There has been quite a lot of discussion online about the significance (or otherwise) of the 153 fish mentioned in John 21.11, which comes in the lectionary gospel reading for this Sunday coming. There seem to be no end of possible meanings for the term; here is a sample:
1. The catch of fish tells us of the salvation of humanity, but humanity cannot be saved without keeping the 10 commandments. But, on account of the fall, we cannot even keep the commandments without the help of grace and the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the number 7 signifies holiness, since God blessed the 7th day and made it holy (Gen 2:3). But 10 plus 7 equals 17, and if all the numbers from 1 to 17 are added together (1+2+3…+17), they equal 153. Hence, the 153 fish signify that all the elect are to be saved by the gift of grace (7) and the following of the commandments (10). (St Augustine, Commentary on John, 72.8)
2. 153 consists of 100 (the great number of gentiles to be saved), plus 50 (the smaller number of Jews to be saved), plus 3 (the Trinity who saves all) (St Cyril; this kind of reading is very similar to that of his brother Methodius in reading the number 1260 in Rev 12). Others follow St. Cyril, but modify this as follows: 100 (the multitude of married lay faithful in the Church), plus 50 (the many faithful who commit themselves later in life to continence either living as widows or living with their spouse in a brother-sister relationship), plus 3 (the precious few who commit their whole lives to celibacy as virgins) equals 153 (the whole Church taken together as a single body).
3. It was thought at that time that there were only 153 species of fish in all the world. Hence, the disciples caught 153 fish, signifying that people of every class and time would be saved through the Gospel. (St Jerome, Comm. Ez. 47.6-12).
4. Pythogoras was associated with catches of fish, and he had calculated that 153 is the denominator of the closest known fraction to the square root of 3 (265/153), and this was also the ratio of a fish shape drawn between two overlapping circles which are centred on each other’s circumference. This shape is therefore known as the vesica piscis or the mandorla and the ratio was called by Pythagoras the ‘measure of the fish’. If the two circles represent God and humanity, then the overlap represents Jesus as God incarnate, along with his followers, whose sign becomes the sign of the fish.
5. 153 written in base 120 is 18,360 days, which indicates the delay in the coming of the Millennium, but means that September 2017 will be a significant date in the ‘end times’ calendar.
What may occur on September 11, 2017 is speculation. Is it a final hit on the United States to prepare the way for the invasion into Israel? Will it at least be a warning that the coming “Flood” is about to come upon the world? We shall see…
We shall indeed!
6. The square root of 153 is 12.369, which is the number of lunar months in a solar year, and it therefore points to the moon which waxes and wanes, which is visible one minute and hides itself another. Just as the moon can hide itself, in Isaiah 8 the Lord spoke of hiding his face from Israel and binding up his testimony among the disciples. The fish and the number 153 are for signs and symbols. “Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion” (Isaiah 8:11-18).
7. My favourite: fishermen are prone to exaggerate. Thus the writer of the Fourth Gospel tells us the exact number of the catch, so that we can believe that it was a miraculously large catch of fish, and we don’t dismiss it merely as Peter’s exaggerated claim!
How do you respond to these theories? You might think (as I am inclined to) what fun it is, and how creative people have been in their reading of this single text! On the other hand, you might also come to the same conclusion as Raymond Brown in his commentary on John (with which I also have some sympathy):
One cannot deny that some of these interpretations (they are not mutually exclusive) are possible, but they all encounter the same objection: we have no evidence that any such complicated understating of 153 would have been intelligible to John’s readers (Gospel according to John XIII-XXI, 1075).
When teaching on numerology in Revelation, I begin not with any of these at times esoteric theories, but in proposing three principles for how we read any text. After all, making sense of a particular number in the text is nothing more than a special case of how we interpret texts generally, and what we allow ourselves to do will depend on how we understand what texts are, and what we are doing when we read them. These are my ‘Principles for avoiding crazy readings’:
- The claim made must fit the data of the text. This might sound like a very obvious principle, but it is in fact amazing how often people claim that a text says something when, on closer examination, the text says nothing of the sort.
- The reading must have been a possible meaning for the author of the text and its first readers. This is the principle that Raymond Brown is assuming—but it depends on understanding Scripture as both ‘God-breathed’ and the product of human authorship at the same time. That is, it depends on a specific understanding of Scripture as the inspired writings of particular people, in quite a different way (for example) from the way that Muslims generally view the Quran.
- Any ‘deep’ or ‘hidden’ meaning must cohere with the ‘surface’ meaning of the text. I think this principle is less obvious, but again it depends on an assumption about the way God communicates with us. Whilst Jesus taught in parables as a strategy to challenge his listeners to think again about God and the kingdom, it is a serious Christian conviction that God wants to communicate with us and make things clear, and not play tricks on us and tease us with esoteric codes and hidden meanings. Christianity is not gnostic, and the Bible is not a code book in the way that Kabbalism (and other esoteric traditions) treat it.
