There were together: Simon Peter and Thomas, who is called Didymus, and Nathanael, who was of Cana of Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter saith to them: I go a fishing. They say to him: We also come with thee.
It is astonishing how popular an errant interpretation of a biblical passage can become. Said by some priest somewhere, it will be picked up by many more and soon becomes the standard interpretation of a given text. Such is the case with John 21:2-3, when St. Peter and the other Apostles return to the practice of fishing after our Lord’s Resurrection. Although many a Catholic heard last weekend that Peter and the others were “backsliding” by returning to fishing, the Catholic read of this Gospel has always maintained that the Apostles not only did not sin, but in fact are praiseworthy in their fishing trip.
Considering first the commentatorial tradition of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, we will then look to the Gospel text itself and see that St Peter and the other Apostles did nothing wrong when they went fishing perhaps two weeks after our Lord had risen from the dead.
The Common Misinterpretation of the Passage
St. Peter and the other Apostles are commonly blamed for returning to the practice of fishing after our Lord’s Resurrection: As though this were a relapse to their old way of life, a return to their “pre-conversion” days. While Jesus had once commanded Peter to catch the fish so as to pay the tribute – Go to the sea, and cast in a hook: and that fish which shall first come up, take (Matthew 17:26) – the Apostles do not seem to have been generally distracted with the business of fishing during the roughly one year and an half in which they accompanied the Lord in his public ministry.
Furthermore, as the common interpretation goes, our Savior had explicitly told Peter that he would no more catch fish but would be only a fisher of men when he stated, Come ye after me, and I will make you to be fishers of men (Matthew 4:19) or again, Fear not: from henceforth thou shalt catch men (Luke 5:10).
Therefore, it would seem that St. Peter and the other Apostles sinned by relapsing to their former ways when they went fishing at the Sea of Galilee after our Lord had risen from the dead. Rather, they should have been “fishing for men” through preaching the Gospel to all peoples.
This, however, is radically contrary to the way that all the great saints and theologians have interpreted the passage.
The Commentary of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church
Following the Fathers of the Church, and notably St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, and Pope St. Gregory the Great (indeed, all the Fathers who comment on this passage agree), we make the following points:
1) The Lord did not remain always with his Apostles after his Resurrection, but only appeared at certain times and moments. Therefore, the Apostles were not neglecting the Risen Christ when they went fishing.
2) The Apostles had not yet received the Great Commission, Go therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost (Matthew 18:19). Rather, they had been told by the women that Jesus said, Fear not. Go, tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, there they shall see me (Matthew 18:10). In other words, it was the express command of the Lord that they should return to Galilee rather than go out to the ends of the earth.
3) Fishing is not a sinful occupation, but is a valid means of supporting oneself and earning one’s bread. In a time of necessity, there was no sin that St. Peter and the others should fish so as not to starve, even as St Paul supported himself in his missionary travels by making tents.
4) Finally, it is indeed most praiseworthy that the Apostles should have supported themselves through the labor of their own hands, as there were at that time no great number of believers to support them and they should not have burdened the few women who knew of the risen Lord by requiring these few to support and care for the eleven as well as for the other disciples who awaited Jesus’ appearing.
[the quotations for these points from the Fathers is found below]
The Gospel Text Itself
Considering the passage from St. John’s Gospel as a whole, it is clear that the Apostles did nothing wrong in returning to the practice of fishing.
1) Unlike many other post-Resurrection scenes, when Jesus appears he does not in any way chastise the Apostles or rebuke them for their lack of faith. How striking this is! Nearly every other time that Jesus appears to the Apostles after the Resurrection, they are explicitly said to be of little faith or slow to believe – but, here, nothing! No reprimand is given.
2) When the Lord does appear, he does not demand that the Apostles cease their labor, but rather tells them to continue fishing (only on the right side of the boat). If the fishing were sinful, Jesus would not have commanded St. Peter and the others to continue.
