Men Caught Like Fish

“Titus was the only individual in history that could be said to have fulfilled Jesus’ prophecies concerning the Son of Man.” – Joseph Atwill

“But whenever they persecute  you  in this city, flee to the next; for truly I say to  you,  you  shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes.” (Matthew 10:17-23)

Joseph Atwill is a biblical scholar who believes that the Gospels were a satirical invention of the Romans for the purpose of pacifying the Jews. This sounds harebrained, but as I have written elsewhere (see Jesus’ Caesars), he does have a gut sense of the way the Scriptures speak. He has observed that the conquest of Judea by Titus follows a similar route to the one traced by Jesus in the Gospels one generation earlier. Atwill’s conclusion is back-to-front, but his observation remains profound. If Judea would not accept the true King of the Jews, she would be “ministered to” by a Prince of the Gentiles. Jesus’ ministry ended with the tearing of the Temple Veil. Titus’ campaign ended with the destruction of the entire Temple.

“What time Ierusalem that Cittie faire,
Was sieg’d and sackt by great Vespatians heire”
(Thomas Dekker, Canaans Calamitie, Ierusalems Misery)

What follows is an excerpt from Atwill’s book, Caesar’s Messiah, which includes the kind of chart you might be used to finding around here.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Fishers of Men: Men Who Were Caught Like Fish

To begin to explain the relationship between Jesus’ ministry and Titus’ campaign that my analysis indicates is a satire, I point to the following passages.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is described at the onset of his ministry asking Simon and Andrew and the “sons of Zeb’edee” to “follow me” and to become “fishers of men.”

From that time Jesus began to preach. “Repent,” He said, “for the Kingdom of the Heavens is now close at hand.” And walking along the shore of the Lake of Galilee He saw two brothers—Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew throwing a drag-net into the Lake; for they were fishers. And He said to them, “Come and follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:18-19)

The same story is represented in the Gospel of Luke as follows:

While the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennes’aret. And so also were James and John, sons of Zeb’edee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” (Luke 5:9-10)

In another passage from the New Testament, Jesus foresees that cities on Gennesareth Lake (better known as the Sea of Galilee) will face tribulation for their wickedness.

Woe to you Chorazain! Woe to you Bethsaida! And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades. (Matthew 11:23)

In War of the Jews, Josephus describes a sea battle where the Romans caught Jews like fish. The battle occurred at Gennesareth, where Titus attacked a band of Jewish rebels led by a leader named Jesus.

This lake is called by the people of the country the Lake of Gennesareth . . . they had a great number of ships . . . and they were so fitted up, that they might undertake a Seafight. But as the Romans were building a wall about their camp, Jesus and his party . . . made a sally upon them. . . .

Sometimes the Romans leaped into their ships, with swords in their hands, and slew them; but when some of them met the vessels, the Romans caught them by the middle, and destroyed at once their ships and themselves who were taken in them. And for such as were drowning in the sea, if they lifted their heads up above the water, they were either killed by darts, or caught by the vessels; but if, in the desperate case they were in, they attempted to swim to their enemies, the Romans cut off either their heads or their hands . . . [1]

A first-century peasant who heard Jesus’ doomsday prophecy, which describes what would become of the inhabitants of the cities on Gennesareth Lake, and also heard the passage above from War of the Jews, which describes their destruction, would have understood the juxtaposition as evidence of Christ’s divinity. What Jesus had prophesied, Josephus recorded as having come to pass.

But an uneducated peasant could not have understood that there was another “prophecy” that came to pass within the passages above. I am referring to Christ’s exhortation to become “fishers”or “catchers” of men, while standing on the spot where Jews would be caught like fish during the coming war with Rome.

However, any patricians who knew the details of the sea battle at Gennesareth would have seen the irony in a Messiah who was named “Savior” inventing the phrase “fishers of men” while standing on the beach where the Jews were caught like fish. The grim comedy is self-evident.

These two “fulfilled” prophecies exemplify the two levels on which the New Testament can be understood. Jesus’ prophecy regarding the destruction of Chorazain and Capernaum is completely straightforward and meant to be understood literally.

The other “fulfilled” prophecy that of Jesus’ prediction that his followers would become fishers for men, is not so straightforward. It could be understood only by someone who, like the residents of the Flavian court, had knowledge of the details of the sea battle between the Romans and the Jewish fishermen at Gennesareth. Only such individuals could have seen the prophetic irony in Jesus using the expression while standing on the very beach where the Jews would later be caught like fish.

If the authors of the Gospels were being less than transparent when they referred to the Jewish rebels as fish, they were at least using a metaphor common in the first century. For example, Rabban (chief Rabbi) Gamaliel spoke of his disciples through a parable in which they were compared to four different kinds of fish—an unclean fish, a clean fish, a fish from the river Jordan, and a fish from the sea. Roman authors also used the metaphor. Juvenal, a contemporary Roman poet, specifically compares fugitive slaves and informers to fish. [2]

The structure of the comedy is important. Jesus speaks of “catching men” in a seemingly symbolic sense. Josephus then records that Jesus was indeed a “true” prophet. His vision of “catching men” at Gennesareth did come to pass, the joke being that it came to pass literally, and not in the symbolic manner that Jesus seemed to have meant with the phrase. This is the most common structure of the humor created by reading the New Testament in conjunction with War of the Jews.

If the New Testament and War of the Jews engage in an interactive comedy regarding “fishing” for men at Gennesareth, they also work to create another “fish” joke. As mentioned above, in Matthew 11:23 Jesus predicted “woe” for “Chorazain.”

