A Fish Story
Updated: Sep 13, 2019
We've all heard a good fish story. Especially fishermen know how easy it is to slip into telling “fish stories,” exaggerated tales of how one bravely hauled a fish in, despite its powerful thrashes and flashing fangs. And when recounting a fishing tale, it seems natural to slowly increase the size of the fish wrestled into submission each time the story is told; first it was this big, then this big…
In John 21:1-14 we encounter what we might call a “fish story.” The disciples of Christ had passed the night on the Sea of Tiberias, but had caught nothing. Then their risen Lord appeared to them, and from the shore directed them to cast the fishing net on the other side of the boat. This they did, and they found what they were looking for: fish, and lots of them! They were not able to haul the net onto the ship, for the net was so filled with fish. Instead, the disciples rowed for shore, towing the heavily-laden net behind them. Jesus, tending to some fish roasting over a fire, instructed the disciples to bring over some of their catch, presumably so that they could all have breakfast after the night of work.
And so the net was dragged ashore – full of fish: 153 large fish, to be exact! What a catch it was – from empty nets to a motherlode within a matter of minutes. To some this story is… well, fishy. The skeptic asks, Is this not a typical fisherman’s exaggeration? Perhaps by some stroke of luck the disciples had netted a passing school of fish, but the disciples could not have caught that many. And why would they have counted them?
While there are skeptics ready to dismiss this number 153 as an overstatement or invention, there are others who think that there probably were fish caught, and the number is not accurate, yet the number is not simply an exaggeration that has slipped in, but is a number that demands interpretation. It is a number that is a code, a count of fish that is profoundly symbolic of something else, something much more meaningful than fried fish for breakfast with the risen Lord.
In this view, the number 153 jars the reading experience – what an unusual place for a specific number, for a precise tally of fish, of all things! In the drama of the disciples meeting the resurrected Saviour, why would this sum of landed fish be included? And so, many interpreters of Scripture have sought to “rescue” this number from irrelevance, assigning it an important, hidden meaning.
It is said that few statements in the Fourth Gospel have teased the minds of its readers throughout the ages so much as this one in verse 11: “it was full of large fish, 153.” And looking for fancy symbolism and cryptic code in the Scriptures is not only a practice from earlier times in church history. Even a recent and reputable commentary on John states, “Almost certainly…the writer intended some further significance to be seen in the number.”
The most popular solution to this fish problem goes all the way back to the church father Jerome, of the 4th century AD. In his commentary on Ezekiel 47 he links the miracle of John 21 with Ezekiel’s vision of the stream of living water that flows from the Temple to the Dead Sea, which makes the latter teem with life. Ezekiel says in 47:10, “Fisherman will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds – like the fish of the Great Sea.” Jerome explains Ezekiel 47 thus: “Writers on the nature and properties of animals…say that there are 153 species of fish.”
Jerome’s suggestion then is that the evangelist John used the ancient tradition about the total number of fish species to make the miraculous catch into both an acted parable and a fulfillment of Ezekiel. The catch of 153 fish was something that pointed to the mission of the apostles to all nations. Without Christ, his followers can do nothing, but with him and his instruction, these “fishers of men” bring in the multitudes. From all mankind would the Church be gathered, paralleled in this act of all 153 species of fish being caught by the disciples. Indeed, as it says in Matthew 13:47-48, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore.”
Jerome’s explanation has recently fallen on hard times. It has been revealed that the ancient zoological writers Jerome refers to never speak of 153 fish exactly, but rather of “countless myriads” of fish. And one important ancient writer’s record of all the different fish species adds up to… 157.
Augustine, a contemporary of Jerome, proposed an explanation of the 153 that was of a completely different character. He pioneered the mathematical solutions to the problem, by observing that 153 is a triangular number. Triangular numbers are calculated by adding up consecutive numbers; in this case, 153 is the sum of the numbers 1 to 17. A triangular number can be represented by a regular geometric arrangement of equally spaced points; if one represents the numbers 1 to 17 by dots on separate lines, a triangle is formed. Augustine then pointed out that 17, constitutive of the number 153, is the sum of 10 and 7. The former represents the Ten Commandments, the latter the sevenfold Spirit of God.
Further, it is evident that 10 and 7 were important numbers in Jewish tradition (the world was created by 10 sayings, 7 days of creation, 10 wonders in Egypt, etc.). 153 is then a symbolic number whose significance derives from its components: 17 is the sum of the two most sacred numbers, the importance of which is increased when it is triangulated. From this Augustine deduced that 153 is a numerical symbol for perfection, and for the perfection of the church. The great catch at Tiberias thus foreshadows the full gathering of believers.
The numerical solutions have multiplied over the years. Cyril of Alexandria, a theologian of the 5th century, proposed that 100 represents the fullness of the Gentiles, 50 the remnant of Israel, and 3 the Trinity.
