This is the second of an ongoing series of Greek exegesis exercises I’ll be doing called “ΕχεGrεεκsις”—you can read the first one here. The point of these ΕχεGrεεκsις articles is to pull back the curtain a little on what goes on behind the scenes for translating our New Testament to English. I have a feeling that there are people who are ‘nerdy’ enough to be interested in learning a little bit more about what issues translators wrestle with to get our English Bibles. These articles are more of an analytical exercise—so not as much attention will be paid to the application of the text. Rather the focus is on simply getting to the meaning of the text by analyzing the Greek and relevant manuscript variants.
Each section will begin with the Greek text in bold from the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (28th Revised Edition), followed after by my own translation of the Greek in blue italics then followed by my analysis and commentary. If you enjoy or benefit from these articles – please let me know and I’ll try to keep them coming!
Matthew 4:18 Περιπατῶν δὲ παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν τῆς Γαλιλαίας εἶδεν δύο ἀδελφούς, Σίμωνα τὸν λεγόμενον Πέτρον καὶ Ἀνδρέαν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, βάλλοντας ἀμφίβληστρον εἰς τὴν θάλασσαν· ἦσαν γὰρ ἁλιεῖς.
And while he was walking along the Sea of Galilee he saw two brothers, Simon (who is also called Peter) and Andrew (his brother). They were throwing a cast-net into the sea, for they were fishermen.
Critical Scholars Gonna Critique…
Some critical scholars have disputed this story. From a critical standpoint, the parallel account of this story in Mark 1:14-20 is fairly similar to Matthew’s account. However, there are significant differences in the parallels in Luke 5:1-11 and John 1:35-42. However, the “essential material in this section seems to reflect genuine Jesus tradition (cf., e.g., Sanders 1993: 119). Once Jesus has moved to Capernaum (4:12–16), he will naturally come into contact with fishermen.” All four Gospels independently attest to Peter and Andrew following Jesus in Galilee. There is no reason to invent the four men’s occupation as fishermen, nor Andrew who did not play a central role in either the Gospels or Paul’s letters. Thus, it is likely only to appear for historical reasons. A lot of the hyper-skepticism of critical scholarship can have more to do with unbelieving presuppositions that affect one’s approach to the text, rather than actual issues from within or surrounding the text.
A Gathering Community
It is significant that the first recorded action by Matthew of Jesus after his testing in the desert and the beginning of his public ministry is that he gathers a group of followers. From here on, “we shall not read stories about Jesus alone, but stories about Jesus and his disciples. Wherever he goes they will go; their presence with Jesus, even if not explicitly mentioned, is assumed.” So Matthew’s story until the point when the disciples desert Jesus in Gethsemane (26:56) is that of not only Jesus the Messiah, “but also of the messianic community which is being formed around him.”
The way Matthew presents the scene, opening off with Περιπατῶν δὲ παρὰ τὴν θάλασσαν (And while he was walking along the Sea), seems to imply that Jesus was simply walking by when he saw the men. It is possible though, from the parallel accounts that there may have been some previous contact. “Simon and Andrew have already encountered Jesus when Andrew was a disciple of John (John 1:35–41), so Jesus’ call is not as abrupt as might otherwise be imagined.” However, Matthew chooses to emphasize the immediacy of their response in the subsequent verses.
Though his name is not specifically mentioned in verse 18, Jesus is the implied subject of the action here as it directly follows verse 17 and there is no reason to think that the subject has changed since. However, some translations (for example TEV and NEB) choose to add his name in here for the sake of clarity. This is a legitimate way that some translations help to bring clarity to the text. We’ve all run into times where we are unsure who a pronoun in a sentece is referring back to – so these sorts of aids help the reader to follow the narrative without being distracted by trying to link pronouns to their subjects.
A Lake or Sea?
