Long considered a humble occupation, fishing has been part of human activity in the Near East since the beginnings of settled habitation, either temporary or permanent, near bodies of water. Although fishing and hunting may have evolved at about the same time and may share origins, the mythology of hunting involves the braver “royal huntsman,” whereas fishing involves those of more humble social standing.
In an Egyptian papyrus from 2000 BCE, the Satire of the Artisans, a pupil is warned by his teacher, a scribe, about the hardships and dangers of fishing—that is, about the attendant high taxes on the fish caught and about the crocodiles in the Nile River. In the Hellenistic period, taxes on a catch came to 25 percent of its value. Herodotus (2.164) classifies those who fish at the lowest of all social levels—the seventh—together with sailors.
Those for whom fishing was an occupation sometimes also held political office, however. The mayor of Tiberias at the time of the first Jewish Revolt against Rome in Galilee was the head of the “marine union,” which undoubtedly included both fishermen and sailors (Josephus, Vita, 12). Together with the fishermen of Magdala, they represented the uncompromising forces of Jewish nationalism, as against the Peace party of the rich (Josephus, War, 2.21.3). Two hundred years later, the Talmud describes the powerful fishermen's unions of Tiberias and Akko as differing in their readiness to work during the intermediate days of Passover and the Feast of Tabernacles (J.T., Mo῾ed Q. 2.5; B.T., Mo῾ed Q. 13.2).
Ancient fishing techniques and technologies can be reconstructed based on existing documentation: Egyptian reliefs and tomb paintings beginning in the third millennium, texts from Mesopotamia, references in the Bible and the Talmud, and excavated fishing implements. The similar climate found throughout the Levant and the cultural exchanges made among ancient societies resulted in a uniformity of fishing techniques. Many Near Eastern sources record catching and preserving fish as a well-developed and important industry. Fish were transported, alive or preserved (by drying, salting, or pickling), across considerable distances and constituted both an article of trade and of tax payment. Competition regarding fishing waters and concession rights created conflicts as early as the third millennium in Sumer and, in the biblical period, in the Sea of Galilee.
For large industrial catches, however, fishermen in Egypt, as elsewhere, used nets. All industrial fishing in the world today is based on methods that originated in the ancient Near East. The oldest and most important type of net is the dragnet, or seine (Gk., sagēnē; Ar., jarf; Heb., ḥērem). Mentioned nine times in the Hebrew Bible (more than any other method) and once in the Parable of the Seine in the Gospels, the dragnet is a kind of wall of netting spread from a boat parallel to the shore and then dragged to land with the catch. It is 250–300 meters long, 2 meters high at its “wings,” and 4–5 meters high at its center. A foot rope, weighted with stone or lead sinkers, is used with the dragnet, as are papyrus or wood floats to keep the wall upright. The first ancient nets were made of plant fibers; later examples are of linen or cotton. As a result of the region's dry climate, nets from the second millennium BCE have been found in Egyptian tombs as at Gebelin, and a piece of a net from the second century CE was discovered in the Cave of the Letters near the Dead Sea.
The cast net (Gk., amphiblēstron; Ar., shabakeh; Heb., qela῾) was popular in antiquity and is still used. It is circular, 6–8 meters in diameter, with stone or lead sinkers attached to its edge. It is tossed by a lone individual who stands on the shore, in shallow water, or in a boat; the net lands like a parachute and sinks into the water. Complete cast nets from the second millennium BCE have been found in Egyptian tombs as at Deir el-Baḥari. The Talmud (B.T., B.Q. 81b) and the Gospels (Mk. 1:16; Mt. 4:18) contain references to them.
Netting needles, the tool used to weave and repair nets, have been found in Egyptian tombs and at sites on the Mediterranean coast of Israel near Gaza and Jaffa. On the Sea of Galilee, these needles have been found at Beth-Yeraḥ, and at Magdala, in first-century contexts. Made of bone, bronze, iron, or wood (and today, plastic), the netting needle is from 10 to 30 centimeters long. It differs from the sewing needle in that the thread used is wound right on the needle.
