The Jesus Fish
The Jesus fish turned out to be a poor starting point because it lacks a recorded motive as a symbol for Jesus. Sure, one can easily imagine some unsubstantiated religious group worshiping a deity like Dagon or Oannes who eventually morphed into Jesus, but the evidence is lacking; also, the "savior" bit of "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" feels tacked on to me, present in the acrostic simply to complete the word "fish" (ἰχθὺς in Greek). I judge the connection of Jesus to the fish to be late and secondary. The acrostic first shows up in the Sibylline Oracles:
Sibylline Oracles 8.217-250:
ΙΗΣΟΥΣ ΧΡΕΙΣΤΟΣ ΘΕΟΥ ΥΙΟΣ ΣΩΤΗΡ ΣΤΑΥΡΟΣ
Ἱδρώσει δὲ χθών, κρίσεως σημεῖον ὅτ' ἔσται.
Ἥξει δ' οὐρανόθεν βασιλεὺς αἰῶσιν ὁ μέλλων,
Σάρκα παρὼν πᾶσαν κρῖναι καὶ κόσμον ἅπαντα.
Ὄψονται δὲ θεὸν μέροπες πιστοὶ καὶ ἄπιστοι
Ὕψιστον μετὰ τῶν ἁγίων ἐπὶ τέρμα χρόνοιο.
Σαρκοφόρων δ' ἀνδρῶν ψυχὰς ἐπὶ βήματι κρίνει,
Χέρσος ὅταν ποτὲ κόσμος ὅλος καὶ ἄκανθα γένηται.
Ῥίψουσιν δ' εἴδωλα βροτοὶ καὶ πλοῦτον ἅπαντα.
Ἐκκαύσει δὲ τὸ πῦρ γῆν οὐρανὸν ἠδὲ θάλασσαν
Ἰχνεῦον, ῥήξει τε πύλας εἱρκτῆς Ἀίδαο.
Σὰρξ τότε πᾶσα νεκρῶν ἐς ἐλευθέριον φάος ἥξει
Τῶν ἁγίων· ἀνόμους δὲ τὸ πῦρ αἰῶσιν ἐλέγξει.
Ὁππόσα τις πράξας ἔλαθεν, τότε πάντα λαλήσει·
Στήθεα γὰρ ζοφόεντα θεὸς φωστῆρσιν ἀνοίξει.
Θρῆνος δ' ἐκ πάντων ἔσται καὶ βρυγμὸς ὀδόντων.
Ἐκλείψει σέλας ἠελίου ἄστρων τε χορεῖαι.
Οὐρανὸν εἱλίξει· μήνης δέ τε φέγγος ὀλεῖται.
Ὑψώσει δὲ φάραγγας, ὀλεῖ δ' ὑψώματα βουνῶν,
Ὕψος δ' οὐκέτι λυγρὸν ἐν ἀνθρώποισι φανεῖται.
Ἶσα δ' ὄρη πεδίοις ἔσται καὶ πᾶσα θάλασσα
Οὐκέτι πλοῦν ἕξει. γῆ γὰρ φρυχθεῖσα τότ' ἔσται
Σὺν πηγαῖς, ποταμοί τε καχλάζοντες λείψουσιν.
Σάλπιγξ δ' οὐρανόθεν φωνὴν πολύθρηνον ἀφήσει
Ὠρύουσα μύσος μελέων καὶ πήματα κόσμου.
Ταρτάρεον δὲ χάος δείξει τότε γαῖα χανοῦσα.
Ἥξουσιν δ' ἐπὶ βῆμα θεοῦ βασιλῆος ἅπαντες.
Ῥεύσει δ' οὐρανόθεν ποταμὸς πυρὸς ἠδὲ θεείου.
Σῆμα δέ τοι τότε πᾶσι βροτοῖς, σφρηγὶς ἐπίσημος
Τὸ ξύλον ἐν πιστοῖς, τὸ κέρας τὸ ποθούμενον ἔσται,
Ἀνδρῶν εὐσεβέων ζωή, πρόσκομμα δὲ κόσμου,
Ὕδασι φωτίζον κλητοὺς ἐν δώδεκα πηγαῖς·
Ῥάβδος ποιμαίνουσα σιδηρείη γε κρατήσει.
Οὗτος ὁ νῦν προγραφεὶς ἐν ἀκροστιχίοις θεὸς ἡμῶν
Σωτὴρ ἀθάνατος βασιλεύς, ὁ παθὼν ἕνεχ' ἡμῶν.
JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, SAVIOUR; CROSS
And the earth shall perspire, when there shall be the sign of judgment. And from heaven shall come the King who for the ages is to be, present to judge all flesh and the whole world. Faithful and faithless mortals shall see God the Most High with the saints at the end of time. And of men bearing flesh he judges souls upon his throne, when sometime the whole world shall be a desert and a place of thorns. And mortals shall their idols cast away and all wealth. And the searching fire shall burn earth, heaven, and sea; and it shall burn the gates, of Hades' prison. Then shall come all flesh of the dead to the free light of the saints; but the lawless shall that fire whirl round and round, for ages. Howsoever much one did in secret, then shall he all things declare; for God shall open dark breasts to the light. And lamentation shall there be from all and gnashing of teeth. Brightness of the sun shall be eclipsed and dances of the stars. He shall roll up the heaven; and of the moon the light shall perish. And he shall exalt the valleys and destroy the heights of hills, and height no longer shall appear remaining among men. And the hills shall with the plains be level and no more on any sea shall there be sailing. For the earth shall then with heat be shriveled and the dashing streams shall with the fountains fall. The trump shall send from heaven a very lamentable sound, howling the loathsomeness of wretched men and the world's woes. And then the yawning earth shall show Tartarean chaos. And all kings shall come unto the judgement seat of God. And there shall out of heaven a stream of fire and brimstone flow. But for all mortals then shall there a sign be, a distinguished seal, the wood among believers, and the horn fondly desired, the life of pious men, but it shall be stumbling block of the world, giving illumination to the elect by water in twelve springs; and there shall rule a shepherding iron rod. This one who now is in acrostics which give signs of God thus written openly, the Savior is, Immortal King, who suffered for our sake.
The Jesus fish shows up in catacomb art:
And certain church fathers described Jesus himself as a fish in symbolic terms:
Tertullian, On Baptism 1.1-3: 1 De Sacramento aquae nostrae qua ablutis delictis pristinae caecitatis in vitam aeternam liberamur non erit otiosum digestum istud, instruens tam eos qui cum maxime formantur quam et illos qui simpliciter credidisse contenti, non exploratis rationibus traditionum, temptabilem fidem per imperitiam portant. 2 atque, adeo nuper conversata istic quaedam de Caina haeresi vipera venenatissima doctrina sua plerosque rapuit, imprimis baptismum destruens. plane secundum naturam: nam fere viperae et aspides ipsique reguli serpentes arida et inaquosa sectantur. 3 sed nos pisciculi secundum ιχθὺν nostrum Iesum Christum in aqua nascimur, nec aliter quam in aqua permanendo salvi sumus. itaque illa monstrosissima, cui nec integre quidem docendi ius erat, optime norat necare pisciculos de aqua auferens. / 1 This discussion of the sacred significance of that water of ours in which the sins of our original blindness are washed away and we are set at liberty unto life eternal, will not be without purpose if it provides equipment for those who are at present under instruction, as well as those others who, content to have believed in simplicity, have not examined the reasons for what has been conferred upon them, and because of inexperience are burdened with a faith which is open to temptation. 2 And in fact a certain female viper from the Cainite sect, who recently spent some time here, carried off a good number with her exceptionally pestilential doctrine, making a particular point of demolishing baptism. Evidently in this according to nature: for vipers and asps as a rule, and even basilisks, frequent dry and waterless places. 3 But we, being little fishes, as Jesus Christ is our great Fish, begin our life in the water, and only while we abide in the water are we safe and sound. Thus it was that that portent of a woman, who had no right to teach even correctly, knew very well how to kill the little fishes by taking them out of the water.
Notice the juxtaposition of Jesus as the "great fish" with believers as "little fishes" — I suspect, based on information which I will lay out below, that the latter symbolism arose first, and then Jesus was made out to be a fish on that basis.
The Eucharistic Fish
If the Jesus fish is a development out of previous fish symbolism, then whence did the original symbolism arise? We are left with three principal options, I think: the fish present after the resurrection, the disciples as fishermen, and the fish as a eucharistic symbol.
The eucharistic fish is, I think, fairly easy to explain:
- Fish were symbolic in Greek and Roman culture and at feasts (broad symbolism).
- Fish were also symbolic in Jewish culture, especially as Leviathan at the messianic feast (specific symbolism).
- Fish, as a symbol of the messianic meal, were thence transferred to the eucharistic meal.
