St. Peter’s Fish

VISITING a restaurant alongside the Sea of Galilee in Israel, you may become curious upon seeing “St. Peter’s fish” on the menu. The waiter may tell you that it is one of the most popular dishes, especially among tourists. 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.

What Fish Did Peter Catch?

Well, musht is the fish that is commonly accepted as “St. Peter’s fish,” and it is served as such in restaurants near the Sea of Galilee. Having relatively few small bones, it is rather easy to prepare and eat. But is it really the fish that Peter caught?

Mendel Nun, a fisherman who has lived on the shore of the Sea of Galilee for over 50 years, is a highly respected authority on local fish. He points out: “Musht feeds on plankton and is not attracted by other food. It is therefore caught with nets, and not with hook and line.” So it is an unlikely candidate. An even less likely candidate is the sardine, since it is too small to qualify as St. Peter’s fish.

That narrows the field down to the barbel, which some consider the better choice for the “St. Peter’s fish” label. Nun noted: “Fishermen on the [Sea of Galilee] have, since time immemorial, used a hook baited with sardine to fish for barbels, which are predators and bottom feeders.” He concludes that “Peter almost surely caught a barbel.”

Why, then, is musht served as “St. Peter’s fish”? Nun answers: “There can be only one explanation for the confusing change of name. It was good for tourism! . . . As pilgrims began to come from distant regions, it no doubt seemed good for business to give the name ‘St. Peter’s fish’ to the musht being served by the early lakeside eating houses. The most popular and easily prepared fish acquired the most marketable name!”

While we cannot state with absolute certainty what fish it was that Peter caught, whatever fish you are served as “St. Peter’s fish” will most likely prove to be a very delicious dish.

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“Musht”

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Barbel

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Garo Nalbandian