A Galilean Breakfast
“Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you've just caught.” ”
- After this, Jesus appeared again to the disciples, this time at the Tiberias Sea (the Sea of Galilee). This is how he did it:
- Simon Peter, Thomas (nicknamed “Twin”), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the brothers Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.
- Simon Peter announced, “I'm going fishing.”
The rest of them replied, “We're going with you.” They went out and got in the boat. They caught nothing that night.
- When the sun came up, Jesus was standing on the beach, but they didn't recognize him.
- Jesus spoke to them: “Good morning! Did you catch anything for breakfast?”
They answered, “No.”
- He said, “Throw the net off the right side of the boat and see what happens.”
They did what he said. All of a sudden there were so many fish in it, they weren't strong enough to pull it in.
- Then the disciple Jesus loved said to Peter, “It's the Master!” When Simon Peter realized that it was the Master, he threw on some clothes, for he was stripped for work, and dove into the sea.
- The other disciples came in by boat for they weren't far from land, a hundred yards or so, pulling along the net full of fish.
- When they got out of the boat, they saw a fire laid, with fish and bread cooking on it.
- Jesus said, “Bring some of the fish you've just caught.”
- Simon Peter joined them and pulled the net to shore—153 big fish! And even with all those fish, the net didn't rip.
- Jesus said, “Breakfast is ready.” Not one of the disciples dared ask, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Master.
- Jesus then took the bread and gave it to them. He did the same with the fish.
- This was now the third time Jesus had shown himself alive to the disciples since being raised from the dead.
John 21:1–14, The Message
In the ancient world, eating meat was such a rarity for most people that vegetarianism was essentially the major lifestyle—a lifestyle of necessity, not of choice. People of wealth would have been able to afford to eat meat, perhaps on a regular basis; for the rest, however, religious festivals or special occasions of hospitality may have provided the rare opportunity to add meat to the diet.
Fish, when available, did provide an important supplement to the diet of ancient peoples, so important, in fact, that Jerusalem had a marketplace called the Fish Gate (II Chronicles 33:14, Nehemiah 3:3; 12:39, and Zephaniah 1:10). Jewish dietary laws divided fish into clean and unclean food for consumption: those fish with scales and fins (that is, most fish) were considered clean (though eels were excluded, and shellfish were certainly prohibited [see Leviticus 11]). Fish, whether small or large, were consumed fresh or dried, salted or pickled, raw or cooked. The smallest fishes were thought to be particularly healthful, though the Jews seemed to have avoided young fish (other cultures did not). Often enough, fish were allowed to begin decomposing before being prepared for the table so as to achieve a distinctive taste. The eating of fish was also recommended during pregnancy. Fish brine was used as a seasoning, fish oil as a fuel, and fish skins as a writing surface; fish bones were fashioned into writing implements, hooks, needles, and hair ornaments.
The Jewish people employed several different methods of catching fish. First was the dragnet, which was thrown over the side of a boat and allowed to sink to the bottom, trapping the fish as the boat pulled the net through the water. Second were smaller nets and wicker baskets cast from a boat or from shore. Third were hook and line, thrown from the shore or from a boat. Harpoons (spears) were sometimes used, though probably less frequently than other methods of fishing.
The scriptures (particularly the New Testament) refer frequently to fishing—an indication of how important fishing was to the people of the 1st century. Many of Jesus' disciples made their living by fishing in the Sea of Galilee. In fact, Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, John, and other disciples who were fishermen must have been relatively well to do, for the scriptures seem to indicate that they were able to leave their boats and nets for long periods in order to follow after Jesus during his years of public ministry. Because the Sea of Galilee lies on the Via Maris, the ancient, heavily traveled trade road linking Egypt to the north and east, Galilean fishermen were readily able to trade their catches to traveling merchants, who would either consume the fish or pack them up for sale later. Perhaps it seems odd that Jesus, who was said to be a carpenter, would rely on fishermen to help spread his teachings, but he promised that they would be able to put their skills to good use, making them “fish for people” (Matthew 4:19 and Mark 1:17)—a phrase that has a double meaning, for they would proceed both to gather people and to “feed” those who hungered for the spiritual message they sought to impart.