The concept of sacred fish was widespread in Greek and Roman society. There was the Piscus Austrinus constellation (one of Ptolemy's 48):
And there are specific references to sacred fish in the literature. For example:
Julian the Apostate, Oration 5 (Hymn to the Mother of the Gods): But after this, we are forbidden to feed on any kind of fish, the reason of which is, a problem in common with us and the Egyptians. But it appears to me, that any one may, with great propriety, always abstain from fish, for two reasons, and especially in purifying ceremonies: In the first place, because it is not proper to feed on things which we sacrifice to the gods; and here, indeed, I shall have no occasion to fear being accused of gluttony, which I recollect was once the case, should any one enquire why we do not frequently sacrifice these to the gods; for we have something to offer in reply to this interrogation. And we sacrifice these, indeed, O blessed man, in certain telestic rites; just as the Romans sacrifice a horse, and, both Greeks and Romans, many other animals and wild beasts, as, for instance, dogs to Hecate: and among other nations, in telestic sacrifices, such like victims are offered, once or twice a year. But this is not the case in the most honoured sacrifices, through which alone we are rendered worthy of entering into communion and banqueting with the gods. Hence, we do not sacrifice fishes in the most venerable rites, because we neither feed on them, nor take any care of their propagation; nor, lastly, have we any herds of fishes, as we have of oxen and sheep; for as these animals are assisted and multiplied through the attention which we pay to them, they are on this account useful to us for other purposes, and for honourable sacrifices to the gods: and this is one reason why I do not think it is proper to feed on fish during the time of the purifying rites. But the other reason, and which, I think, harmonizes better with what has been before said, is this, that fishes being after a certain manner merged in the profundities of the earth, are more terrestrial than seeds; but he who desires to fly away, and soar sublimely above the air to the very summit of the heavens, will justly abhor every thing of this kind, and will pursue and convert himself to natures tending towards the air, and hastening to arduous sublimities, and, that I may speak in poetical language, beholding the heavens.
IG XII.3 330
, an inscription on Thera dated to circa
210-195 BC, specifies a funerary meal of "sacrificial sheep" (ἱερείου) and "cake and bread and pastry and t[hre]e fish" (ἐλλύταν καὶ ἄρτον καὶ πάρακα καὶ ὀψάρια τ[ρί]α).
In Jewish culture, fish became associated with Leviathan, the marine creature upon whose defeated corpse the faithful would feast during the messianic age:
2 Baruch 29.1-8: 29 1 And He answered and said unto me: "Whatever will then befall (will befall) the whole earth; therefore all who live will experience (them). 2 For at that time I will protect only those who are found in those self-same days in this land. 3 And it shall come to pass when all is accomplished that was to come to pass in those parts, that the Messiah shall then begin to be revealed. 4 And Behemoth shall be revealed from his place and Leviathan shall ascend from the sea, those two great monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation, and shall have kept until that time; and then they shall be for food for all that are left. 5 The earth also shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold and on each (?) vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a cor of wine. 6 And those who have hungered shall rejoice: moreover, also, they shall behold marvels every day. 7 For winds shall go forth from before Me to bring every morning the fragrance of aromatic fruits, and at the close of the day clouds distilling the dew of health. 8 And it shall come to pass at that self-same time that the treasury of manna shall again descend from on high, and they will eat of it in those years, because these are they who have come to the consummation of time."
This association, I suggest, made fish a good symbol for a eucharistic meal designed to foreshadow the messianic feast. Catacomb art seems to associate fish with the eucharistic meal, but not strictly with the Last Supper, as Robin Margaret Jensen writes on page 59 of Understanding Early Christian Art
Thus, given the compositional details of the scenes, the meals should not be identified as actual agape meals or eucharists, although they may symbolically be related by virtue of the basic theme of eating together with Christ. The New Testament texts that seem most relevant are not narratives of the miraculous feeding or even the Last Supper, although these are obviously connected. The key texts are those that refer to the heavenly banquet (Luke 13:29; 14:15-24; Mark 14:25 and parallels) or describe Jesus' postresurrectional meals. Moreover, given the sepulchral setting of the paintings — not an insignificant matter — the eschatological significance of these postdeath meals not only fits the context, but simultaneously connects the images most closely with the tradition of the funeral banquet.
I believe that the earliest Christian eucharist was bread and some kind of liquid (either water or wine). Fish became symbolically involved only as the symbolism developed. The feedings of the 5000 and the 4000 seem to me to symbolize, at bare minimum, the eschatological feast and bounty expected during the messianic age, and they have strong overlaps with descriptions of the eucharist (the presence of bread; the verbs "took, broke, blessed, and gave"); thus they attracted this fish symbolism to themselves quite naturally. They are not the origin of the symbolism, but are rather a result of it. I have pointed out elsewhere
that the bread seems to be an integral part of both feedings whereas the fish appear to be somewhat superfluous.
