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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Call of the First Disciples (Mt 4:18–22 ǁ Mk 1:16–20 ǁ Lk 5:1–11, cf. Jn 1:35–50 )

1.

Mt 4:18–22 Mk 1:16–20 Lk 5:1–11
18As he walked by the sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. 22But they immediately left the boat and their father and followed him. 16And passing along by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.’ 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As going on a little he saw James son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in the boat mending their nets, 20and immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. 1Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

According to three of the four gospels the first action of Jesus in his ministry is to gather a group of disciples, thus already forming his community. Through the number of the twelve corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel, they will constitute his new Israel. The accounts of Mark and Matthew are closely related. Luke postpones the first call of disciples. He keeps it geographically similar, but integrates it into a tradition placed by Jn 21 after the resurrection. John himself attaches the call of the first disciples to the ministry of the Baptist, thus implying a location by the Jordan.

2.

In Mark's account the stories of the call of the two pairs of disciples are closely similar to each other. The style of the whole incident is significantly Markan and shows that Mark's is the original account: the Markan phrase ‘and immediately’ occurs in vv. 18, 20; Mark's introductory ‘and’ + participle occurs in vv. 16, 18, 19, 20b; the duplication of ‘Simon and Simon's brother’ in v. 16 is typical of Mark's oral style.

By contrast to many biblical calls by the Lord, which begin with some such double vocative and answer as ‘Abraham, Abraham!’—‘Here I am!’, the call of each pair is modelled on the call of Elisha by Elijah in 1 Kings 19:19–21 :

  • 1. The prophet sees the disciple, son of X.

  • 2. The disciple was working at his trade.

  • 3. The prophet calls him.

  • 4. The disciple leaves his trade and family and follows.

The call of the second pair is perhaps marginally more closely modelled on Elisha's call. The second pair leave their father without hesitation, in deliberate contrast to Elisha, who asks permission to take leave of his father. On the other hand, the first pair's desertion of their nets, their means of livelihood, links to Elisha's destruction of his yoke and oxen. Each of these factors underlines the immediacy of their response to the uncompromising call. Even if some preparation for or explanation of the call occurred in fact, Mark deliberately omits any mention of it, and thereby lays more stress on the astounding authority of Jesus. Two other slight touches in the call of the second pair also relate to Elisha's call: ‘and they in the boat’ (v. 10) corresponds to ‘and he with the twelfth (1 Kings 19:19 ). The final ‘followed behind him’ also echoes 1 Kings 19:20 . If the call of the second pair is the original narrative, the call of the first pair is inserted before it because it is fitting that Simon should be called first of all. It is also to the first pair that the function to ‘fish for people’ is given; they are not only disciples but also apostles.

3.

Matthew follows Mark's account very closely, with only minor adjustments, mostly literary. Matthew is a careful teacher, even sometimes pedantic. He superfluously (perhaps fussily) inserts the mention that both pairs were two brothers. With similar meticulousness he tells us, before they leave him, that Zebedee was present, whereas in Mark their leaving Zebedee is the first indication of his presence on the scene. Matthew also adds two theological clarifications. First he explains that Simon ‘is called Peter’. Consonantly with his concern for the community throughout his gospel, Matthew draws attention right from the start to the office which will be his (Mt 16:16–19 ). He frequently stresses Peter's prominence, expecially by use of this title, though significantly he omits it when Peter fails his Master in Gethsemane (Mk 14:37 )! Secondly Matthew mentions explicitly that the second pair leave the boat as well as their father, perhaps to suggest their total renunciation.

4.

The Lukan narrative is basically quite different: it concerns primarily Simon Peter and his apostolate. It is perhaps for this reason that Luke transfers the call till later, when they have already witnessed some of Jesus' teaching and miracles. Simon's partners remain faceless until the last two verses, when their names are awkwardly tacked on with ‘and so also were…’; it is really a bit late to tell us that the sons of Zebedee were his partners when we have already known about his partners for some time!

Some relationship of the story in Lk 5:1–11 to Jn 21 is undeniable, perhaps at the oral level: there is the night-long unsuccessful toil, the word of Jesus leading to the almost breaking net, and finally the authorization of Peter. It is difficult to be sure which was the original setting of the story. Simon's humble confession of his sinfulness fits Jn 21 better, after his triple denial at the time of the passion. Perhaps also the suggestions of the divine (‘Lord’, ‘Do not be afraid’) fit better a resurrection setting, though they do not demand it. Much the same reaction occurs when the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, see J.I. Two typical Lukan touches are the insistence that Peter must confess his sins before he is called to be a disciple (as Zacchaeus repents, and as is stressed in the mass conversions of Acts. Secondly, when they accept the call they leave ‘everything’, a total renunciation often stressed by Luke ( 14:33 ): Levi at his call leaves all ( 5:28 ), and the very rich young ruler is advised to sell everything he has ( 18:23 ).

5.

John's account of the call of the first disciples is significantly different:

  • (a) Again there are two pairs of disciples, to the first pair of whom Simon Peter is attached. The identity of the first disciples is, however, different. The first pair consists of Andrew and an anonymous disciple, the second of Philip and Nathanael. There is no explicit sign of the sons of Zebedee, who feature in Mark's and Matthew's accounts.

  • (b) The location is different. For the first three disciples there is no suggestion of the Lake of Galilee, though Jn 1:44 does note that Philip, Andrew, and Simon were ‘from Bethsaida’ on the shore of the lake, and the call of Philip and Nathanael takes place after Jesus' decision to go to Galilee (Jn 1:43 ). The association of the first pair with the Baptist and his activity ‘in Bethany across the Jordan’ (Jn 1:18 ) suggests a fair distance from the Markan location at the north end of the lake. This suggests that the rapid succession of days (‘the next day’ in Jn 1:29, 35, 43 ) may be an artificial schema, uniting disparate material to form a first week of Jesus' ministry (see JN 1:29–31 ).

  • (c) The theological emphasis is different. Instead of the magisterial call by Jesus the keynote of the first meeting is on the initiative of the disciples themselves in seeking and finding Jesus as teacher, Messiah, king of Israel, and Son of God. To this search Jesus responds by inviting the disciples to stay with him ( 1:38–9 ). On the second occasion the initiative lies with Philip, who leads Nathanael to Jesus.

  • (d) Simon is the third, not the first to become a disciple. However, his special position is indicated by Jesus' imposition of a name, Peter, described much later by Mt 16:16–18 .

5. The most interesting feature of all is that the first two disciples are nudged towards Jesus by John the Baptist. Especially since the discovery of the Qumran literature it has been suggested that Jesus himself was originally a disciple of John, and this strengthens the link between them.

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