My wife (who’s Canadian) and I always have the joking argument that there are no “beaches” here in Ontario because I don’t count a “lake shore” as a beach since it isn’t attached to the sea. But I guess not everyone is so fortunate to have grown up in the Caribbean with real beaches – so I generally extend some grace to that mistake. Joking aside, the word θάλασσα [thalassa] simply means a large body of water and could be either translated as sea or lake. “This lake is about 20 kilometers long by 13 kilometers wide”—which isn’t that big, especially in comparison to the ‘Great Lakes’ here in North America. However, due to the familiarity of the phrase being translated “the Sea of Galilee” in many popular translations I chose to go with “sea” rather than “lake” to avoid confusion in my own translation (and possibly also to give my wife a break – haha). However, either word could be an appropriate translation. The word θάλασσαν is in the accusative case which denotes it being the object of the verb, thus παρὰ is best rendered as “along” or “by” and it implies he was likely walking along the shore.
Fishermen becoming Fishers of Men
Simon was a very common name, “it is found in Sirach 50:1, in Josephus” and also we meet four other Simons in Matthew (10:4; 13:55; 26:6; 27:32). So, the nickname which Jesus later gave to Simon (Mark 3:16) is used here by Matthew to distinguish him from the others possibly because it was the name by which his readers knew him. As a result I have put “who is called Simon” in brackets to be more of a clarifying statement and similarly for Andrew—”his brother.” The name Simon is Semitic, but Andrew is Greek and “their names reflect the mixed culture of that Hellenistic settlement just across the river from Jewish Capernaum.” Both pairs of brothers were fishermen, and while Matthew doesn’t seek to give us an account of how all the disciples were called, it is perhaps significant that he focuses on these—especially in light of Jesus’ later statement that he will make them “fishers of men.” There is an obvious play on these words which is being used by Jesus and emphasized by Matthew. It is “consistent with Jesus’ rhetoric elsewhere, he teaches his hearers in terms they can understand.”
A Cast Net, NOT a Baited Line
An ἀμφίβληστρον [amphíblāstron] is that which is “cast around,” and is a “circular net with a weighted edge which is drawn together to enclose the fish.” Perhaps this is significant if we are to think more about the method of fishing employed here in relation to Jesus’ following statement that he will make them “fishers of people.” If Jesus was indeed using the opportunity of coming upon these men in the action of fishing using a cast-net, he may have been alluding to how he would make them ‘net’ people for the kingdom using the cast-net of Gospel proclamation. This opens of some potentially interesting possibilities for using this in sermon preaching. Jesus is referring to fishing by a net, not by a baited line. We throw the net of the Gospel out into the sea not knowing who specifically will fall under it, and the Lord gives the catch. Perhaps this is more explicit considering Luke’s miraculous account of the phrase following their catch of enough fish to burst their nets (see Luke 5:5-8). This is a truth that is often overlooked by Christians and churches that overemphasize an “attractional” model of “baiting” people to follow Jesus, but this is not what is implied by the text.
Matthew’s locating of the phrase ἦσαν γὰρ ἁλιεῖς (for they were fishermen) at the end of this verse also helps to readily connect it with Jesus’ call to make them ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων (fishers of men) in verse 19.
Matthew 4:19-20 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου, καὶ ποιήσω ὑμᾶς ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων. οἱ δὲ εὐθέως ἀφέντες τὰ δίκτυα ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ.
And he said to them, “Come follow after me, and I will make you fishers of people.” So they immediately abandoned their nets and followed him.
The phrase δεῦτε ὀπίσω μου [deûte opísō mou] is interesting. The word δεῦτε is actually an adverb used as an imperative command here and implies an “extension toward a goal at or near the speaker and implying movement—‘here, hither, come here.” The preposition ὀπίσω (behind, after) seems to allude at the continued following behind of Jesus and not just that he was calling them to his present location. Jesus’ summons is more typical of a prophets such as Elijah’s call of Elisha (1 Kgs 19:19–21) than of a rabbi. This is not a call to simply a stroll along the beach, but rather an invitation to discipleship and a lasting association with him. Therefore I have translated it “come follow after me” to try to emphasize this aspect.