Once fish was associated with the eucharist, at least symbolically (I am not sure how often it may have made its literal way into the feast itself), it found itself attached not only to eucharistic catacomb art but also to literary and epigraphic treatments of the eucharist:
Inscription of Abercius of Hieropolis: The citizen of a chosen city, this [monument] I made [while] living, that there I might have in time a resting-place of my body, [I] being by name Abercius, the disciple of a holy shepherd who feeds flocks of sheep [both] on mountains and on plains, who has great eyes that see everywhere. For this [shepherd] taught me [that the] book [of life] is worthy of belief. And to Rome he sent me to contemplate majesty, and to see a queen golden-robed and golden-sandalled; there also I saw a people bearing a shining mark. And I saw the land of Syria and all [its] cities; Nisibis [I saw] when I passed over Euphrates. But everywhere I had brethren. I had Paul ... Faith everywhere led me forward, and everywhere provided as my food a fish of exceeding great size, and perfect, which a holy virgin drew with her hands from a fountain and this it [faith] ever gives to its friends to eat, it having wine of great virtue, and giving it mingled with bread. These things I, Abercius, having been a witness [of them] told to be written here. Verily I was passing through my seventy-second year. He that discerneth these things, every fellow-believer [namely], let him pray for Abercius. And no one shall put another grave over my grave; but if he do, then shall he pay to the treasury of [the] Romans two thousand pieces of gold and to my good native city of Hieropolis one thousand pieces of gold.
Inscription of Pectorius of Autun: Divine race of the celestial fish, make use of a pious heart, as you, one among mortals, receive the immortal spring of oracular waters. Refresh your soul, friend, with the ever-flowing waters of wealth-giving wisdom. Receive the honey-sweet food of the savior of the saints. As you hunger, eat a fish that you hold in the palms of your hands. Bring satisfaction with a fish, for which I yearn, Lord Savior. I pray to you, light of the dead, that my mother rests well. My father Aschandius, dear to my heart, along with my sweet mother and brothers, remember your Pectorius in the peace of the fish. [Interpretation of Religious Symbols in the Graeco-Roman World: A Case Study of Early Christian Fish Symbolism, by Laurence Harold Kant, appendix 1.]
The "divine race of the celestial fish" would be Christians, who are indeed called a race in Christian literature:
Apology of Aristides 2.2 [addressed to Hadrian, emperor 117-138]: Φανερὸν γάρ ἐστιν ἡμῖν, ὦ βασιλεῦ, ὅτι τρία γένη εἰσὶν ἀνθρώπων ἐν τῷδε τῷ κόσμῳ, ὧν εἰσὶν οἱ τῶν παρ' ὑμῶν λεγομένων θεῶν προσκυνηταί, καὶ Ἰουδαῖοι, καὶ Χριστιανοί. / 2 For it is clear to us, O king, that there are three races of men in this world, of whom there are the worshipers of what are called gods by you, and Jews, and Christians. [The Syriac and Armenian have four races, and specify them as Barbarians and Greeks, Jews and Christians.]
The "fish that you hold in the palms of your hands" is probably the eucharist:
Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 23.21-22: 21 In approaching therefore, come not with thy wrists extended, or thy fingers spread; but make thy left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed thy palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed thine eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest thou lose any portion thereof; for whatever thou losest, is evidently a loss to thee as it were from one of thine own members. For tell me, if any one gave thee grains of gold, wouldest thou not hold them with all carefulness, being on thy guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Wilt thou not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from thee of what is more precious than gold and precious stones? 22 Then after thou hast partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also to the Cup of His Blood; not stretching forth thine hands, but bending, and saying with an air of worship and reverence, Amen , hallow thyself by partaking also of the Blood of Christ. And while the moisture is still upon thy lips, touch it with thine hands, and hallow thine eyes and brow and the other organs of sense. Then wait for the prayer, and give thanks unto God, who hath accounted thee worthy of so great mysteries.
It would be nice if this eucharistic origin for early Christian fish symbolism, rooted in eschatological expectations of the messianic banquet, could account for the other two fishy aspects I have yet to discuss — the postresurrectional fish and the disciples as fishermen — but alas, I do not think it can.
