had hired workers. They were probably working together in some sort of alliance or partnership that had acquired fishing rights on the Lake of Galilee.

And make no mistake, life was tough for them. They may have been under pressure from debt and had to sweat it out to earn a living. The fishing boats may not even have belonged to them. They had worked all night and could catch nothing, when Jesus performed his first miracle of the fish from the shore. No wonder Peter and the others were overjoyed.

The theme of fishes and the sea appears throughout the Gospels. The apostles were to be “fishers of men” and women. Jesus appears along the shores cooking fish after his resurrection. The boat being tossed and turned - a metaphor for the Church.

It is no wonder the early Christians adopted the symbol of the fish to represent Jesus. Remember also how Jesus later fed the hungry crowd with fish and loaves.

Jesus thus called his very first followers to move themselves out of this exploitative system and launch the Kingdom of God that would uphold justice, love and compassion for all. They left behind their nets and boats, which would have probably been taken over by others in the local fishing partnership, and thus began their great adventure with the Lord.

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