Peter, pragmatic risk-taker businessman

Peter was not an unlettered, brash, egotistical man, as viewed by some Bible scholars. Although not a student of some prominent rabbi, Peter was well educated in the family business – fishing. Fishing was an important and organized part of the economy throughout the Roman Empire and as a first-century Galilean fisherman, Peter was a pragmatic, risk-taking, astute businessman.

As other faithful Jewish men of the day, he was also educated from boyhood in the religious law. An articulate speaker and letter-writer (see his sermons in the book of Acts as well as his Epistles), he was well able to read and write. He was an intelligent man, multilingual by the necessity of dealing with tradesmen of many nations and cultures. Peter was well versed in the business practices of fishing, including record-keeping — required by having to pay multiple taxes, fees and tolls under the Herodian client-kings of Roman rule, also having to pay shares of their catch to his employees and business partners.

Peter’s work week involved buying, selling, trading, marketing, equipping, managing and supervising others in his employ or fishing partnership, as well as the hard work of fishing itself.

Down times due to inclement weather were spent repairing and/or replenishing the fishing nets, boats, oars, sails, rigging, any and all equipment needed for work. Attending the local markets, haggling or bartering for needed materials would be a regular routine.

A native of Bethsaida, a small fishing village on the north edge of Galilee, as a married man Peter lived in the larger port town of Capernaum. He had his own home there where his family lived, including his brother Andrew, his wife’s mother, and perhaps other relatives.

Part of the household duties performed by Peter’s wife and mother-in-law could have included buying materials (flax or flax yarn) to weave fishing nets, then planning with Peter and the other fishermen what kinds and sizes of nets to make. Different types of fish required different fishing techniques, different nets.

Then, they would do the spinning and weaving to create those nets. Fishermen and their families made their nets according to their own needs. Nets made of flax are sturdy and long-lasting, even for hundreds of years with careful tending. Linen for everyday work clothing and ship sails would also be purchased or woven by the women of the household.

A member of a several-family fishing cooperative, Peter was a leader and he led by example. Others followed him. He knew how to plan, make decisions, and carry them out. Making a living was hard work, but he was a hard worker.

He also lived in perilous times, when Roman occupation was causing much turmoil throughout Galilee and Judea. Heavy taxes, tolls, and tribute led to constant unrest. Political, social and religious unrest. People were unhappy with their lot, to say the least. They needed a deliverer.

Faithful to his God, Peter and his family would have taken time off from work to attend major feast days in Jerusalem, where no doubt they heard about John the Baptist. Andrew became one of John’s disciples, until the day John pointed him to Jesus: “The Lamb of God.” After spending a day with Jesus, Andrew was convinced they had found their deliverer. He immediately went to collect Peter.

I’m sure Peter had to think through what it would mean for him to become a disciple of Jesus. He knew the Messiah prophecies. He knew the people needed deliverance from the heavy burdens of Rome. But he was a businessman. What was in it for him? He had a family to feed, employees to supervise. Work to do. It couldn’t have been an easy decision, but when Jesus called, he accepted the commission.

Leaving the business in other hands, Peter left his family and work and changed from being a leader to being a follower.

Things seemed to go well for a time. Peter heard amazing teachings. He saw amazing miracles. He became one of Jesus’ inner circle, a spokesman for the twelve. He affirmed that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. Some left but Peter stayed, renewing his vows of commitment.

But then persecution started. And Jesus was arrested. The deliverer needed deliverance himself. Who better to carry that out than Peter? He couldn’t let Jesus stay in jail. The Messiah had to overthrow Rome and ascend to the Throne of David!

With his own intelligence, boldness and cunning (plus a little help from John to get inside the grounds, see John 18:15-16), Peter would rescue Jesus from the hands of the Sanhedrin and the Romans! At least that was his plan…

But things didn’t go according to that plan. God had a very different plan and no human rescue could be allowed to interfere with God’s plan. You know the rest of the story.

Peter was no coward. No turncoat. No hot-head. Usually one of a team, he planned a one-man (or possibly two-man with the aid of John) rescue mission. It failed because it was supposed to fail. However, in that failure was success beyond Peter’s imagination: not deliverance from Rome, but deliverance from sin.

Sources, among many others:

The Galilean Fishing Economy:

“…the activity of fishing operated as a web of relations within the political and domestic environment of the early first century…”

Fishing was not the ‘free enterprise’ which modern readers of the New Testament may imagine. Even fishers who may have owned their own boats were part of a state regulated, elite-profiting enterprise, and a complex web of economic relationships. These are symptoms of an ’embedded economy.’ That is to say, economies in the ancient Mediterranean were not independent systems with free markets, free trade, stock exchanges, monetization, and the like, as one finds in modern capitalist systems. Rather, only political and kinship systems were explicit social domains; economics and religion were conceptualized, controlled, and sustained either by the political hierarchy or kin-groups.

The largest part of the population was composed of peasant farmers, and the family functioned as both a producing and consuming unit. This means that relatives normally worked together, and that kinship ties were fundamental for guild or trade relations. This local, domestic economy was often in tension with the larger political economy. Galilee of the first century was ruled by Herod Antipas, a Roman client, and was therefore a form of an aristocratic empire. (I.e., the aristocrats ruled locally and paid Rome for the privilege.)

