The miracle of the fish with the coin in its mouth

Alfonso Sanchez Lamadrid and Rafael Sanz analyze the episode of the Temple tax, recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.

Alfonso Sánchez Lamadrid Rey and Rafael Sanz Carrera-March 13, 2022-Reading time: 7 minutes
miracle fish


Matthew is the only evangelist to narrate three very important events in the life of St. Peter: his walking on the waters (14:28-31); the solemn promise that Jesus makes to him to be the foundation of his future Church (16:17-19); and the episode of the Temple tax (17:24-27) that we are studying here. In this way Matthew wants to emphasize the relevant and symbolic role that Peter has for the Church and in this framework we analyze it.

Jesus Christ shows dominion over the fish in this miracle in which Peter catches a fish with the coin in its mouth as the Lord had predicted. This miracle is an image of the redemptive mission of the life of Jesus, who gives himself - like the coin in the fish - for our salvific ransom.

S. Matthew narrates it as follows: 

"When they arrived in Capernaum, those who were collecting the tax of the two drachmas came to Peter and asked him, "Does your Master not pay the two drachmas?" He replied, "Yes." When he got home, Jesus went ahead to ask him, "What do you think, Simon? The kings of the world, on whom do they levy taxes and duties, on their children or on strangers?" He answered, "On strangers." Jesus said to him, "Then the children are exempt. However, so as not to give them a bad example, go to the sea, cast a hook, catch the first fish that bites, open its mouth, and you will find a silver coin. Take it and pay them for me and for you" (Mt 17:24-27).

With this article we intend to explain a plausible hypothesis of how this miracle occurred and other details such as the tax to be paid, the gear used to catch the fish, the species of fish caught and the coin the fish may have had in its mouth, as well as to offer a theological explanation of the miracle.

Coins in Israel at the time of Jesus

At the time of Jesus there were at least three types of coins, weights and measures. Regarding the coins we would have:

Coins Romans of the empire that dominated at that time in Palestine. Among them were: the denarius, the quadrant, the assarion, etc.

Coins Greek which remained active after the Hellenistic period, and would be adopted by the Romans. Precisely these coins are referred to in the original Greek text of Matthew: δίδραχμα (v.24; didragma = 2 dragmas) and στατῆρα (v.27; stater = 4 drachmas or 1 tetradrachma). 

And finally, there were also older coins that had been traditionally used in the past. beansAmong them were the shekel - the main currency of the Temple of Jerusalem - and the shekel, geras and bekam. This explains the existence of the money changers in the Temple, to adjust the various currencies to the various fractions of shekels or other Temple currencies. 

The coin that Jesus tells Peter that he will find in the mouth of the fish he will catch is most probably a stater (Fig. 1). Although there were several mints of that coin, it is most likely that the stater referred to in Matthew's original text was a stater or tetradrachm of Tyre, since it was the most common silver coin of that value. The tetradrachm has the exact value of the tax that had to be paid for two adults, as Jesus Christ had indicated that Peter should do with the coin he found in the mouth of the fish. Other authors think that it could also be a tetradrachm of Antioch, although it was used much less.

Fig. 1 Silver stater

Hook fishing in Jesus' time

The place where the fish was caught was probably near the house of St. Peter in Capernaum, the foundations of which were discovered during excavations in the last century. Archaeological remains of nets and hooks from that time were found in this house. The date of the miracle is difficult to determine, since Matthew seems to organize his Gospel more didactically than chronologically. 

Hook and line fishing is very ancient and was already used by the coastal peoples of the Mediterranean and Israel centuries before the birth of Jesus. In a more recent period, at the beginning of the 20th century, a hook-and-line fishing system used at that time in Lake Galilee has been described. A line with a weight and an unbaited hook is attached to the end of a rod and cast into the water in the middle of a school of fish and quickly withdrawn, sometime hooking a fish on the hook. This is known as "stealing a fish". 

From the legal point of view, fishing with hooks was free and permitted to all the tribes of Israel.

The species of fish caught by St. Peter

Traditionally, it has been known as the musht, Sarotherodon galilaeuThis fish is reproduced in a way that may explain the presence of the coin in the mouth. The musht has an annual cycle with two distinct seasons, one dedicated to feeding and the other to reproduction. During the first, they gather in shoals in the winter months and early spring in the northern part of the lake for feeding reasons: near Taghba, warm water streams flow into the lake where food grows easily and attracts fish, especially tilapia and lake sardines. These fish eat the plankton that is produced more abundantly in this area of the lake. In the breeding season, breeding pairs disperse. This occurs by external fertilization of the eggs in a hole made in a rocky area and once hatched the fry are defended by the parents. As soon as they hatch, one of the parents takes care of them, using its mouth as a shelter, and the pair is broken up. At the moment of independence, the father or mother expels the juveniles from the mouth by rubbing stones taken from the bottom into the mouth. In some cases, coins have also been found that had fallen to the bottom when fishing for them. 

