A Fish Story:  Mother Jesus Serves Breakfast—John 21:1-14

Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 46

by Reta Halteman Finger

Fishermen in the Sea of Galilee
Present-day fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Photo by Reta Finger, May 2011

This Gospel is a narrative with two endings. We encountered the first epilogue in chapter 20, but now our author recalls one more story that must not be forgotten. It just didn’t fit anywhere else. The first part, John 21:1-14, is about fish and fishing; the second part, to be discussed next time, is about sheep and shepherding.

Although the ultimate goal of this chapter is to prepare Peter for ministry, this cannot happen without Jesus again descending to physically share a meal with him and some of his co-disciples. In the Synoptic Gospels, Peter emerges as the leader; but in John’s Gospel, the Beloved Disciple (whom we’ll refer to as the B.D.) outshines Peter in both faithfulness and insight. At crucial times, Peter has failed Jesus. Only the risen Lord has the authority to rehabilitate him.

No fish story without a boat

In 1986, a drought in northern Israel caused the water level in the Sea of Galilee to drop far enough for two brothers, amateur archaeologists from a nearby kibbutz, to discover the remains of an ancient boat preserved in the mud. It was carefully raised, amid much excitement. It had probably been sunk at a point when it was beyond repair, since it was composed of ten different wood types and had gone through repeated fixes. The boat’s flat bottom design allowed it to get close to the shore while fishing.

Pottery and radiocarbon dating put the age of the boat between 50 BCE and 50 CE, thus covering the dates of Jesus’s life. Though not directly connected to Jesus, this is the type of boat he and his disciples would have used. This particular boat would have been large enough to hold the seven disciples of John 21:2.

At loose ends

After remaining in Jerusalem for at least a week after Jesus’s resurrection, the disciples apparently dispersed to their homes, perhaps uncertain what to do next. So Peter and the “sons of Zebedee” (James and John) revert to their former occupation, bringing along four other comrades: Thomas, Nathaniel of Cana (John 1:45-51), and two other disciples, one of whom must be the B.D. They go fishing, staying out all night. But it’s a bust (v 3).

Sea Of Galilee Boat
The ‘Sea of Galilee Boat’ housed in the Yigal Alon Museum in Kibbutz Ginosar.
“Ginosar BW 6” by Berthold Werner – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fish as taxable luxury

If we thought about it at all, we probably imagined local Galilean fishermen catching fish in the lake and selling them in the market. Not so fast! In those days, protein-rich fish was a luxury item. According to Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh’s social-science commentary on John, people leased their rights to fish from toll collectors like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), who demanded up to 40 percent of the catch. Then they traded the rest of the catch to middlemen who also took a big cut before fish ever reached the market. How discouraging it was to work all night and make nothing—especially since their itinerant lifestyle with Jesus had surely caused hardship for their families back home.

Readers have often puzzled over the 153 fish that were caught that morning—is it a symbolic number? If so, it’s pretty obscure. Maybe they were just counting to see how many fish they’d have to forfeit to the toll collector.

An unforgettable breakfast

At dawn, Jesus stands on the beach, but the boat is too far away for the disciples to see who it is. But when he calls them “children” and tells them where to cast their net for a huge haul, the B.D. figures it out in a hurry: “It is the Lord!” (vv 5-7). So ever-impulsive Peter jumps into the sea and heads for shore. But why put on clothes (v 7), when people today would strip them off to swim? Slaves and manual laborers were expected to wear only a loincloth when working (see John 13:4), but for the sake of honor, no respectable man would approach another man “naked”—that is, without his more formal robe. Peter may arrive dripping wet, but he will do so honorably!

By the time everyone arrives, Jesus is making breakfast, just as he did back in John 6 when he fed 5000 people. Like an ordinary housewife, he fries flatbread and cooks some of the fish they had just caught. I can see the disciples standing around awkwardly, unused to helping with women’s work, and not knowing what to say (v 12). They know it is “the Lord,” but how does one converse with a post-dead friend? (Are your wounds healing? How did you get out of the tomb and where did you find clothes to wear? Where do you go when you’re not with us?) If the B.D. is indeed Lazarus, can he contribute a few resuscitation insights? We’ll never know!

Just as he’s done in the past, Mother Jesus “takes the bread and gives it to them, and does the same with the fish” (v 13). Yes, it is the same Jesus as before—like a mother serving and eating breakfast with her children.

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1.  Pretend you are the other unnamed disciple in 21:2. Describe your emotions working all night and then eating breakfast with the risen Jesus. What would you like to ask him?

2.  Compare John 21:1-14 with Luke 5:1-10—another miraculous catch of fish. How are the two stories different and how are they similar?

3.  In 21:2, the “sons of Zebedee” are only mentioned here in this Gospel but never named. How likely is it that one of them, John, wrote it?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.