I have been posting about the passage in the last chapter of John’s Gospel in which the Risen Jesus meets the disciples at the Sea of Galilee, and suggested that this was the original and most primitive Resurrection appearance story, which long predated stories of an encounter in a Jerusalem garden. That scene also has an interesting echo in another Gospel story, which as it stands does not have a Resurrection context. But arguably, it should have had one.
I am referring to the story of the miraculous draught of fish, which presently appears in Luke 5.1-11, and which has been very frequently represented in visual art. As it stands, this story is a miracle that occurs early in Jesus’s ministry. But if we look at it in more detail, I think we are seeing Luke adapting an earlier Resurrection story, either because he does not understand the context, or else because for whatever reason, he is trying to underplay those Galilee-based traditions. In moving a Resurrection story to the tale of Jesus’s ministry in his lifetime, I suggest that Luke is doing what Matthew did to the passage we now know as the miracle of walking on the water. (Obviously, I am not the first to suggest this! See Rudolf Bultmann).
The Luke story repays careful reading. The general setting is almost exactly that of the John text, as Jesus guides the future disciples to make a spectacularly large haul of fish – plethos ichthyon, using almost the same words in each account. Peter is overwhelmed by the event, and declares in terror, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Jesus then recruits him as a disciple, together with his partners James and John.
But the Luke story has oddities, not least in Peter’s reaction, which seem better to belong to the Resurrection account in John 21. After all, in the Johannine account, Peter at that moment is meeting Jesus for the first time since he denied and betrayed him at the Temple, which would make much greater sense of his confession of sinfulness. In other words, his response is not so much to the fishing miracle, but to the encounter with the risen dead.
When Jesus hears Peter, he responds “Don’t be afraid,” Me phobou, which in Matthew’s resurrection accounts recalls the words used by the angel meeting the women at the tomb, and then by the Risen Jesus himself (Matt. 28.5, 10). In the walking on the water story, Jesus similarly tells his hearers not to be afraid (me phobeisthe). This is the characteristic language of a Resurrection account.
Read in this way, the resemblances between the stories become ever more apparent. Luke’s account ends with Jesus enlisting the disciples to join and follow him. In John’s post Resurrection account, Jesus’s dialogue with Peter ends with his call for the disciple to renew his mission, to “Follow me” – Akolouthei moi … su moi akolouthei.
Lots of other parallels strike, but let me summarize. Both stories occur in Galilee. Both centrally involve Peter, together with other disciples. Both tell of an early morning encounter involving Jesus and a group of fishermen who have had an unsuccessful night’s work. Jesus advises them how to cast their nets, and they draw a vast haul of fish. It is clear in both accounts that this is symbolic of future missions or evangelism. In both, the disciples – led by Peter – have a critical moment of recognition, marked by awe. Peter’s words in Luke make far better sense if this is indeed a Resurrection appearance, rather than receiving Jesus’s canny piece of fishing advice. Both end with calls to follow, to join and lead the new church.
For those reasons, I suggest that this is yet another displaced version of the Resurrection scene that we have already described. And to expand a bit, virtually the same comments can be made about the walking on the water scene, which shows a very similar structure to the texts I have discussed here. In the walking on water episode too, the setting is the Sea of Galilee, and the disciples are aboard ship. That story too gives the time as early morning, and Peter is the star disciple. There too, Jesus tells his followers not to be afraid.
“Walking on water” occurs in all the gospels except (apparently) in Luke. But I think that the story actually does appear in Luke in modified form, as the miraculous draught of fishes.
These examples offer a valuable approach to reading the gospels, and understanding how they were put together. The evangelists know a great many sayings and stories, but what they are lacking is a general framework or narrative. You get a sense of that if you look at something like the Gospel of Thomas, which is not necessarily a very primitive work, but which does give a sense of the way in which early memories were preserved. There is no narrative structure, just a series of sayings united by a common theme of “Jesus said…,” Jesus said….” That is also what the Q gospel would have looked like, The narrative comes later. I would argue that that is the monumental achievement of Mark, in offering the structure that all the others would follow.
Free-floating passages or stories also circulated – what we call pericopes – and writers varied as to how and where they placed them in their narratives. Perhaps they misunderstood what exactly a story was and how it fitted, or else it didn’t suit their purposes to place a story at A rather than B. I have actually suggested elsewhere how one story might have originated as a parable, and become a miracle in the gospels as we have them.
But if I am right, Jesus’s lakeside appearance was such an overwhelmingly powerful memory that it ended up in very similar form in all the gospels, if not necessarily in the right place.
And I dearly wish spellcheck did not keep turning my pericopes into periscopes.