A Call to Discipleship
“A disciple was an adherent or follower of a master, an intimate companion in some common endeavor, often learning and promoting a particular ideology.” At this point, these men would not have known Jesus well, and probably did not know much about his mission. However, fishing for people may have sounded more dignifying than fishing for fish and thus “Jesus was inviting them to something very worthwhile.”
The idea of discipleship was not foreign to this era.
“Greek teachers had disciples (e.g., Diog. Laert. 9.1.4–5; Pythagoras had about eighty—Diog. Laert. 8.1.39), and Jewish sages, including Pharisaic sages (Jos. Ant. 15.3, 370), heavily emphasized making disciples (m. ʾAbot 1:1; cf. Hor. 3:5), who were to repeat back what they learned (Sifre Deut. 48.2.6)”
However, Jesus’ was not the conventional rabbi. Normally disciples took the initiative and sought a rabbi for themselves to follow. Also no one would expect these fishermen to be seeking a Rabbi. These men may have been fishermen because they could not or did not want to put up with the rigors of academic Torah studies. Or perhaps they simply inherited the profession as simple tradesmen coming from families in that field. Jesus “seeking out disciples himself may thus represent a serious breach of custom (Malina 1981: 78; but cf., e.g., Jer 1:4–10), ‘coming down to their level’ socially” especially when other elitist rabbis of the day allegedly only wanted to educate those of honorable birth. Whatever the case, in coming to these fishermen, Jesus was indeed reaching the least likely bunch who weren’t what the society would have expected to be the natural choice for those he’d eventually leave the task of continuing his ministry.
Fishers of People
As mentioned before, the phrase “fishers of people” is of significance here. I’ve rendered ἀνθρώπων [anthrōpōn], although it literally means “men”, as “people” since it is clearly not only in reference to males. The structure of Mark 1:17 and Matthew 4:19 is “recognizably Semitic,” and only makes sense as part of the narrative. “Witherington also observes that ‘fishers of humans’ is hardly a later Christian image for mission, but the metaphor makes sense if some of Jesus’ earliest disciples were fishermen.”  Jesus is not saying that being “fisher of people” involves seductive, deceitful, or harmful means. They are not bait fishing with a lure and hook. Rather, they fish with the ἀμφίβληστρον (cast-net) that fishermen use to try to gather fish from the sea. In this way they will try to gather together other individuals to follow Jesus in radical obedience.
Interestingly, “Jer. 16:16 uses the same metaphor of ‘catching’ sinful people for judgment (cf. also Amos 4:2; Hab. 1:14–17), and indeed from the fish’s point of view that is a more natural sense: it is no blessing for a fish to be caught!” This metaphor is used again in 13:47–50, where the same “catching” leads some to judgment and others to salvation. “It is a metaphor for the time of decision, and Simon and Andrew will have a role in bringing people to that decision (10:5–15; 28:19–20).”
A Textual Variant
A textual variant is simply a point in the vast amount of manuscripts of the New Testament where there is some variation in the way the text reads. The majority of these are minor things like spelling and grammatical mistakes because they were hand copied by scribes. There is a textual variant, with some manuscripts adding γενεσθαι (to become) between ὑμᾶς (you) and ἁλιεῖς ἀνθρώπων (fishers of people). This would perhaps highlight the process of becoming fishers of people rather than just simply being made fishers of people. Ultimately though, I don’t see it as a significant detail which would be worth being mentioned in sermons. The majority reading which is in most Bibles is likely the correct one, and even this slight variation doesn’t make much of a difference.
An Urgent Call and Immediate Response
There is some notable stress on the immediacy of the disciples response to Jesus’ call as in both cases Matthew uses the same construction οἱ δὲ εὐθέως ἀφέντες—”and they immediately abandoned” what they were doing. Perhaps the fact that it follows immediately after Jesus’ ministry call to urgent repentance “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” has something to bear on his emphasis on the immediate nature of their response. The word ἀφέντες [aphéntes] can have the meaning ‘abandon’ and “whether Matthew means it in this sense or not he is speaking of a decisive action.” Thus, it is entirely proper to highlight the immediacy of the disciples’ response to Jesus’ call.