The Resurrection Fish
The postresurrectional fish in John and Luke certainly looks
like it could be eucharistic:
John 21.2-14: 2 Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two others of His disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter says to them, "I am going fishing." They say to him, "We will also come with you." They went out and got into the boat; and that night they caught nothing. 4 But when the day was now breaking, Jesus stood on the beach; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 So Jesus says to them, "Children, you do not have any fish, do you?" They answered Him, "No." 6 And He said to them, "Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch." So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish. 7 Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved says to Peter, "It is the Lord." So when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put his outer garment on (for he was stripped for work), and threw himself into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the little boat, for they were not far from the land, but about one hundred yards away, dragging the net full of fish. 9 So when they got out on the land, they see a charcoal fire already laid and fish placed on it, and bread. 10 Jesus says to them, "Bring some of the fish which you have now caught." 11 Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus says to them, "Come and have breakfast." None of the disciples ventured to question Him, "Who are You?" knowing that it was the Lord. 13 Jesus comes and takes the bread and gives it to them, and the fish likewise. 14 This is now the third time that Jesus was manifested to the disciples, after He was raised from the dead.
Luke 24.36-43: 36 While they were telling these things, He Himself stood in their midst and says to them, "Peace be to you." 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit. 38 And He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." 40 And when He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. 41 While they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement, He said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" 42 They gave Him a piece of a roasted fish [ἰχθύος ὀπτοῦ μέρος; the Byzantine adds: καὶ ἀπὸ μελισσίου κηρίου, "and of a honeycomb"]; 43 and He took it and ate it before them.
Luke has an Ignatian parallel here:
Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans 3.1-3: 1 Ἐγὼ γὰρ καὶ μετὰ τὴν ἀνάστασιν ἐν σαρκὶ αὐτὸν οἶδα καὶ πιστεύω ὄντα. 2 καὶ ὅτε πρὸς τοὺς περὶ Πέτρον ἦλθεν, ἔφη αὐτοῖς· Λάβετε, ψηλαφήσατέ με καὶ ἴδετε, ὅτι οὐκ εἰμὶ δαιμόνιον ἀσώματον. καὶ εὐθὺς αὐτοῦ ἥψαντο καὶ ἐπίστευσαν, καρθέντες τῇ σαρκὶ αὐτοῦ καὶ τῷ πνεύματι. διὰ τοῦτο καὶ θανάτου κατεφρόνησαν, ηὑρέθησαν δὲ ὑπὲρ θάνατον. 3 μετὰ δὲ τὴν ἀνάσασιν συνέφαγεν αὐτοῖς καὶ συνέπιεν ὡς σαρκικός, καίπερ πνευματικῶς ἡνωμένος τῷ πατρί. / 1 For I know and believe that he was in the flesh even after the resurrection. 2 And when he came to those who were with Peter, he said to them, "Reach out, touch me and see that I am not a bodiless daimon." And immediately they touched him and believed, having been intermixed with his flesh and spirit. For this reason they also despised death, for they were found to be beyond death. 3 And after his resurrection he ate and drank with them as a fleshly being, even though he was spiritually united with the Father.
For Ignatius, the eating and drinking is a sign that Jesus is not a docetic being. For Luke, however, the eating of the fish comes after
the nondocetic stuff, really. It can be read as adding to the impression that Jesus is flesh and bone, but strictly speaking this has already been established by the invitation to touch him, and the eating comes across as an extra detail, one which would not have been missed had it been absent. Also, any strictly antidocetic interpretation of this Lucan passage fails to reckon with the coincidence that Jesus eats fish in John 21, as well, albeit in completely different circumstances. On top of that, there is the coincidence that the calling of the disciples earlier in the three synoptic gospels bears similarities to the postresurrectional appearances, as I have described elsewhere
. Accordingly, I think there is something deeper at work here, something involving fish in particular and not just any old food that Jesus could have eaten. And I do not think that the fish as a eucharistic symbol is the etiology I am seeking, simply because most of our texts seem to insist
that any resurrection fish available to Jesus cannot
Matthew 26.29: 29 "But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom."
Mark 14.25: 25 "Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God."
Luke 22.15-18: 15 And He said to them, "I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God." 17 And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He said, "Take this and share it among yourselves; 18 for I say to you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine from now on until the kingdom of God comes."
1 Corinthians 11.26: 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.
Didache 9.4: 4 As this broken bread was once scattered on the mountains and, after it had been brought together, became one, so may Your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth unto Your kingdom; for Yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.
Didache 10.5: 5 Remember, Lord, Your Church, to redeem it from every evil and to perfect it in Your love, and gather it together from the four winds, even that which has been sanctified for Your kingdom which You have prepared for it; for Yours is the kingdom and the glory forever.
