February 22: Luke 5:1-11

At the end of the previous note, I compared the reaction of the people of Nazareth to Jesus (cf. Luke 4:16-30) with the reaction of the first disciples as recorded in Luke 5:1-11. Today I will be examining this passage a bit more closely. It derives, in part, from a common tradition found, in much simpler form, in Mark 1:16-20 / Matthew 4:18-22. The difference between the Lukan and Markan/Matthean accounts are significant, but clearly we are dealing with a single historical tradition involving the calling of the first disciples (Peter [and Andrew], James and John). This would serve to disprove any need to posit, e.g., two “cleansings” of the Temple, two visits to Nazareth, etc., in order to harmonize apparently divergent chronologies. The order and arrangement of episodes in the Gospels is as much literary as it is chronological. Still, it is useful to recognize the unique elements of the Lukan narrative, for it reveals something of the purpose and meaning the author attributes to it. Here are the main differences, compared with the account in Mark/Matthew:

    1. It is set after the initial ministry in Capernaum (Lk 4:31-44), instead of before (cf. Mark 1:21-39 par).
    2. It begins with a different historical/narrative setting (5:1-3)
    3. It incorporates a miracle, similar to that recorded in John 21:1-8, which is also centered on Simon Peter (5:4-9)
    4. The narrative of the miracle includes a significant saying of Simon Peter (5:8)
    5. The saying of Jesus, central to the main call narrative, differs from the version in Mark 1:17 par (5:10)

Each of these points will be discussed in turn.

1. The setting after Jesus’ initial ministry in Capernaum

In between the episode in Nazareth (4:16-30) and the call of the Disciples here, Luke records three narrative episodes set in Capernaum: (a) healing of the demon-possessed man in the synagogue (4:31-37); (b) healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (4:38-39), with other similar healings being described (4:40-41); (c) Jesus’ retiring to a solitary place, with a statement regarding his mission (4:42-44). These can all be found in Mark/Matthew (Mk 1:21-39 par., in the same sequence), but they occur after the call of the first disciples (Mk 1:16-20). The Lukan order creates a much more dramatic (some would say, more realistic) setting for the call of Peter, et al.—it is only after they have spent some time with Jesus (in Capernaum), having witnessed a number of miracles, that they leave everything to follow him. By comparison, in Mark/Matthew, the disciples appear to follow Jesus on the spot, at first sight, with no psychological motivation provided. Luke may even suggest that a longer time is involved, with additional preaching in Judea (v. 44, other manuscripts reading “Galilee”), before the call in chapter 5. It could be too that the joining of several different traditions (from a later Galilean ministry setting, cf. below) has caused the narrative to move further down in the relative chronology of the Gospel.

2. A different historical/narrative setting

Mark 1:16 states simply that Jesus was himself going alongside the sea [qa/lassa] of Galilee and saw Simon Peter, etc. Luke, on the other hand, records that a crowd was laid upon Jesus as he stood alongside the lake [li/mnh] of Gennesaret (v. 1), and he gets into Simon Peter’s boat and preaches to the crowd. In addition to more precise terminology for the body of water, the setting of verses 1-3 is similar to that in Mark 4:1 / Matt 13:1. Luke would seem to be aware of this, for at the same point (Lk 8:4) he omits mention of Jesus teaching to the crowd from a boat (having already used this setting here in chap. 5). Of course, at the historical level, Jesus may of done this sort of thing on more than one occasion, but there is evidence here of conscious modification by the Gospel writer: he has combined elements from different parts of the (Synoptic) Tradition. Was this done simply for dramatic effect? for greater historical accuracy? or is there a theological reason for the change? In my view, the most likely reason for the joining of these traditions here is literary—by way of “catchword” bonding, with a common motif (the boat/lake setting), elements from different traditions are brought together here. This may seem forced and artificial to us today, but it was an effective and meaningful way of communication—of building up narrative—in the ancient world.

3. Incorporation of a (separate?) Miracle story

The central portion of the Lukan narrative is a miracle involving an extraordinary catch of fish (vv. 4-9). Even a casual reader of the Gospels will recognize the similarity to the miracle recorded in John 21:1-8, the latter of course taking place (in the Gospel setting) after the Resurrection. How are we to explain this? There are three possibilities:

    • They reflect different (authentic) historical events—one occurring early, the other late—which happen to have similar details.
    • The episode reflects a single historical tradition, which has been transferred, from an early Galilean setting (Luke) to a post-resurrection setting (John), or vice versa.
    • It is a “floating” tradition, which has been incorporated into different (chronological) settings in Luke and John.