BIBLICAL PASSAGE NOTES
To people living in the Western world, the concept of fish for breakfast might seem a bit unusual. Other than lox or perhaps a whitefish spread, or maybe a nice piece of salmon on a fresh bagel, fish is not usual morning menu fare. The current interest in sushi for almost any meal among many baby boomers notwithstanding, fish has traditionally been relegated in Western cultures to tuna fish salad for lunch, or fish sticks, fish and chips, or the likes of salmon steaks for dinner.
There does not seem to be any tradition, biblical or otherwise, that supports fish as a typical breakfast meal among the people of Jesus' day. The “anything” of verse 5 (in Greek, prosfagion) is an unusual word; it is used to describe a side dish to be eaten with bread, and in some contexts was the equivalent of meat or fish. That Jesus was preparing fish for the disciples to eat is probably more symbolic in nature than menu-related. (Fish was a symbol for early Christians, as the letters in the Greek word ichthus form an acrostic consisting of the first letters of an early confession of faith: Jesus Christ, the Son of God.) Yet taking the biblical passage at face value, this is what we know: the disciples were out fishing following the death and resurrection of Jesus when they spotted him on the nearby beach preparing a meal over a fire. As they returned to shore, he fed them with fish and bread, and it was by these actions that they were assured of who he was.
The meal took place at the Sea of Galilee, a large lake-like body of water that runs six miles wide and twelve miles long. It is fed by springs from three countries: Lebanon, Israel, and Syria, and today it provides nearly one-fourth of Israel's fresh-water supply. Israelis now refer to the Sea of Galilee as Yam Kinneret (the Gospel of John calls it the Sea of Tiberias, while the Gospel of Luke speaks of Lake Gennesaret). To this day, the Sea of Galilee supports a thriving fishing industry.
Grilled Mackerel on a Stick
St. Peter's Fish with Parsley Sauce
Eggplant and Cheese Casserole (Almodrote)
Israeli Breakfast Salad
Mana´ish with Goat Cheese and Black Peppermint Tea
Campfire Cinnamon Coffee Cake
Galilean Sand Cake
In this gospel account, the preparation of the fish by grilling, though seemingly primitive and foolproof, was actually neither. There was a technique involved that required some forethought and preparation. Perhaps Jesus knew of the tradition common among fishermen of cooking by masguf (roofing), a process whereby a fire is lit and the fish are hung on large sticks in an upright position at the edge of the flame, allowing them to roast slowly and without fear of burning. The result is a tender, tasty smoked fish; every part of the fish is used and consumed, head to tail. Or, as the biblical verse blandly reports, perhaps the fish were simply laid flat and cooked on a bed of coals.
The Sea of Galilee has had a reputation for good fishing since ancient times. What type of fish would Jesus and his disciples have eaten at daybreak on its shore? There are currently about eighteen different species that are known to inhabit the lake. Three of these types of fish were known in Jesus' day and sought after by fishermen: sardines, barbels, and musht. Sardines are endemic to the lake and are most likely the small fish mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus used for the feeding of the five thousand. Today, when fishermen cast their nets at night in the Sea of Galilee during the height of the fishing season, tens of thousands of sardines are hauled in by morning. It is well known that these small fish, along with bread, were a staple among the local villagers of Galilee in the 1st century. Barbels are so called because of the barbs located at the corners of their mouths. They were very popular at feasts and for the Sabbath meals. Musht (comb) is more popularly known as “St. Peter's Fish.” It has a long dorsal fin that looks like a comb and can grow to be 1½ feet long and weigh as much as 3½ pounds. During the winter, these tropical fish gather in the deeper shoals at the northern edge of the lake where there are warmer waters, created from the runoff of the springs from the hills of nearby Eremos. The congregation of large schools of musht allows for great fishing and nets filled to bursting. Perhaps it was here that Jesus, having spotted a multitude of fish, instructed Peter to cast his net, which allowed for the seemingly “miraculous' catch.