Historical Cultural Context
Fishing, Storms, and Faith
In 1986 the level of the Sea of Galilee was extraordinarily low. Marine archaeologists discovered an ancient fishing boat in mud along its northwest shore, a little north of ancient Magdala (modern Migdal).
Basing themselves on the type of construction, the pottery found nearby, and the results of a carbon 14 test, the experts concluded that the boat was built between 40 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. It is very likely the kind of boat mentioned in today’s story, the one used by the Jonah-Zebedee fishing syndicate (see Lk 5:10), which included their sons Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and hired hands.
The government regulated the fishing industry by selling fishing rights to tax collectors or publicans (brokers). These contracted with fishermen and frequently had to capitalize them. Since Matthew the toll collector had his office in Capernaum (Mt 9:1, 9:9), an important fishing center, it is likely that he brokered the government’s fishing rights to his fellow citizens.
The boat found in the mud was 26 1/2 feet long, 7 1/2 feet wide, and 4 1/2 feet deep. Originally it had a sail. There are places for four oarsmen and a tillerman. A boat this size could hold a crew of five plus ten passengers (Mt 14:22), or the crew plus cargo, for instance, a catch of fish in excess of one ton (Lk 5:4-11; Jn 21:1-14).
With this background, a modern reader can easily see that first-century Mediterranean fishermen were far from middle class. They were ever at the mercy of the brokers (toll collectors) who capitalized their fishing venture and to whom they were ever in debt. They had no control at all over their activities.
Spirits and Storms
The fishermen also realized that they had no control over nature. Even though they were very familiar with the Sea of Galilee, no one among them was capable of predicting the storms that broke out unexpectedly, almost suddenly. They were at the mercy of the sea to provide a livelihood, and in the case of a storm like this, to spare their lives.
Earlier in Matthew’s story line (Mt 8:23-27), Jesus was asleep in the boat with his disciples when a violent storm broke. They had to wake him to plead for help! On that occasion Jesus “rebuked” the winds and the sea, and a dead calm ensued.
In today’s story, Jesus is absent when a strong head wind raises high waves that batter the boat and frighten its passengers. When the disciples see Jesus, they think he is a “ghost.” When Peter steps out of the boat to meet Jesus, he “sees” the strong wind.
Both stories reflect the first-century Mediterranean belief in spirits, including wind spirits, that play havoc with human life. The only remedy for a human being is to find a more powerful spirit to counter the annoying spirit. This, of course, is God and his broker, Jesus, who throughout the gospel displays power to control evil and mischievous spirits.
Both stories also emphasize that the disciples wavered in their loyalty to God. “Why are you afraid, you of little faith ?” (Mt 8:26). “You [Peter] of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Mt 14:31). The biblical term “faith” is best rendered “loyalty.” Patrons will never fail clients who are loyal to them.
Today’s Gospel asks scientifically oriented and technologically proficient Americans where human beings ought to place their faith or loyalty: in themselves or in God?
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