The third option is perhaps more likely, on objective critical grounds. The first would generally be the traditional-conservative view, but is wrapped up within the larger critical question of the nature and composition of John 21 as a whole (and its relation to Jn 20:19-29 [cf. also Lk 24:36-53, esp. v. 49]). In any case, the miracle, as Luke relates it, would seem to belong to its setting in the (early) Galilean ministry of Jesus. It is the turning point upon which the disciples (Simon Peter, James and John; curiously Luke does not mention Andrew, cf. Mark 1:16) decide to leave their boats and nets to follow Jesus (v. 9-11). Harmonizing passages such as Lk 5:1-11 and Jn 21:1-8 on historical/chronological grounds is a questionable procedure at best; a comparison on symbolic or theological grounds is more profitable (and useful):

    • In both accounts, Simon Peter is the central figure, along with his companions (incl. disciples of Jesus) (Lk 5:3-5; Jn 21:3)
    • In each they fish all night and catch nothing (Lk 5:5; Jn 21:3b); in Lk this is said to Jesus
    • Jesus tells them to (go out again and) let down their nets:
      “Lead (out) upon (the water) into the deep and let go your nets unto a catch” (Lk 5:4)
      “Cast the net (down) into the giving [i.e. right] (side) of the sailboat and you will find” (Jn 21:6)
    • The disciples obey and catch a great “multitude of fish (plh=qo$ [tw=n] i)xqu/wn)” (Lk 5:6; Jn 21:6), so that:
      —the boats became filled so as to sink down (Lk 5:7)
      —they were not strong (enough) to drag it in (Jn 21:6)
    • The miracle brings about recognition of Jesus:
      “And at (his) seeing (it), Simon Peter…” (Lk 5:8)
      “Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter: ‘(It) is the Lord!'”(Jn 21:7)
    • Peter acts in response (Lk 5:8; Jn 21:7b)

Most significantly perhaps (as noted by many commentators), in Lk the nets are breaking [lit. rip through], but in Jn it is stated that the nets were not split, and the great catch (153 fish) is brought onto land (Jn 21:8, 11). This is sometimes seen as a symbol of the Church and her unity; in the Johannine context especially, an ecclesiastical image (associated with Peter, cf. vv. 15-17) probably is intended.

4. The saying of Simon Peter

This exclamation by Peter in the narrative context is noteworthy:

But (at his) having seen (it), Shim’ôn Rock {Simon Peter} fell to Yeshua’s knees, relating/saying: “Go out (away) from me! (in) that I am a sinning/sinful man, Lord!” (v. 8)

It would seem to be a reaction not just to the miracle, but also to the doubt which he had initially expressed in v. 5. However, in the previous note, I discussed the reaction of the people of Nazareth in relation to the prophecy of Simeon (Lk 2:34-35)—that the purpose prophesied for the child (Jesus) was to uncover the thoughts [counting/reckoning] out of many hearts. In the Nazareth episode, this uncovering leads to outright hostility; here, it leads to repentance and humility. Perhaps a slight irony is involved as well: the people of Nazareth, in passionate anger, cast out [e)ce/balon] Jesus from the city; Peter shouts to Jesus, “Go out [e&celqe] (away) from me!” Similar words, but a very different sense.

It is hard to determine whether this saying of Peter reflects a separate tradition (from the miracle story); if so, it has been joined effectively, for it fits within the context of the miracle extremely well. Some critical scholars have felt that Peter’s repentance expressed here is more appropriate in the post-resurrection context (of Jn 21), in light of his three-fold denial of Jesus during the Passion; I find this rather unlikely, on objective grounds. There is nothing else in Lk 5:1-11 which remotely suggests such a context—indeed, without Jn 21 for comparison, I doubt if anyone would consider such an association based on the details of Lk 5:1-11 itself.

5. The form of Jesus’ saying

The saying of Jesus as it appears in Mark 1:16 is:

deu=te o)pi/sw mou kai\ poih/sw u(ma=$ gene/sqai a(liei=$ a)nqrw/pwn
“Come (here) behind me and I will make you to become fishers of men”

These are the only words Jesus speaks in the short narrative (the par. saying in Matt 4:19 is nearly identical). The version of the saying in Lk 5:11 is noticeably different:

mh\ fo/bou: a)po\ tou= nu=n a)nqrw/pou$ e&sh| zwgrw=n
“Do not fear! from now (on) you will be catching men alive”

These are different enough to count as entirely separate sayings; however, assuming Luke was aware of the simpler Gospel tradition (and saying) in Mark, he has either modified or substituted the saying here. Most translations partially harmonize the Markan and Lukan saying by rendering the latter with “…you will be catching men”. However, the verb zwgre/w literally means “capture/take alive“. The contrast is more than simply catching men instead of fish: the disciples will be catching them alive. There may be a distinct soteriological nuance as well: catching men alive implies catching them unto (eternal) life. Since zwgre/w can also be used in the technical sense of taking someone captive (2 Tim 2:26), it may not be inappropriate to compare the Pauline idea of taking people “captive” for Christ—cf. especially 2 Cor 10:5, where the verb ai)xmalwti/zw (lit. take [away] by spear-point) is used.

In conclusion, it is worth comparing the two statements by Jesus which bracket the miracle narrative in vv. 4-9:

    • “Lead (out) upon (the water) into the deep and let go your nets unto a catch [a&gran]” (v. 4)
    • “Do not fear! from now (on) you will be catching men alive [zwgrw=n]” (v. 11)

This highlights the way in which Jesus, with a few simple words, could transform ordinary human activity into a profound expression of the work of God in the lives of human beings. This is not just a question of ‘evangelism’ and missionary work (important as those are), but cuts to the very heart of the nature of the eternal and spiritual dimension which Christ reveals at every moment.

(The Call of the Disciples is examined in more detail as part of the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”, soon to be posted here)