Scholars have always presumed that Jesus was referring to a Galilean fishing village. Josephus, however, gave a different definition of the word “Chorazain.”

The country also that lies over against this lake hath the same name of Gennesareth . . . Some have thought it to be a vein of the Nile, because it produces the Coracin fish as well as the lake does which is near to Alexandria. [3]

So, while at the Sea of Galilee Jesus predicted woe for the Chorazain, and said that henceforth his disciples would follow him and become fishers for men. Titus’ experience was strangely parallel to Jesus’ prophecies in that he literally brought woe for the Chorazainians and his soldiers literally followed him and became “fishers of men.” That is, they fished for the inhabitants of the village named for the Coracin fish. If the irony of juxtaposing the onset of Jesus’ ministry and Titus’ campaign was created deliberately, it apparently stemmed from the fact that Titus saw the humor in his “fishing” for the Chorazainians as they attempted to swim to safety.

The previous examples, in and of themselves, are not convincing evidence that there is a deliberate parallel between Jesus’ ministry and Titus’ campaign. It is, after all, quite possible that it was just an unfortunate coincidence that Jesus chose the beach at Gennesareth as the spot where he described his future ministry as fishing for men. I present this example of the two levels of interpretation that are possible while reading the New Testament in conjunction with War of the Jews, because it occurs near the beginning of both Jesus’ and Titus’ narratives. I show below that the sequence of events that take place in the New Testament and War of the Jews have a meaning not heretofore understood.

However, the parallels that exist between the experiences of Jesus and Titus at Gennesareth are not limited to catching men. The first part of Jesus’ statement is “Follow me” and “Do not be afraid.” When one reads the passage from Josephus in which the Jews were “caught” it is also recorded that the soldiers who did the “catching” were told not to be afraid and indeed “followed” someone. As the next excerpts show, the person being followed was Titus, who told his troops not to be afraid.

“For you know very well that I go into danger first, and make the first attack upon the enemy. Do not you therefore desert me, but persuade yourselves that God will be assisting to my onset.” [4]

And now Titus made his own horse march first against the enemy. [5]

As soon as ever Titus had said this he leaped upon his horse and rode apace down to the lake; by which lake he marched and entered the city the first of them all, as did the others soon after him. [6]

Thus, Josephus pointed out three times that Titus was the first into battle. And again, the Roman soldiers who would do the “fishing” literally followed Titus, creating another conceptual parallel with Jesus.

In fact, the New Testament passage above, in which Jesus asks his disciples “follow me,” and the passage from Josephus in which Titus asks his troops to follow, so that they can become fishers of men, have a number of other parallels.

Like Jesus, Titus had been sent by his father.

So he sent away his son Titus to Casarea, that he might bring the army that lay there to Scythopolis. [7]

While it is hardly unusual to follow a leader into battle or to have been sent by one’s father, Titus, again like Jesus at Gennesareth, is in a sense beginning his ministry there. He states that the battle is to be his “onset.”

“Do not you therefore desert me, but persuade yourselves that God will be assisting to my onset.” [8]

The Greek word that Josephus uses here, horme, means “onset” in English, that is, either an assault or a starting point. From Titus’ perspective the moment can be seen as a starting point because it is his first battle in Galilee entirely under his command.

To summarize, though there were thousands of other possible locations, both Jesus and Titus can be said to have had the onset of their narratives at Gennesareth, and in a manner that involved fishing for men—parallels that are unusual enough to at least permit questioning whether they were the product of coincidence. Further, the parallels are of the same nature as the typological relationship shown above between Jesus and Moses. The connections between Jesus and Titus are made up of parallel concepts, locations, and sequences.

Moreover, these parallels must be viewed in conjunction with the historical parallels between Jesus and Titus. Jesus predicted that a Son of Man would come to Judea before the generation that crucified him had passed away, encircle Jerusalem with a wall, and then destroy the temple, not leaving one stone atop another. Titus was the only individual in history that could be said to have fulfilled Jesus’ prophecies concerning the Son of Man. He came to Jerusalem before the generation that crucified Christ had passed away, encircled Jerusalem with a wall, and had the temple demolished.

The overlaps between Jesus’ prophecies and Titus’ accomplishments make the “fishers of men” parallel more difficult to accept as random. And this is just the beginning of the uncanny parallels between the two men who called themselves the “son of God” and whose “ministries” began in Galilee and end in Jerusalem.


Start of a campaign
(War 3, 10, 2)
describes this battle as the “onset” of his sole command of the army this is the start of the ministry of Jesus
Sent by his father “he sent away his son Titus to Caesarea” (War 3, 9, 7) sent by his father in heaven
His followers followed “entered the city the first of them all, and the others soon after him” (War 3, 10,5) “brought their boat to shore and followed him” (Luke 5:10)
Reassures troops not to be afraid “you know very well that I go into danger first, do not therefore desert me” (War 3, 10, 2) “Do not be afraid” (Luke 5:10)
Reference to Chorazain “it produces the Coracin fish” (War 3, 10,8) “Woe to you Chorazain” (prophecy in Matt. 11:23)
Presence of a Jesus Jesus is the leader of the rebels at the Sea of Galilee another Jesus is the leader of disciples at the Sea of Galilee
Fishing for men the Jews fall out of their boats “such as were drowning in the sea . . . attempted to swim to their enemies, the Romans cut off either their heads or their hands” (War 3, 10, 8, clause 527) “I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19)

1. Josephus, War III, x
2. Juvenal, The Sixteen Satires, 4
3. Josephus, War III, x
4. Josephus, War III, x
5. Josephus, War III, x
6. Josephus, War III, x
7. Josephus, War III, ix
8. Josephus, War III, x

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