In all of these texts, the eucharist is associated, not with the resurrection, but with the advent (the parousia
), the coming of the Lord. There is
a text which seems to place a eucharist at the resurrection, but it does so with bread, not with fish:
Jerome, On Famous Men 2: 2 .... The Gospel also which is called the Gospel according to the Hebrews, and which I have recently translated into Greek and Latin and which also Origen often makes use of, after the account of the resurrection of the Savior says, "But the Lord, after he had given his grave clothes to the servant of the priest, appeared to James" (for James had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour in which he drank the cup of the Lord until he should see him rising again from among those that sleep) and again, a little later, it says, "'Bring a table and bread,' said the Lord." And immediately it is added, "He brought bread and blessed and broke and gave to James the Just and said to him, 'My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man is risen from among those that sleep.'" ....
Gospel of the Hebrews 7: 7 The Lord, however, when he had given the shroud to the servant of the priest, went to James and appeared to him. James indeed had sworn that he would not eat bread from that hour when he had drunk the chalice of the Lord until he saw him risen from among those who sleep. .... "Bear forth," said the Lord, "a table and bread." He bore bread and blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to James the Just, and said to him, "My brother, eat your bread, because the Son of Man has resurrected from among those who sleep." [This is my extraction from Jerome.]
It seems unlikely to me, therefore, that fish came to be the food of choice for some of the resurrection appearances based on its eucharistic associations. Also, I think that the eucharistic symbolism is powerless to explain the disciples as fishermen commissioned to become fishers of men (which is why I originally thought it possible that the disciples being fishermen might be a genuine reminiscence). The eucharistic use of fish stands on its own, and we must seek another explanation for the postresurrectional fish; I think it look something like this:
- Fishing was symbolic in Greek and Roman culture of drawing men in with rhetoric, and therefore of converting them.
- Fishing was symbolic in the Hebrew scriptures of much the same thing.
- Fishing was thus a suitable symbol for the commissioning of the apostles.
- Fishing belongs, then, to a setting after the resurrection.
- Fishing being set before the resurrection is an extension of this, bringing the commissioning full circle.
Fishing was a natural symbol for drawing people in with one's words, as Petronius shows:
Petronius, Satyricon 3: 3 Agamemnon would not allow me to stand declaiming out in the colonnade longer than he had spent sweating inside the school. "Your talk has an uncommon flavour, young man," he said, "and what is most unusual, you appreciate good sense. I will not therefore deceive you by making a mystery of my art. The fact is that the teachers are not to blame for these exhibitions. They are in a madhouse, and they must gibber. Unless they speak to the taste of their young masters they will be left alone in the colleges, as Cicero remarks. Like the toadies [of Comedy] cadging after the rich man's dinners, they think first about what is calculated to please their audience. They will never gain their object unless they lay traps for the ear. A master of oratory is like a fisher [piscator]; he must put the particular bait on his hook which he knows will tempt the little fish [pisciculos], or he may sit waiting on his rock with no hope of a catch."
Notice how those drawn to the master's oratory are called little fish, exactly as we find Christians being called by Tertullian.
The Jewish tradition was not lacking this kind of metaphor:
Jeremiah 16.16: "Behold, I am going to send for many fishermen [דַיָּגִ֥ים, ἁλεεῖς]," declares Yahweh, "and they will fish [דִיג֑וּם, ἁλιεύσουσιν] for them; and afterwards I shall send for many hunters [צַיָּדִ֔ים, θηρευτάς], and they will hunt [צָד֞וּם, θηρεύσουσιν] them from every mountain and every hill, and from the clefts of the rocks." / (LXX) Ἰδοὺ, ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω τοὺς ἁλεεῖς τοὺς πολλούς, λέγει κύριος, καὶ ἁλιεύσουσιν αὐτούς, καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα ἀποστελῶ τοὺς πολλοὺς θηρευτάς, καὶ θηρεύσουσιν αὐτοὺς ἐπάνω παντὸς ὄρους καὶ ἐπάνω παντὸς βουνοῦ καὶ ἐκ τῶν τρυμαλιῶν τῶν πετρῶν.
The imagery can be neutral or negative, as well:
Ezekiel 47.8-10: 8 Then he said to me, "These waters go out toward the eastern region and go down into the Arabah; then they go toward the sea, being made to flow into the sea, and the waters of the sea become fresh. 9 It will come about that every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live. And there will be very many fish, for these waters go there and the others become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. 10 And it will come about that fishermen will stand beside it; from Engedi to Eneglaim there will be a place for the spreading of nets. Their fish will be according to their kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea, very many."