Other explanations have been sought in the field of gematria, which plays with words in languages where numerals are represented by letters of the alphabet (a = 1, b = 2, etc.). Both the Greeks and Hebrews represented numbers in this way; any name could be added up and represented by its total. The graffiti of Pompeii revealed an example of gematria, “I love the girl whose name is 545.” With gematria, scholars have found that 153 is the sum of such Hebrew phrases as “the church of love,” and “the children of God.” Alternately, 153 has been taken as the sum of the Greek abbreviation, iota-chi-theta, which are the first three letters of the early Christian acrostic, ichthus (Greek: fish!), representing Hesous Christos Theou Huios Soter (Jesus Christ Son of God, Saviour).
The Search for Meaning
Up to this point no explanation of the 153 fish has commended itself. We have seen only extensive speculation and much exegetical imagination. But perhaps we should not be hasty in rejecting all these interpretations, even though strange in our view – alphabetical code and symbolic numbers are not totally foreign to the Scriptures: think of 144,000 and 666 in Revelation, and of the code-words for Babylon in Jeremiah (25:26, 51:41; 51:1). There is “code” in the Bible – but do we have it here in John 21? How do we know?
The host of exegetes and commentators and scholars throughout the centuries all arrived at John 21:11 looking for something: an answer to what the significance of “153” was. Many tried to link this miraculous catch to Jesus' words that his disciples would be made into fishers not of fish but of men (Mark 1:17). Indeed, this would be a beautiful image – the risen Lord giving a last tangible sign of his blessing and presence to his disciples before they spread their gospel-nets to the ends of the earth.
But does it work? When looking for numerical symbolism in the Scriptures, we should firstly consider the place of the reference in the book. Revelation, in which several symbolic numbers are found, is of course a book rich in symbolism. For the alphabetical code that occurs in a couple instances in Jeremiah, we rely on old rabbinical tradition. In the gospel of John, do we have other numerical symbolism or cryptic code?
John the Eyewitness
On the contrary, John is uniquely a historical book. It is emphasized that John is an eyewitness. Of the Word that became flesh John says, “We have seen his glory” (1:14). And this eyewitness stood at the cross too, when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, “The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true.” (19:35). And again at the close of the gospel, “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples which are not recorded in this book. But these are written…” (20:30-31).
The gospel of John confirms in many places that the one who wrote this account was present with Christ. For example, times and seasons are mentioned more frequently than in the three other gospels: the Passovers, feasts, the two weeks at the beginning and end of the ministry, other lengths of time, and different hours or times of day. And John often gives numbers in his description of the Lord’s ministry: two disciples with John the Baptist, six waterpots at Cana, five loaves and two small fish, three and a half miles out on the Sea of Galilee, four soldiers who divided his clothes, 38 years of sickness, 300 denarii, 5 husbands, and…153 fish.
Besides these obvious additions of detail, there are small traits in the account which testify to the keen recollection of an observer. Such scenes as the calling of the first disciples, the foot-washing, and the scene in the high priest’s court are alive with intensity, curiousity, and foreboding.
And witness the vivid fishing scene of chapter 21: it is early morning after a night of fishing – a night which was “irrelevantly” (but realistically) precipitated by Simon Peter's sudden desire to hit the water, “I’m going to fish,” followed with the other disciples response, “We’ll go with you.” Later in this scene, Jesus appears on the shore unrecognized, the fish are caught, and Jesus is suddenly seen for who he is. And so Peter hops out into the water (who but an eyewitness would include the detail of Peter first wrapping his outer garment about him?), while the disciples follow, coming with the boat while towing the fish from “about a hundred yards” from the shore, and finding (just picture this...) “a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.”
It is a lively picture in the early morning on the shores of Sea of Galilee, and one that the disciples would not soon forget. Here was their Lord, appearing to them for the third time after he was raised from the dead! Their hope was being restored, for their Master was restored to them, still in power and glory.
The Net Result
What then of the 153 fish? It is no exaggeration to say that so many were caught, for the net was completely full. It is no invented number to specify that 153 were netted, for John, helped by the Holy Spirit (John 14:26), clearly had a careful eye for detail. Plus, John and the men in his company were fishermen by trade – they would naturally be interested in how many were caught, just as a fisherman today will without fail ask another fisherman sitting on the dock with fish in his bucket, “How many?” or “How many pounds?”
It is no symbolic figure to say that 153 large fish were landed that morning. The tally of 153 is not fancy math or an allusion to some ancient zoological tradition – in the context of the book it is simply yet profoundly another detail by John the eyewitness. This remarkable number only confirms again the account that John has provided for us: John was there, and he can testify that this Jesus is the Christ!
This big number takes a small part in a trustworthy account of one who truly died, who truly was buried, who truly was raised to life, and who truly showed his divine glory again to his disciples on earth before ascending into heaven. The good news is that the “fish story” of John 21 is not a yarn but a true account of our Lord, who most certainly is alive, and who from heaven is most certainly able to help us all spread our nets today as fishers of men.