This parable in Thomas is one of my favorites as it mentions fish that can be readily identified and whose identity is significant in determining the author’s hidden intent. In all likelihood, among the crowd listening to Jesus speak, that day, would have been men whose profession was that of fishing in the Sea of Galilee. This, of course, was the body of water in which our fisherman daily plied his trade. They would have immediately known which fish it was that the “man” pulled into his boat. In fact, most of the people listening to Jesus would have probably known this. We, the readers, however, would almost certainly not know this, and that fact needs to be acknowledged. Here is an excerpt from my book:
(8) And he said, “The man is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea filled with small fish. Among them, the wise fisherman found a fine large fish. So, he threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish without difficulty. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.”
The fisherman in this parable is compared to “the man.” The original comparison, however, was probably to “the Kingdom of the Father,” a phrase that introduces five other Thomas parables similar to this one (57, 76, 96, 97, and 98). An ancient editor may have made this change to stress the connection of “the man” in the last saying (7) to the “fisherman” in this one. Nevertheless, that substitution does not seem to have substantially affected the meaning of this parable.
To discover that meaning, we need to recognize the similar wording of two other Thomas parables, the parable of the merchant (76) and the parable of the lost sheep (107). In all three, the one is preferred over the many. The many are rejected, exchanged, or abandoned for the one. Furthermore, in all three parables, this rejection of the many is something that no practical man would ever do. As judged by the world, an absurd choice is made, and yet we are told that the man in each case is either shrewd, loving, or, as in this parable, wise. These resemblances must be taken into account as a first step in understanding this parable.
In the first century CE, as well as now, the typical small fish in the Sea of Galilee was the Kinneret bleak or lavnun (Acanthobrama terraesanctae). This freshwater fish, similar in appearance to the sardine, was caught in vast numbers. It swam near the surface in extensive schools. It was certainly possible for a lone fisherman, using a cast net, to fill his boat with bleak. At that time, the largest fish in the Galilee was the African catfish or sfamnun (Clarias gariepinus). It could grow to more than four feet in length and weigh over a hundred pounds. The problem with the catfish, however, is that it had no scales. As such, it was considered unclean and forbidden for Jews to eat (Leviticus 11:9-12). The suggestion that the large fish of this parable is a worthless catfish adds a second layer of irony to this already ironic story.
The absurdity of tossing a net full of highly marketable bleak back into the sea while keeping the large and worthless catfish is obvious. That this fisherman should be called “wise” raises the level of absurdity to that of a farce. To his fellow fishermen, he would have been thought a fool. And that is precisely the point. In these sayings, Jesus teaches Kingdom awareness, a major theme in this Gospel. The Kingdom is that realm of existence that is, and always will be, considered foolish in the eyes of the world. The world knows profit and loss; it knows responsibility and irresponsibility, and it operates within the dimensions of space and time. However, within the Kingdom of the Father, there is no loss; it recognizes only one responsibility, to the truth, and as spirit, its home is not in space and time but in dimensionless eternity. To the world, this is absurd. The two realms appear in stark contrast to each other. This is so because the Kingdom and the world are mutually exclusive. One represents the oneness and fullness of life, while the other represents separation and mortality. Neither have points in common with the other. From either viewpoint, the other is completely absurd.
In this saying, the “wise fisherman” is a metaphor for the seeker of wisdom who encounters the small and the many. He rejects them. Among them, however, he finds a “fine large fish,” a metaphor for the oneness of the Kingdom. Unlike the things of this world, the Kingdom is not seen by the eyes or heard by the ears but experienced directly by the mind. Its impact there is ineffable and incomparable to anything found in this world. It is nothing less than the awareness that man and God are one. That experience of union with God is also the “treasure” of parables 76 and 109. It is what is sought in sayings 24, 60, 92, 94, and 107. It is what astonishes in saying 2. In contrast, nowhere in Thomas is the world accorded such value.
Commentators have suggested a variety of meanings for this parable. Some say it represents the sorting out of the righteous and the wicked for assignment to heaven or hell. The version in Matthew (13:47-50) indeed endorses this idea. Others, inclined to see Thomas as a Gnostic text, see the fisherman as God. In that role, He singles out for favor the true Gnostic, metaphorically throwing the rest of humanity back into the sea. Still others see the fisherman as essentially a conservationist, returning the small fish to the sea so that they may grow naturally into fine large fish. What all of these interpretations have in common is that they ignore the similarities within Thomas, mentioned above, and instead look outside the text for its meaning. Some commentators have even suggested that the Gospel of Thomas in its entirety has no discernible meaning at all. It is merely a jumble of nonsensical and unrelated ideas. Yet, for those who understand its non-dualistic frame of reference, it comes alive, and its message is fresh and vital.
There are patterns here that cannot be ignored. But to see these patterns, one must have an open mind. The final line of this parable says, “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.” Jesus encourages the reader to look again at this, to look beyond his usual assumptions, to be willing to open his mind to another way of thinking, however strange that may seem at first.
The implications of this parable are quite profound, yet practical. All men and women are fishermen. They all have their nets out to capture what they can of life’s bounty. Mostly what they catch are small and meaningless things—meaningless attachments and meaningless possessions. When they recognize and discard from their minds these small “fish” as meaningless, then, what is truly meaningful comes into view. This is the fine large fish, the Kingdom, which man shares with God and with all of His children. When experienced, the awareness of this Kingdom is so overwhelming that nothing else seems worthy of keeping. The fisherman chooses the larger fish, and, for him, nothing can ever be the same. It is important also to realize that this metaphorical fisherman, who represents the seeker of wisdom, makes his choice “without difficulty.” This means that once the Kingdom is recognized, choosing peace over the many and insignificant things of this world is easy.
i. Goren, Fishelson & Trewavas, 1973, “Acanthobrama telavinensis,” Fish Identification – FishBase, https://www.fishbase.de/summary/Acanthobrama-telavivensis.html
ii. Mendel Nun, “Fish Storms and a Boat,” Jerusalem Perspective, https://www.jerusalemperspective.com/2456/