The term δίκτυα [díktua] – “net” – is not a specific type of net “unlike sagēnē, the large ‘drag-net’ of 13:47 which required one or more boats” or the ἀμφίβληστρον (cast-net) used earlier. So it is possible that Matthew is simply stating that they abandoned whatever nets they had as tools of their trade to follow Jesus. “They left their nets and all that those nets meant behind.” The verb ἠκολούθησαν [ākoloùthāsan] – “followed” – may be used as simply walking behind (21:9), but it also means “accompany” (v. 25). “This idea of association may intensify into that of being a disciple, which is clearly what is in mind here.” This verb—ἀκολουθέω—”is a key word for Matthew and often, though not always, implies discipleship.”
Also some manuscripts add αυτῶν [autōn] – “their” – after δίκτυα (nets) in verse 20. This would stress the fact that the nets were their own and not simply some nets which were lying around. Perhaps for some scribes, this helped draw attention to the abandonment of their own possessions. It could possibly have been a clarifying word added in by scribes—I’m not sure. However, I don’t think it too profitable to research it further as this main point of leaving everything behind to follow Christ is made clear in other places by Matthew. So, ultimately, it is another insignificant variant that most translators would gloss over. (I know, these textual variants aren’t very exciting… but that’s actually a good thing, since it shows very clearly the veracity of the Biblical text. The majority of variants are like this.)
Matthew 4:21-22 καὶ προβὰς ἐκεῖθεν εἶδεν ἄλλους δύο ἀδελφούς, Ἰάκωβον τὸν τοῦ Ζεβεδαίου καὶ Ἰωάννην τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ, ἐν τῷ πλοίῳ μετὰ Ζεβεδαίου τοῦ πατρὸς αὐτῶν καταρτίζοντας τὰ δίκτυα αὐτῶν, καὶ ἐκάλεσεν αὐτούς. οἱ δὲ εὐθέως ἀφέντες τὸ πλοῖον καὶ τὸν πατέρα αὐτῶν ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ.
Moving on from there, he saw another pair of brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. So Jesus called them and they immediately abandoned the boat and their father and followed him.
Forming the Core Group
The verb προβαίνω [probaínō] means “to continue to move forward—‘to move on, to go on, to go ahead” and implies some progression. The manner in which the subsequent event unfolds make it seem like happenstance—that as Jesus was continuing to journey along the Galilean shore, he sees the other brothers and calls out to them. The phrase ἄλλους δύο ἀδελφούς [allous dúo adelphoús] – literally “another two brothers” – implies that these other two men were brothers of each other but not of the aforementioned pair, Simon and Andrew. Some translations may be unclear in differentiating this and make it seem as if they were two other brothers of Simon and Andrew. Thus, I have chosen to translate the phrase “another pair of brothers” to make this distinction clear. Though it is not certain, since James is mentioned first, he may have been the older brother.
Of the four, Peter, James, and John will form the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. They will be chosen to be with Jesus in moments of special significance such as the transfiguration (17:1) and Gethsemane (26:37). They are often mentioned by name whereas the rest of the Twelve don’t receive such specific mention beyond the list of names in 10:2–4. “The proximity here of the two pairs of brothers suggests (as Luke 5:7, 10 states explicitly) that the four were already colleagues in the fishing business.” So, it is understandable why Matthew would give prominence to the call of these men particularly.
Leaving the Family Fishing Business
Comparing this encounter of James and John with the account of Peter and Andrew, they are with their father. Perhaps this alludes to them being younger as they were still under the apprenticeship of their father. I have noticed in the fishing villages in Trinidad that it is not uncommon particularly to see younger males learning the trade from their father. Or perhaps it was simply because they were mending the nets and could use the help. I’d be cautious to read too far into this detail. However I don’t think it unreasonable to assume that this was somehow a family trade. The fact that they had their own boat perhaps helps confirm this theory, and Mark 1:20 confirms that they had hired hands as well.
