It’s frequently asserted that some of the first apostles were poor simple fisherman. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
We usually make that assumption for two reasons.
- Fisherman in our culture are neither wealthy. nor is rocket science or a PhD required for the trade. We import those ideas back into our reading of the NT. (This is a frequent occurrence when reading the scriptures.)
- Acts 4:13 describes Peter and John as “ignorant and unlearned men.”
Let’s start with #2. This accusation is hyperbolic. Coming from the mouth of “the rulers of the people and the elders of Israel” (Acts 4:8), “ignorant” probably means that they had no theological training in the rabbinic schools. “Unlearned” is better translated as “ordinary” or “laymen.”
#1 is much more interesting. Jerome Murphy O’Connor gave a lecture to us in Jerusalem that he also wrote up as an article for Bible Review, a popular but scholarly journal. I draw most of the following from his article, which I’ve posted here.
Fishing was a major industry at the time of Jesus. From various places in the New Testament, classical, and Jewish sources, we learn the following about the 2 teams of fisherman brothers, Peter and Andrew, and James and John.
- Fishing was a major international business.
- The four brothers had their own prosperous fishing business, owned their own nets and boats, and had multiple employees who worked under them. (This is probably what allowed them to follow Jesus.)
- The brothers changed the city their business was based out of in order to get a tax break (!).
- The brothers probably spoke Aramaic (with a Galillean accent), Hebrew, and Greek, the language of the elite and educated.
- The house of the CEO (Peter) in Capernaum was unusually large. (Mentioned in O’Connor’s article, but taken up in-depth elsewhere.)*See update below.
In other words, borrowing the article summary elsewhere in Bible Review, the first “First Presidency” was not made up of gullible, backwoods ignoramuses. “Rather, they were no-nonsense, relatively prosperous businessmen very much in control of their livesâ€” important characteristics because much of what we know of Jesusâ€™ sayings and acts flows from the testimony of these fishermen.”
As the article points out, this has import for the reliability of their witness (as the Gospels were based directly or indirectly on their oral tradition.)
Perhaps more important for us, we sometimes hear criticism of our church leaders on the basis that they are too worldly, too educated, too businessman-y. (On that note, David O. McKay once said “We can’t run the Church as a business.”) “Why don’t we have simple men proclaiming the gospel like the early apostles?” some ask.
Given the data in O’Connor’s article, I’d submit that our current lineup is much more like the early apostles than we typically think, and God knew what he was doing when he picked them and their talents.
*I found my source for this, BR 8:06 (Nov/Dec. 1982). Seems I was off some. Here’s what it says. “For all intents and purposes, this house as originally built is indistinguishable from all other houses of ancient Capernaum. Its indoor living area is somewhat larger than usual [that's what I remembered], but overall it is about the same size as other houses. Its building materials are the usual ones. It was built with no more sophistication than the others in the region. In short, there is nothing to distinguish this house from its neighbors, except perhaps the events that transpired there and what happened to it later.”