Historical Cultural Context
The "Call" of Disciples
What would prompt you to abandon your job? higher pay? a better occupation? an improved location? a more congenial employer? all of the above? Jesus’ invitation to some fishermen to leave their business and follow after him is best understood in the context of this question.
Luke notes that Peter (and of course his brother, Andrew) had a business partnership with another pair of brothers, James and John (Lk 5:10). They owned at least two boats (Lk 5:2).
A boat discovered in 1986 close to shore at the Sea of Galilee is 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide, and 4.5 feet high, with a rounded stern and a fine bow. (Carbon tests thus far date this boat to the period 140 B.C. to A.D. 40).
Physical anthropologists estimate that the average Galilean male of the Roman-Byzantine period stood about 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed an average of 140 pounds. Fifteen such men would weigh just over a ton and could easily fit into this boat.
Jesus stepped into Peter’s boat (Lk 5:3). Mark tells us one boat held at least five passengers: James and John, their father Zebedee, and hired men (Mk 1:20). There could have been many more.
Fish became a popular commodity in the Greek and Roman period, and it is reasonable to guess that this specific partnership flourished. What prompted them to “leave everything and follow Jesus” (Lk 5:11)? His invitation alone?
The act of a man calling followers in Mediterranean culture is readily recognized by every native as a process of a patron gathering clients. In cultures like that where central government was perceived to be weak and ineffective, people banded together for mutual assistance.
For the most part, families stuck close together and helped each other out. But sometimes it became necessary to reach beyond the family and to form “family-like” bonds with others who could lend the help that family members couldn’t.
One of these others is a “patron,” that is, a person with surplus means, who distributes that surplus by purely personal whim and choice.
By providing seasoned and experienced fishermen with a bountiful catch after a frustrating night of work, Jesus presents himself very obviously as a patron.
A patron can get for you something you could not obtain by your own abilities, or on better terms than you could arrange for yourself. Jesus gets the better of these fisher folk at their own game!
In Luke’s story Simon, James, and John clearly perceive Jesus in this role. By falling at the knees of Jesus, Simon Peter uses a specific gesture that recognizes him as superior, as a patron.
In mainstream U.S. culture, we take great pride in standing on our own two feet and in not having to rely on anyone else. We applaud those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Our Mediterranean ancestors in the Faith would consider this insane, an invitation to death and extinction.
Following Jesus as a client in the Mediterranean world or a disciple in the modern world involves a willingness to be dependent. One gives up apparent security for a perceived greater security.
Are Americans up to it? The Galilean fishermen were.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University