The participle καταρτίζοντας [katartízontas] may have the specific meaning of “repair” but “it may also have a more general meaning of ‘getting … ready’ (TEV); AT has ‘putting their nets in order’; Brc ‘servicing their nets’; NEB ‘overhauling their nets.'” However it is taken, they were preparing their nets for another fishing expedition. “This would involve any necessary repairs, and cleaning and folding the nets.” I have chosen to render it “mending” since perhaps it is logical, after considering the Lukan account, that they would need to mend their nets. I recognize though that this is my own theorizing and harmonization of the Gospels.
Again, there is emphasis on their prompt response to his call. Their response was wholehearted, and they left their nets, boat and their father who would have been their strongest family tie. “Allegiance to Jesus is stronger than any earthly attachment. But we should not think that they left their father to manage on his own; he had hired hands who worked for him (Mark 1:20).”The “suddenness with which Zebedee is left behind in the boat suggests an unpremeditated action. Matthew betrays no awareness of the previous meeting of some of this group with Jesus by the Jordan which is mentioned in John 1:35–42.”
A Costly Discipleship
The priority of discipleship even over family ties is referenced numerous times by Matthew (8:18–22; 10:21–22, 34–37; 12:46–50). Jesus’ call was scandalous—it cost comfort and challenged the priority of family (10:37). The “tension between such demands and the proper concern for parents” is something “Jesus will defend in 15:3–6” and “underlines the radical urgency of his call.” In 19:27-29 we are reminded of the radical dissociation which their call to discipleship entailed.
“The repetition of similar language with regard both to the call of Matthew in 9:9 and to the abortive call to the rich man in 19:21–22 shows that Matthew’s understanding of discipleship was ideally of “giving up everything” to follow Jesus. Cf. 8:19–22 for Jesus’ uncompromising demands on would-be followers.”
Though some may think the fishermen were already poor and had nothing to lose in following Christ, it was costly economically to them, involving downward mobility.
“Although artisans made far less than the wealthy (who comprised perhaps one percent of the ancient population), they were not among the roughly 90 percent of the ancient population we may call peasants, either. Fishermen, like tax gatherers, were “among the more economically mobile of the village culture” (Freyne 1988: 241). Although the primary occupation even on the lake of Galilee was agricultural (Horsley 1995: 194), fishing remained a major industry there (Safrai 1974/76b: 747), and fish was a primary staple of the first-century Palestinian diet (Neusner 1984: 23), as elsewhere in Mediterranean antiquity…”
Furthermore, though there is some speculation as to whether or not Jesus’ ministry was seasonal and thus the disciples were able to return to their families for part of the year, this still would not make it easy for them to return to an abandoned business. “For most workers in the artisan class like fishermen even seasonal departure from their families and livelihoods would be costly (though better than being away the entire year).”
Are We Following Jesus?
Matthew’s inclusion of these stories tell us of the worthlessness of possessions in comparison to the incomparable value of what was gained by these disciples. “For Matthew, the kingdom is like a precious treasure, worth the abandonment of all other treasures (13:44–46).” These accounts not only report the historical activity of the first disciples, “but he also presents it as a model of discipleship for his own audience.”
We too should take seriously the call to discipleship, immediate response and considering “all things loss” for the sake of Christ. Also, Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Not follow me and you may become fishers of men if you like to, or if you feel so inclined or gifted. He makes those who follow him to be fishers of men! So, if we’re not “fishing”—are we really following? Evangelism and passion for sharing the Gospel should be definitional to the life of every disciple of Christ. Some good food for thought for us…
I hope you’ve enjoyed this second installment of the ExeGreeksis series of articles. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments, and if you think others would benefit, please share and help expand the reach of Theotivity. Thanks so much!
- Blomberg, Craig. Matthew. Vol. 22. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992.
- France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007.
- Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2009.
- Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. New York: United Bible Societies, 1996.
- Morris, Leon. The Gospel according to Matthew. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992.
- Newman, Barclay Moon, and Philip C. Stine. A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1992.
- Robertson, A. T. A Short Grammar of the Greek New Testament, for Students Familiar with the Elements of Greek. New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908.
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