St. Peter’s Fish
At a restaurant alongside the Sea of Galilee in Israel, we were treated to “St. Peter’s fish.” It is delicious when freshly fried.
But why is it linked to the apostle Peter?
An event described in the Bible at Matthew 17:24-27 provides the answer. There we learn that Peter, while visiting the town of Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee, was asked if Jesus paid the temple tax. Later Jesus explained that he, as God’s Son, had no obligation to pay such tax. But in order to avoid stumbling others, he had Peter go to the sea, cast a fishhook, take the first fish coming up, and pay the tax with the coin found in its mouth.
The appellation “St. Peter’s fish” is drawn from this incident recorded in the Bible. But what sort of fish did Peter catch?
A Sea Rich in Fish
It is thought that of the nearly 20 species of fish in the Sea of Galilee, only about 10 could possibly be the sort that Peter caught. These ten are divided into three commercially important groups.
The largest group is called musht, which means “comb” in Arabic, because its five species display a comblike dorsal fin. One variety of musht reaches a length of about a foot and a half [45 cm] and weighs some four and a half pounds [2 kg].
The second group is the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) sardine, which resembles a small herring. At the height of the sardine season, many tons are caught every night, amounting to some one thousand tons a year. From ancient times this sardine has been preserved by pickling.
The third group is the biny, also known as barbel. Its three species display barbs at the corners of the mouth, hence its Semitic name biny, meaning “hair.” It feeds on mollusks, snails, and small fish. The long-headed barbel reaches a length of some 30 inches [75 cm] and weighs over 15 pounds [7 kg]. Barbels are a well-fleshed fish, and they are a popular dish for Jewish Sabbaths and feasts.
Not included in the three commercially important groups is the catfish, the largest fish in the Sea of Galilee. It measures up to four feet [1.20 m] and weighs some 25 pounds [11 kg]. But the catfish has no scales, so it was unclean according to the Mosaic Law. (Leviticus 11:9-12) Therefore, it is not eaten by Jews, and it may not be the type of fish that Peter caught.