Much of the peasant families’ produce (the so-called “surplus”) was extracted by these aristocratic families in the form of labor, produce, and money by way of tithes, taxes, tolls, rents, tribute, and outright confiscation.

Client-kings (such as the Herodians) paid annual tribute to the emperor of two primary types: on land and on persons. It could be direct – a tribute (tax) collected from the people – or indirect – such as towns or temples built and dedicated to the emperor. Josephus indicated that for Judea, the collecting of Roman tribute was controlled by urban elites, prominent men in the larger cities.

The Romans benefited from their provinces through monopolies. Certain trades and industries were essentially “owned” by Rome and contracted to the workers. In Palestine after the First Judean Revolt (66-70 CE), Rome controlled the balsam trade. In Palmyra the Romans monopolized salt, in Tyre the purple, and in Lebanon lumber; in Egypt, Rome had monopolies over most major industries. The net profits from these industries, consequently, went to the Imperial treasury.

Tax collectors, toll collectors, and brokers intruded into all fishing transactions. That there were at least two “layers” to the bureaucracy is indicated by reference to chief-collectors, viz. “tax and toll administrators.” Fishermen received capitalization (money to get the business started) along with fishing rights, and were therefore in debt to local brokers responsible for the harbors and for fishing leases. The location of Levi’s toll office in Capernaum — an important fishing locale — probably identifies him as just such a contractor of royal fishing rights.

“Collection rights of taxes on the cities were sold, and those that were the principal men of dignity in their several countries bid for them…” – i.e., the right to collect taxes was put out to bid, and the man who would pay Rome the highest percentage of taxes he collected got the job. Taxes were often paid “in kind” rather than in money – a percentage of the produce such as figs, olive oil, or fish.

Roman emperors also profited from indirect taxes of various kinds, including customs fees at ports and roads. Some collectors controlled the roads and bridges. Tolls varied from 2% – 5% depending on produce and were different for people (depended on gender and occupation) and type of animals and conveyances. Import duties were also charged; for instance for bringing processed fish into Palmyra in 137 CE.

Fishing police, like game wardens, ensured that no-one fished in the Sea of Galilee without the proper contracts, or sold their catch to unauthorized middlemen. Failure to pay, or to pay on time, brought harsh penalties, including confiscation of property, even physical assaults on men and/or their families including public torture.

Fishermen could form “cooperatives” (koinônoi) in order to bid for fishing contracts or leases – Peter, Andrew, James and John were part of a cooperative (Luke 5). If there were not a sufficient number of family members in the cooperative, the fishermen had to hire laborers to help with all the responsibilities: manning the oars and sails, mending nets, sorting fish, etc.

For their work, the fishermen needed resources from farmers and artisans, including (but not limited to): flax for nets, cut stone for anchors, wood for boat building and repairs, and baskets for fish. It was a very interconnected economy.

The fishing trade also entailed the processing of fish. Processed fish had become a food staple throughout the Mediterranean, in city and village alike. The result was the development of trade distinctions between those who caught fish, those who processed fish, and those who marketed fish. Fishers and fish-sellers might work cooperatively. The distribution of the catch (who got what) was also controlled by government approved wholesalers. The town of Tarichaeae (“Processed-Fishville”) also known as Magdala was just a few miles south of Capernaum and was the site of a major fish-processing installation. Fish was either salted or processed into fish paste, either of which would last a long time and could be exported throughout the Mediterranean area.

The Social Network Developed from Fishing Villages and Towns in Jesus’ ministry:

Peter/Simon, a fisher from Capernaum (Mark 1:16-20)
Mother-in-law of Peter, from Capernaum (Mark 1:29-31)
Andrew, a fisher at Capernaum (Mark 1:16-20)
James, a fisher at Capernaum (Mark 1:16-20)
John, a fisher at Capernaum (Mark 1:16-20)
Mother of James and John [from Capernaum] (Matt 20:20-23)
Levi, a tax-collector (broker?) at Capernaum (Mark 2:14)
Mary, from Magdala/Tarichaeae (Luke 8:2)
Villagers of Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28)

Definitions and descriptions from multiple sources:

From the ISBE (Bible Encyclopedia): (re fishing in sea of Galilee) (3) With Nets: In the most familiar Bible stories of fisherman life a net was used. Today most of the fishing is done in the same way. These nets are homemade. Frequently one sees the fishermen or members of their families making nets or repairing old ones during the stormy days when fishing is impossible.

Easton’s Bible Dictionary: Among the Hebrews it devolved upon women to prepare the meals for the household (Gen. 18:6; 2 Sam. 13:8), to attend to the work of spinning (Ex. 35:26; Prov. 31:19), and making clothes (1 Sam. 2:19; Prov. 31:21), to bring water from the well (Gen. 24:15; 1 Sam. 9:11), and to care for the flocks (Gen. 29:6; Ex. 2:16).

Among the Hebrews, as apparently among the Canaanites, the spinning and weaving of linen were carried on by the women (Prov 31:13,19), among whom skill in this work was considered highly praiseworthy (Ex 35:25).

Spinning was the work of both men and women in ancient Egypt. The Bible characterizes it as the work of women (Ex 35; Prov 31:19). The same method of spinning is still used by the women of Syria, although imported yarn is largely taking the place of homespun thread.


3 thoughts on “Peter, pragmatic risk-taker businessman

  1. Pingback: Walking on water – what was the point? | Esther's Petition

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