Fig. 2 Sarotherodon galilaeus. Common name musht or St. Peter's fish.

For Mastermann, the technique of stealing the fish is the one Peter used to catch the fish on this occasion, catching a musht. Num, however, opposes this idea, arguing that the method of stealing a fish seems unsuitable for a professional fisherman like Pedro and that, since the musht is planktivorous and does not bite on the hook, the fish caught must have been a barbel, a very abundant species in the lake, predatory and bottom-feeding. For us, Peter, a skilled fisherman, could have caught a fish with this rather intuitive system. 

Theology of the miracle

Having made these preliminary clarifications, we move on to the exegetical analysis of the text to discover its theological background.

A superficial reading could make us think that Jesus is questioning his payment of the Temple tax, but this is not so. Jesus, far from being hostile to the Temple, wanted to pay this tax together with Peter. So what is Jesus wanting to clarify by saying that "the children are exempt"? What he is doing is to put the Temple tax in its true religious dimension, as we explain below.

Although the word "Temple" does not appear in this episode (it appears only "didragma", v. 24), it certainly refers to the Temple tax that was inaugurated by God's indication to Moses, who led the people of Israel through the wilderness to the Promised Land for forty years. They decided to take a census of the people who might not please God. Each would give a ransom of six ounces of silver so that nothing bad would happen to them when they were registered (Exodus 30:11-16). So the tax was clearly intended to ransom their lives: to give a material good of some value so that God would respect their lives. It is, therefore, a payment of atonement for the Israelites; the ransom of salvation of all Israel before God. And isn't that precisely what Jesus comes to do?"The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."(Mt 20:28): the Son's intention is to redeem us by the gift of his life. Perhaps this is why, when Jesus tells Peter to go fishing and to take the coin from the fish's mouth and pay "..." (Mt 20:28).for me and for you"It is really Jesus - using the fish - who will pay Peter's ransom. It will be he who will pay, with his passion, death and resurrection, the ransom for all. In this way, Jesus himself, with a profoundly contemplative vision, interprets the real meaning of the Temple tax: the ransom of Israel which, with him, will become a reality. 

In all the Gospel accounts, this is one of the few miracles that Jesus seems to do for his own benefit. But it is not really so: the giving of his life is the tax that God imposed to rescue the people of Israel. Jesus wanted to found his Church as the new people of Israel, which includes all the baptized. Therefore, Jesus, in some way, in this passage, is the true "tax" that also rescues all Christians.

Jesus' omniscience has often been emphasized because he knew what Peter had previously discussed with the tax collectors. As well as the future knowledge of the fish Peter would later catch with a coin in his mouth. But what is really impressive is the profoundly theological interpretation that Jesus makes by relating everything that is happening to his messianic and redemptive mission. All of the above would better explain Jesus' reaction in this peculiar story. Indeed, everything in it seems to lead to the confession of faith that the Christian, like Peter, proclaims: "...".Truly you are the Son of God" (Mt 14:33). 

To broaden your knowledge:

  • Catechism of the Catholic Church. Association of Editors of the Catechism. 2005. n. 583-586.
  • France R. T. "The Gospel of Matthew", Wm. B. Eerdmans. 2007
  • Galili E., Zemer A. and Rosen B. "Ancient Fishing Gear and Associated Artifacts from Underwater Explorations in Israel - A Comparative Study"..  Archaeofauna 22 (2013): 145-166
  • Gil, J.-Gil, E. "Huellas de nuestra fe". Jerusalem 2019.
  • Harrington, D. J. "The Gospel of Matthew," Liturgical Press. 1991
  • Marotta, M. E. "So-called 'Coins of the Bible'".2001.
  • Masterman, E. W. G. "The Fisheries of Galilee." Palestine Exploration Fund Quarterly Statement 40, no. 1 (January 1908): 40-51.
  • Nun, M. "The sea of Galilee and its fishermen in the New Testament". Ein Gev 1989.
  • Troche, F.D. "Il sistema della pesca nel lago di Galilea al tempo di Gesù. Indagine sulla base dei papiri documentari e dei dati archeologici e letterari". Bologna 2015.
The authorAlfonso Sánchez Lamadrid Rey and Rafael Sanz Carrera

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