Habakkuk 1.14-17: 14 Why have You made men like the fish of the sea, like creeping things without a ruler over them? 15 The Chaldeans bring all of them up with a hook, drag them away with their net, and gather them together in their fishing net. Therefore they rejoice and are glad. 16 Therefore they offer a sacrifice to their net and burn incense to their fishing net, because through these things their catch is large, and their food is plentiful. 17 Will they therefore empty their net and continually slay nations without sparing?
At any rate, the passage from Jeremiah has often been suspected of lying behind the fisherman narratives in the gospels to some extent. In context, the metaphorical fishermen are fishing for Judeans to restore after the captivity; one can detect thematic similarities with the notion of the disciples being sent to the lost sheep of Israel in Matthew 15.24. I think that the fishing narrative in John 21 (and, to my mind, probably also in the lost ending of Mark
) reflects this theme: without Jesus the disciples caught nothing; with Jesus they caught a netload. The imagery of feeding sheep is also present (and of similar meaning) in verses 15-17. I have given reasons for suspecting that the gospel of Luke knew the lost ending of Mark, and I think that Jesus eating fish in Luke 24.42-43 is a relic either from that lost ending or from the Johannine traditions feeding into John 21 (for reasons too numerous and complex to describe here I think that Luke knew the Johannine traditions at some stage of the game). Also, of course, the lost ending to the gospel of Peter seems to be describing the beginning of a postresurrectional fishing expedition.
Fishing was considered a fitting metaphor for the apostles' commission by Christ to win souls for the kingdom:
Origen, Commentary on Matthew 13.10: τοῦτο δὲ τὸ νόμισμα ἐν μὲν τῇ οἰκίᾳ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ οὐκ ἦν, ἐν δὲ τῇ θαλάσσῃ ἐτύγχανεν, καὶ ἦν ἐν τῷ στόματι τοῦ θαλασσίου ἰχθύος, ὃν καὶ αὐτὸν οἶμαι εὐεργετούμενον ἀναβεβηκέναι ἐν τῷ Πέτρου ἀγκίστρῳ συνειλημμένον, γενομένου ἁλιέως «ἀνθρώπων», ἐν οἷς ἦν ὁ τροπικῶς λεγόμενος ἰχθύς, ἵνα καὶ ἀπαρθῇ ἀπ' αὐτοῦ <τὸ> ἔχον τὴν εἰκόνα «Καίσαρος» νόμισμα, καὶ γένηται ἐν οἷς οἱ ἁλιευόμενοι ὑπὸ τῶν μεμαθηκότων ἀνθρώπους ἁλιεύειν. / Hoc autemnomisma in domo quiden Iesu non erat, in mari autemerat et erat in ore piscis marini, quemipsumpiscemarbitror adiuvatumadscendisse ad hamumPetri et comprehensumab eo, qui hominumpiscator fuerat factus, in quibus erat qui nunc moraliter dicitur piscis, ut tollatur ab eo nomisma, quod habebat imaginem Caesaris, et fiat inter eos qui piscati sunt eum. / This coin was not in the house of Jesus, but was found in the sea and in the mouth of the sea fish, which, when caught on the hook of Peter, who had become a fisher of persons, rose up, I believe, to its benefit. The fish on the hook was a figurative reference to him, in order that the coin with an image of Caesar might be taken up and in order that it might be among those fishermen who learned to catch persons.
Jerome, Commentary on Ezekiel 14.47: 47 Hoc totum non superfluo sed necessario dictum sit, quia mare mortuum influente in se flumine domini dicitur esse curatum. super hoc mare... erunt piscatores, quibus loquitur Iesus: venite ad me et faciam vos piscatores, de quibus et Hieremias: ecce ego, inquit, mittam piscatores; et plurimae species immo genera piscium erunt in mari quondam mortuo, quos pisces ad dexteram partem iubente domino extraxit Petrus et erant centum quinquaginta tres ita ut prae multitudine eorum retia rumperentur – aiunt autem qui de animantium scripsere naturis et proprie qui ἁλιευτικά tam Latino quam Graeco edidere sermone – de quibus opianicus cilex est poeta doctissimus – centum quinquaginta tria esse genera piscium; quae omnia capta sunt ab apostolis, et nihil remansit incaptum, dum et nobiles et ignobiles et divites et pauperes et omne genus hominum de mari huius saeculi extrahitur ad salutem. / All of this was said not superflously, but necessarily, because it is said that the Dead Sea is healed by the river of the Lord which flows into it. Above this sea... there will be fishers, to whom Jesus said: "Come to me and I will make you fishers," concerning whom Jeremiah says, "Behold, I will send fishermen." And there will be many species, indeed many kinds of fish, in the sea which was once dead. At the command of the Lord, Peter brought themto the right side and there were one hundred and fifty-three so that, because of their multitude, their nets broke. Those who write on the nature and characteristics of living creatures, which they publish in Latin and in Greek as Halieutica (and among them Oppian the Cilician is most learned) say that there are one hundred and fifty-three kinds of fish. All of these have been caught by the apostles, and nothing remains uncaptured, both noble and ignoble, both rich and poor. And all kinds of persons are brought from the sea of this world to salvation.
Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 17.21: And again in the same power of the Holy Ghost, Peter and John went up into the Temple at the hour of prayer, which was the ninth hour, and in the Name of Jesus healed the man at the Beautiful gate, who had been lame from his mother's womb for forty years; that it might be fulfilled which was spoken, "Then shall the lame man leap as an hart." And thus, as they captured in the spiritual net of their doctrine five thousand believers at once, so they confuted the misguided rulers of the people and chief priests, and that, not through their own wisdom, for they were unlearned and ignorant men, but through the mighty power of the Holy Ghost; for it is written, "Then Peter filled with the Holy Ghost said to them...."
By the time John 21 was completed, the meal of fish by the lake of Tiberias resembled something eucharistic, but I think that the metaphor of preachers as fishers came first; once the apostles were established as holy orators, fishing was a natural metaphor to apply, and then, precisely because fish had also come to represent the eucharist sometimes for completely independent reasons, it was all too easy to merge the two concepts and make the resurrection fish eucharistic. But the apostolic commission came first.
The Disciples as Fishermen
As it happens, I believe the explanation for the origins of the resurrection fish also explains the disciples being fishermen in the first place. There are reasons to doubt that the core group of disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) really originated as fishermen:
- John 1 has the disciples following John, not fishing. It is only the synoptic gospels which portray them as fishing. Thus gospel texts which are notorious for how much copying has gone on between them here seem not to be able to agree on how Jesus first encountered his inner circle of followers.
- Luke 5.1-11 looks like it deliberately combines the calling of the first disciples with the commissioning of the apostles and the miraculous catch, which is better suited for its context in John 21 than in its present Lucan context. (Again, reasons are given elsewhere.)
- The beloved disciple seems out of place as a fisherman in John 21. He seems to belong to Jerusalem and its environs earlier in the gospel, and now he is fishing with Peter and company. While this is certainly not impossible, no extant line of gospel tradition traces this development.
- Levi of Alphaeus seems out of place as a fisherman in Peter 14.60. He was a tax collector in Luke and Mark, and the gospel of Peter itself seems perhaps about to point back to his calling by Jesus just when the text breaks off. And now he is off fishing. Both Levi and the beloved disciple seem to me to hint at the whole motif of fishing having originated as a metaphor for the apostolic commission. (I would not insist that the evangelists themselves are necessarily aware of this; I am tracing the development of ideas and traditions, not of individual texts or their individual authors.)
- Whereas Mark 1.21, 29 implies that Peter and Andrew's hometown is Capernaum and Mark 6.45 has them crossing the sea toward Bethsaida, John 1.44 states that Peter and Andrew's hometown is Bethsaida and John 6.17 has them crossing the sea toward Capernaum. Since the very meaning of the place name Bethsaida is "house of hunting" or "house of fishing" (in Hebrew), it does not seem unlikely to me that John or one of his tradents moved their hometown from Capernaum to the more fitting Bethsaida, under the assumption that fishermen would hail from a village with the word "fishing" in its name. At any rate, that this kind of move can be made so tracelessly in the gospel tradition (even if by chance it went in the other direction) gives me no confidence that the same kind of reasoning might not have turned the apostles into fishermen.
- The fishing metaphor just seems more at home in the postresurrectional setting; it looks to me as if it has been moved forward in the gospel tradition (all too tangibly in the case of Luke 5.1-11) in order to give the disciples careers, for better or worse, before they officially became the apostles they were later known to be.
There is thus a stronger connection between fish and the resurrection commissions than between fish(ing) and the disciples called away from their nets.
None of this is of any certainty, obviously, but on balance I am currently more comfortable with the idea that the disciples became fishermen because the risen Jesus (so to speak) commissioned them as apostles than with the idea that they became apostles because Jesus found them as fishermen.