In Sumer, fishing rights belonged to temples and local rulers, who leased them to fishermen. The right to fish in canals belonged to owners of the adjacent lands, who received these rights as compensation for maintaining the canals. As elsewhere, line and cast-net fishermen worked alone; those using larger nets worked in groups.
At Khafajeh, near Baghdad (2700 BCE), fifty ring-shaped ceramic sinkers (5–6 cm in diameter) were discovered, a few of which still had small pieces of netting attached. Bronze fishhooks have been recovered at Ur (third dynasty), in Egyptian tombs, at Capernaum, and elsewhere. Stone and lead net sinkers, stone net anchors, and stone boat anchors are the most commonly found of all fishing accessories.
Sumerian and Akkadian mythologies contain many references to fishing in parables and analogies, a tradition also found in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. Gilgamesh, the hero of a Mesopotamian flood myth, is depicted carrying a catch of fish, and the major Sumerian deity, Ea, the allwise earth and water god, is described as owning a fishnet. His son Adapa is the hero of a remarkable adventure involving providing fish for the gods.
The first maritime empire was ruled by the Minoan civilization on Crete. At its height (c. 1600 BCE) it controlled the islands in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas. Depictions of fish and fishing are prominent in Minoan wall paintings and on their ceramics, and the figure of a fish was typically placed on the prow of a ship. The Philistine “Sea Peoples,” who probably originated in the Aegean, brought their knowledge of techniques for catching and preserving fish to ancient Palestine. [See Minoans; Philistines.]
None of the several references to fishing in the Hebrew Bible includes a single personality occupied with fishing or the name of a single fish. Only the prophets, notably Ezekiel (26:5, 14) and Isaiah (19:5), mention fishing in their parables. The coastal tribes of Zebulon and Asher, along with the Phoenicians, probably fished on the shore of the Mediterranean (Gn. 49:13). According to a tradition preserved in the Talmud (Tosefta, B.Q. 8), the tribe of Naphtali was given exclusive fishing rights by Joshua, entitling them to “set seines and spread cast nets” around the entire shoreline of the Sea of Galilee.
The New Testament Gospels include fishing vignettes on the Sea of Galilee, the scene of most of Jesus' ministry and where his earliest disciples fished. However, the descriptions of the Miraculous Drought (Lk. 5:1–7; Jn. 21:1–9) are not technically accurate, perhaps because the authors were already distant in time and place from the experience of fishing in the Galilee. Problems of translation (especially of “dragnet” and “cast net”) add to the lack of accuracy. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that fishing methods on the lake have not changed greatly since Second Temple times.
In February 1986, a sensational discovery was made on the muddy beach near Migdal (Magdala), on the Sea of Galilee: an ancient wooden boat, dating to the first century CE, miraculously preserved by the mud into which it had sunk. The boat is 8.8 meters long, 2.5 meters wide, and 1.25 meters deep, almost exactly the measurements of the boats used by seine net fishermen in the Sea of Galilee until the mid-twentieth century. The planks were made of cedars of Lebanon and the ribs of unworked oak branches. The boat was likely used for both transportation and fishing. [See Galilee Boat.]
Other important finds were made at the same location between 1989 and 1991, when drought drastically reduced the water level in the Sea of Galilee. Hundreds of stone net sinkers, net anchors, and boat anchors of varying sizes and shapes were recovered, objects that will contribute greatly to what is known about early fishing technology.
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- Frost, Honor. “From Rope to Chain: On the Development of Anchors in the Mediterranean.” The Mariners Mirror 49.1 (1963): 1–20.
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- Hornell, James. Fishing in Many Waters. Cambridge, 1950.
- Nun, Mendel. Ancient Jewish Fishery (in Hebrew). Tel Aviv, 1963.
- Nun, Mendel. “Fishing” (in Hebrew). In Encyclopaedia Mikrait (Biblical Encyclopaedia), vol. 6, pp. 720–726. Jerusalem, 1971.
- Nun, Mendel. The Sea of Galilee and Its Fisherman in the New Testament. Kibbutz Ein Gev, 1989.
- Radcliffe, William. Fishing from the Earliest Times. 2d ed. London, 1926.