With these principles in mind, what then are we to make of the 153 in John 21.11, and the various theories above? Some can be dismissed outright, such as the end-times timescale; here the number is simply a jumping-off point into a theory that has no connection with the text, with the Fourth Gospel, or with the first-century world. The three patristic ideas, of Augustine, Cyril and Jerome, are more difficult to evaluate; was it important to the writer and his readers that 153 was a ‘triangular’ number (the sum of successive integers) and did they believe that 153 signified all the fish in the sea? Here we are sharply reminded that, whilst Scripture is ‘close’ to us, in that we hear God speaking to us through it by his Spirit, as it gives testimony to the Son, at another level to read the Bible is to go on a cross-cultural journey, since we think of numbers in quite a different way from first-century people.
There are not very many large numbers mentioned in the New Testament: this is one; Luke mentions that there are 276 people who are saved from the shipwreck in Acts 27.37; and the number of beast in Rev 13.18 is 666. It is striking mathematically that all three of these are ‘triangular’ numbers, as several of our theories note, which is a much more important thing in a world where you primarily count using physical objects, rather than in our world where numbers are more like abstract concepts. In fact, the word in the New Testament for ‘to calculate’ (psephizo) derives from the word for ‘pebble’ (psephos).
If 153 as the triangle of 17 is important, then perhaps we need to think about the significance of 17 itself. Commentators struggle to make much sense of the list of regions whose residents were at Pentecost in Acts 2.9–11; Ben Witherington in his socio-rhetorical commentary (pp 136 to 137) notes the anomalies, and the failure of things like astrological theories to make any sense of the list. But, taking the ‘Jews and proselytes’ from Rome as two groups, we have a list of 17, and perhaps Luke here is simply communicating that people hear the message from all over the known world. (Luke is clearly interested in numerology himself; the late Martin Menken pointed out that Peter’s Pentecost speech consisted of two halves of 444 syllables each, the total 888 being the gematria value of Jesus’ name in Greek. And Joel Green draws on Menken’s work to note that, in stories like the raising of the widow of Nain’s son, the word for ‘compassion’ comes at the numerical centre of the narrative.)
The connection with the nations of the world is also suggested by a connection with Ezekiel 47, which is the context for Jerome’s reflection.
In Ezekiel 47, we see baptismal waters ﬂowing from the overturned Bronze Sea of the Temple, ﬂowing out to the boundaries of the Land. Remember that Jesus claims to be the source of such living waters. In Ezekiel 47:9, we are told that “very many ﬁsh” will live in the (formerly) Dead Sea as a result of these living waters. In verse 10 we read, “And it will come about that ﬁshermen will stand beside it; from En-Gedi to En-Eglaim there will be a place for spreading of nets. Their ﬁsh will be acording to their kinds, like the ﬁsh of the Great [Mediterranean] Sea, very many.”
The Dead Sea is the boundary of the new land after the exile, and a place of contact with gentiles. The ﬁshes are clearly gentile nations. The fact that the sea is formerly dead and now is brought to life surely indicates the inﬂuence of Restoration Israel over the nations before Christ, and points to the greater inﬂuence of the Kingdom after Pentecost.
Now, it is well known that Hebrew letters are also numbers: the ﬁrst nine letters being 1-9, the next nine being 10-90, and the last ﬁve being 100-400. “Coding” words with numbers is called gematria. If we substract the “En” from En-Gedi and En-Eglaim, since “en” means “spring,” then the following emerges:
Gedi = 17 (ג = 3; ד = 4; י = 10)
Eglaim = 153 (ע = 70; ג = 3; ל = 30; י = 10; מ = 40)
Again, this seems too close to the mark to be a coincidence. Once again, we have the number 17 (Gedi, mentioned ﬁrst) and its relative 153 (Eglaim, mentioned second) connecting to the evangelization of the gentiles, symbolized by ﬁshing.
Conclusion: The number 153 represents the totality of the nations of the world, which will be drawn in the New Creation.
This connection is also made by Richard Bauckham, in what is perhaps the most comprehensive study of this issue in print, in the final chapter of his The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. (It is worth noting the other connections with Ezekiel in both the Fourth Gospel and the Book of Revelation.) Bauckham further connects the numerology here with the opening chapters of the gospel, thus arguing that this ‘second’ concluding chapter was always part of the whole work, contrary to the dominant view in the previous generation that chapter 21 was a later addition. (Mark Stibbe also makes the case for unity on the basis of literary features of the text.)
Where does all this get us, and how might it shape our preaching?
First, we just need to recognise that these texts are, in some important ways, strange to us, so we do need to enter into the world of the text with a sense of disciplined imagination.
Secondly, there is a good case, supported in multiple ways, for seeing the 153 as having both real and symbolic significance. I don’t see any reason to doubt that someone counted the number (fishermen would be in the habit of doing so, surely?) but like many other things in this gospel, the reality also has symbolic significance.
Thirdly, the connections with the number 17 at Pentecost, and the parallels in this episode with the commissioning of the disciples in the similar experience in Luke 5, do suggest that the symbolic significance has to do with gospel ministry which will draw on people from all over the world. This is a ‘hidden’ meaning which simply says the same thing as the narrative in Luke 5, though in a distinct way and using distinct language and symbolism.
Fourthly, this does make the meaning of the narrative strongly focussed on the theme of restoration and renewing commissioning, a theme that is reinforced in Jesus’ threefold restoration of Peter in the next pericope. The disciples are once again, beyond their failure and fear, being called to proclaim the good news about Jesus to all the world.
Happy preaching! Happy listening! And happy reading!
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