This week’s article will be a little different from the norm, not least of which is the bad-preacher-joke title. Our reading from the Gospel of John this morning includes a curious detail: “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). John has always been intentional and economical in his details; he tells us as much at the end of John 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” In other words, John only writes the things that we need to hear in order to have life in the name of Jesus.
So why does John tell us that the haul contained 153 fish? That’s a specific number for what seems like an incidental detail in the story.
This detail has bothered exegetes since the earliest days of the church. Since John never explains the meaning of the number or connects it to anything else in his text, the guesses have ranged all over the place. Our aim today is to consider some possible meanings of the 153 fish and how the fish might bear on our understanding of John 21.
Jerome connected the disciples’ haul to Ezekiel’s vision in Ezk 47. God shows the prophet a river flowing eastward from door of the temple. “As I went back, I saw on the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. And he said to me, ‘This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah, and enters the sea; when the water flows into the sea, the water will become fresh. And wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish. For this water goes there, that the waters of the sea may become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. Fishermen will stand beside the sea. From En-Gedi to En-Eglaim it will be a place for the spreading of nets. Its fish will be of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea’” (Ezk 47.7-10).
Concerning this, Jerome writes, “Writers on the nature and properties of animals, who have learned ‘fishing’ in either Latin or Greek… say that there are 153 species of fish.” If this is what John had in mind, then the fishing is symbolic. Peter and the other disciples are “fishers of men” (Matt 4.19), and their net (the church) catches men from every nation. The text is thus John’s way of stating the Great Commission.
Augustine took a different, mathematical approach. He observed that 153 is the sum of the numbers 1 through 17, making 153 a triangular number. It is much easier to show what a triangular number is than it is to describe it, so consider the triangular number 6, which is the sum of 1 + 2 + 3:
O O O
You can see that we can arrange 1 + 2 + 3 in a triangle, one O on the first line, two on the second, and three on the third. This is what makes 6 a triangular number. Augustine saw this as significant, because the triangle is a common symbol for the Trinity. He also observed that 17 = 10 + 7, both of which are significant symbolic numbers in Scripture. All three numerical symbols—three, seven, and ten—represent the perfection of God, which John 21 applies to the apostles’ ministry through the church (the net). Augustine considered 153 to have further trinitarian significance, since 153 = 3 x 50 + 3. Cyril of Alexandria modified this last observation by proposing that 153 = 100 (representing the fullness of the Gentiles) + 50 (representing the remnant of Israel) + 3 (representing the Trinity).
I told you that this math would be fishy.
Modern exegetes have combined the approaches of Jerome and Augustine using a method called gematria, whereby letters represent numbers and vice versa. The first letter of the alphabet equals one, the second two, and so on. Consider the name “En-Gedi” in Ezk 47.10, which means “the spring of Gedi.” In Hebrew gematria, the name “Gedi” adds up to the number 17. “Eglaim,” from “En-Eglaim” (“the spring of Eglaim”), adds up to 153. Remember that 17 is the final number in the triangulation of 153. It is perhaps too much to be a coincidence that the names of the two springs in Ezk 47.10 are related to each other and to John 21.11 in this way. Furthermore, it has been observed that a backwards gematria of the Greek alphabet (where the final letter of the alphabet equals one, the next-to last equals two, and so on) makes it so that ΙΧΘ, the abbreviation for “ichthus” (“fish”), equals 153. Again, it may be too much of a coincidence that the fish-centered gematria for 153 works in both Hebrew and Greek. It seems likely, then, that John or the Spirit who guided him intended for us to see a reference to Ezekiel’s prophecy bound up in the detail of the 153 fish.