Catholics for a Changing Church

St. John, the High Priest, and the fish.

by Ann Lardeur, B.D., M.Th.

“The Jesus Boat” 1st century AD, discovered in 1986 Photo Wikipedia

Amid the drama of the Passion of Our Lord, a small detail in St. John’s account, read each Good Friday, an intriguing detail slips by unnoticed. He tells us when Jesus is taken into the palace of the High Priest, Caiaphas, “Simon Peter, followed Jesus, with another disciple, followed Jesus. This disciple, who was known to the high priest, went with Jesus, into the high priest’s palace but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the High Priest, went out and spoke to the woman who was keeping the door, and brought Peter in.” John 18:15 &16

“The other disciple” is John. He never names himself but his prominence and closeness to Jesus is very clear in the Synoptic Gospels., e.g. at the Transfiguration and at Gethsemane along with Peter and James.

How could John, a Galilean fisherman, not only know the maid on the door, be known to the High Priest? The answer lies in the important part played by the fishing business centred in the towns along the Sea of Galilee. In the gospels it is the background to the call of the disciples and in Jesus’ interaction with various people and of course the multiplication of the loaves and fish.

There are hints to size of the fisheries. Zebedee had employees. They worked as a co-operative; other boats were called in to help with “the miraculous draft of fishes” (Luke 5:1-11)

After the miracle of the loaves and the fish in Mark 8:10 Jesus sends the crowd away, gets into the boat with his disciples and goes to the region of Dalmanutha.

In some manuscripts of Mark 8:10 the town is referred to as Mageda or even Dalmanutha, but it’s proper name is Magdala (מגדלא ), which is simply the Aramaic word for “tower”. This may refer to a “fish tower,” a structure used to air-dry fish before they were transported to distant marketplaces as far away as Greece and Rome.

In the hot climate fresh fish did not travel well. It is roughly 90 miles to Jerusalem so with loaded donkeys and overnight stops the journey could take several days. Instead fish were dried and salted. People were needed to be in charge of deliveries and take back orders. If John is fulfilling this role he would certainly been known at the entrance and the High Priest would be eating fish caught by Jesus’ disciples.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, born in AD 37 in Jerusalem, refers Magdala’s reputation for fish-curing, calling it Magdala Taricheae ( Magdala of the fish salters). It had a population of around 40,000 and a fleet of 230 fishing boats. He does not record the other fishing towns.

The final reference to fishing is John’s Gospel is Chapter 21. Peter says he is going fishing, the others followed. They catch nothing all night. In the light of dawn they see Jesus, who tells them to throw the net to starboard; the result is the miraculous haul of 153 large fish. There are various interpretations as to the significance of that number. I personally prefer the fact that it is a triangular number symbolising the Trinity. Imagine them laid out like the frame of balls at the start of a game of snooker.