3) Furthermore, the efforts of the Apostles are blessed with a miraculous catch of 153 fish [for more on the significance of that number click (here)]. Clearly, the fishing of the Apostles has been approved by the Lord through this great miracle – sinful activities are not confirmed by miracles.
Conclusion – St. Peter and the Apostles went back to the beginning, to find Jesus
St. Peter followed the command of the risen Lord to return to Galilee and to wait there for an apparition. When the Prince of the Apostles reached the place where he had been called to follow Christ, he returned to the practice in which he had heard that vocation. Having been called from the fishing boat, and since the employment of fishing is itself a good and praiseworthy task especially given the necessity of supporting himself and the other disciples who were waiting for Jesus, St. Peter again returns to fishing knowing that the Lord will come to him on the sea-shores even as he had before.
Those who have had the privilege of making a pilgrimage to Galilee will likely have noticed that the church which commemorates the miraculous catch of fish is located very near the only major inlet to the sea. It is suspected that this inlet was the common place where fishermen of that region would wash their nets (since running water greatly facilitated this project). Therefore, it is no stretch of the imagination to suppose that this place where St. Peter had returned to fish was the very place in which Jesus had called him while he was cleaning his nets and established him as a “fisher of men” (cf. Luke 5:1-11).
In other words, St. Peter is not backsliding or relapsing in this passage, rather he is returning to the place where he had received his call as an Apostle! He is going back to the beginning, back to Galilee, back to where he had once met Jesus (though, of course, he had first come to know the Lord even earlier while a disciple of St. John the Baptist). Having returned to the beginning, St. Peter did see Jesus, just as the Lord had told him he would.
Consider the following quotations of various Fathers of the Church, as recorded in the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas:
St. John Chrysostom: “As our Lord was not with them regularly, and the Spirit was as not given them, and they had received no commission, and had nothing to do, they followed the trade of fishermen.”
Pope St. Gregory the Great: “It may be asked, why Peter, who was a fisherman before his conversion, returned to fishing, when it is said, No man putting his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. […] The craft which was exercised without sin before conversion, was no sin after it. Wherefore after his conversion Peter returned to fishing; but Matthew sat not down again for the receipt? of custom. For there are some businesses which cannot or it can hardly be carried on without sin; and these cannot be returned to after conversion.”
St. Augustine: “If the disciples had done this after the death of Jesus, and before His resurrection, we should have imagined that they did it in despair. But now after that He has risen from the grave, after seeing the marks of His wounds, after receiving, by means of His breathing, the Holy Ghost, all at once they become what they were before, fishers, not of men, but of fishes. We must remember then that they were not forbidden by their Apostleship from earning their livelihood by a lawful craft, provided they had no other means of living.”
Father Cornelius a Lapide references the tradition in his commentary on this verse: “Different writers give different reasons for this fishing. S. Chrysostom says, “Because the Lord was not always with them, neither had any (ministry) been committed to them, they employed themselves in fishing.” S. Gregory (Hom. 24.) says, “An employment which was without sin before their conversion was blameless after their conversion. Therefore Peter returned to his fishing, but Matthew did not return to his receipt of custom. For there are many employments which it is impossible, or scarcely possible, to follow without sin. To such a man must not return after he is converted.” Let us add, that this fishing took place before Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Ghost, by whom they were bidden to preach the Gospel. Wherefore, because the Apostles had nothing to occupy them at this time in the way of preaching, and they were at once poor and fishermen, they properly went back to their fishing, in order to supply themselves with sustenance. But after the advent of the Holy Spirit we do not read that they employed themselves in fishing, for they were wholly occupied in preaching the Gospel, and in guiding the faithful in the way of all perfection. Whilst the faithful, being studious of evangelical poverty, brought all their property to the feet of the Apostles, that they might distribute it amongst themselves and the rest of the believers. At any time, however, of necessity or want, they might lawfully have returned to their fishing, just as Paul returned to his tent-making, that he might not be burdensome to others for his livelihood. For this indeed is a matter of greater perfection, and therefore an evangelical counsel, that one should preach the Gospel free of charge (to the hearers), and provide for his own sustenance by the labour of his hands.”