What is the significance of the 153 fish in John 21:11?

“So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them.  And although there were so many, the net was not torn.” John 21:11 (ESV)

Konrad_Witz_–_Petri_fiskafänge

Konrad Witz – Petri Fiskafänge (1444, public domain)

One of the interesting aspects of Scripture is its use of numbers.  Certain digits in particular seem to repeat often.  For example, the number 40 (number of days it rained during the deluge; years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness; days Jesus fasted in the desert) and the number 12 (tribes of Israel; number of Jesus’ disciples) show up several times.  So there is good reason to see a pattern.  Why certain numbers have more significance than others is a bit of a mystery.  For the present discussion, I want to address how we view certain numbers when they show up in the text.  More specifically, is there a hidden meaning behind certain numbers, which yield extra knowledge of God and his ways?  With this question in mind, I want to explore an important event at the end of John’s Gospel.

In John 21:1-14 we learn about the third appearance of the post-resurrection Jesus to his disciples.  There were seven present, and they had been fishing all night with no results.  Toward morning a voice calls out to them from the shore asking if they caught anything.  Getting a negative answer, the man says to cast the net on the right side of the boat.  They do as instructed and the catch is so large that they can barely pull it out of the water.  John recognizes the voice now.  It’s Jesus.  Peter jumps into the water to meet him.  Jesus has a fire prepared on shore and invites them to eat.  When the boat comes ashore the catch is counted – 153 fish.  Amazingly, the net is intact.  Jesus and his disciple eat bread and fish together.

A search of the internet of this passage will yield multiple interpretations of the real meaning behind the 153 fish.  You’ll find references to Pythagorean theorum, cubed numbers, prime numbers, the total number of people helped by Jesus in the NT, and other even more esoteric meanings.  What you won’t find is any consensus.  But why would the meaning be hidden to us for over 2,000 years?  If it has a deeper significance, no one can be faulted for searching it out.  Wouldn’t God want us to know about it?  The problem is that no one seems to have the key to interpreting the number.  And we love our mysterious, cryptic codes just waiting to broken!  But the question remains: Should we be searching for the deeper meaning of the number, or is there a simpler explanation?

The most obvious and straightforward interpretation of the 153 fish, is that it is meant to serve as an evidence that it truly was a large number of fish caught.  Furthermore, John emphasizes that even with such a catch, the net wasn’t broken.  We can rephrase it this way: “It was a very big catch.  You want proof?  I was there when we counted them – 153 fish!  And get this – the net survived unscathed!”  The event also demonstrated to the disciples that this was Jesus, and not some imposter.  The huge catch, the unbroken net, the timing of it; these all worked together to demonstrate that a miracle had just taken place.  That’s it.  No reason to follow rabbit trails to Wonderland.

I should point out that one can find additional significance in the passage.  For example, when Jesus called his disciples, he said that he would make them fishers of men.  It is legitimate to see a correlation to the large number of fish in this passage, and the large number of human converts they would soon be ‘catching’.  Therefore, the miracle could also be viewed as an object lesson of the soon to be realized spiritual awakening.  Reading the text this way is legitimate and beneficial, whereas seeking the hidden meaning behind a number benefits us none.  God desires us to be strengthened in faith and love.  Yet the various methods I’ve read attempting to explain the number 153 can hardly be said to help any of God’s children in the way he wants. The myriad interpretations of the catching of the 153 fish serve as a great reminder why we must not look for hidden messages in the Scriptures.  Doing so can lead us astray of the intended, plain meaning of the text.  God’s message in his word is clear.  He knows that we are but dumb sheep, easily led astray by false shepherds.  He isn’t going to make it harder by expecting us to treat his word like a puzzle waiting to be solved.  I’m not saying there aren’t difficult passages.  But these are in the minority.  The vast majority of the Bible is plain, and can be understood by using a solid translation and grasping the context and the literary genre.

In conclusion, we must use caution when reading the Bible.  We have a tendency to look for the hidden things, mysteries, and codes to break.  And we like to share our latest findings, to be the first to find what no one else has been able to locate (I’m not above committing this error myself).  But doing so puts us more in line with the interpretative methods of the Gnostics and the Kabbalists, rather than the most faithful Christian interpreters throughout history.  Therefore, let us rightly divide the word of truth, laying aside our appetites for secret knowledge

 

 

 

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2 Comments

Filed under Devotional, Religion, Theology

2 responses to “What is the significance of the 153 fish in John 21:11?

  1. Albert Atwell

    Why should someone that teaches you the meaning or the interpretation of a Bible Scripture be leading you astray. If you have strong religious beliefs, you can not be lead astray. I know exactly what the meaning of the 153 fish mean but will you believe me? They had to catch 153 fish, they could not catch 152 or 154, the exact catch is important because of the Christian Fish or commonly called the Fish’s Bladder. That is the intersection of two circles forming the Christian Fish. The smallest number you can get out of this is 265 long and 153 wide, 153 being the smallest number you can have and come up with the square root of 3. That is why Jesus ask Peter three times did he love him.

    • Hello Albert, and thank you for the comment. For some reason this post about the 153 fish has gotten far more views than anything else I’ve written. Apparently a lot of folks are curious about it, particularly around Easter based on the views. My guess is that a lot of Easter sermons touch on the subject, and then folks go searching for answers. This is likely because the pastor gives his particular take on the meaning of the catch, and they want to see if it’s true. I should have spent some more time writing it and might just revisit it at some point in the future, just to iron out some details.

      Regarding your take on the catch, I’m not sure what to make of it. The ichthus isn’t really two half circles, but two arcs. I’m not sure how or where 265 and 153 fits in to this ancient symbol. Wouldn’t it depend on the intersection being a specific point? But this is undefined, and the intersection can be anywhere (long tail, medium tail, short tail). Certainly, the number 153 is interesting mathematically, as are a bunch of other numbers. I’m just very doubtful that any of John’s early readers saw that number and understood it for its mathematical properties. More likely, they didn’t know if it had a deeper significance or not.

      You’re obviously very confident in your interpretation, My question to you is exactly how you came to believe it to be the correct understanding, against all of the others. I’m willing to learn and even change my views. But I need more than assertions.

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