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Why 153 Fish in
John 21:11 ?
Church Fathers : Sts. Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Cyril A.
No Reason ?
Why Church Fathers’ Answers Could Not Be John’s
Problems with Square Root of 3 Answer
Context Points to the Answer : An Explanation That Works
Archimedes : Context of Time and Place
Greeks and Wisdom
Calculating the Measure of the Fish
Why Church Fathers Did Not (could not?) Give John’s Idea
What meaning did John intend for the reference to “153 fish” ?
To understand his meaning we need to read John’s verse just before this
account of the miraculous catch of fish. - The separation of John’s
Gospel into chapters did not happen until centuries after John. - He
“ … these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the
Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
John was fully engaged at trying to help convert the Greeks to the
Gospel. John was writing his Greek Gospel from the ancient Greek city of
Ephesus. He was writing to Greeks and Pastoring to them as an Evangelist
(See St. Irenaeus
The Greeks excelled in natural wisdom. The even looked to mathematical
wisdom as the key on how to live. See quote from Wikipedia.
However, they had mistakenly thought that their natural wisdom
contradicted and precluded the possibility of the supernatural wisdom of
Jesus' revelation of being true.
1 Corinthians 1:22-24
“For Jews demand signs and
Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block
to Jews and
foolishness to Gentiles, but … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of
Above all else the Greeks esteemed wisdom. The greatest
mathematical minds of antiquity were all Greek. There was Archimedes,
Euclid and Pythagoras, and not to mention Plato. Plato the philosopher
had an inscription carved over the archway of his Academy: “Let no one
ignorant of geometry enter here.”
The Greeks rejected the
Gospel as foolishness because it seemed to contradict their natural wisdom.
And without the gift of faith, the idea of Jesus who is God, Who dies on a cross
for sinners is hard to
accept from a worldly point of view. So, St. John as a pastor
wants correct this impasse, this seemingly logical contradiction between
natural wisdom the Greeks possessed and the wisdom Jesus came to reveal.
So, John uses the analogy of “153 fish” to represent all wisdom.
The Greeks will recognize “153 fish” to symbolize first and foremost
Archimedes’ work on π, but in a secondary way all Greek Wisdom including
the Pythagoreans and Euclid.
This is demonstrated by the facts already seen in
Calculating the Size of the Fish
In the analogy, the Apostles have no fish until Jesus appears.
Jesus is the source (and master) of the 153 fish. Jesus could
command Peter to bring him some fish because Jesus is the rightful
owner, and the source of all the fish which represents wisdom. The
Greeks had thought that their own wisdom precluded them from accepting
the message of Jesus which appeared as a contradiction to their wisdom.
They saw the Gospel as foolishness. But, according to John’s
analogy, the net contains all the fish. It contains both the
wisdom that comes from Jesus as well as the natural wisdom of the
Because there is no inconsistency or conflict
between these two wisdoms the same one net which contains them both does not tear.
“ … and although there were so many, the net was
John was not just communicator, he was also
an Evangelist, par excellence. He recognized the spiritual needs of the
By having 153 fish swim into the net, Jesus was
enabling John to use his skills as an evangelist. John, being the
ultimate evangelist, knew how to meet his prospective converts where
they were at and to acknowledge the natural strengths, their natural
and to build on that. Compare how St. Paul built on the partial
truths of the pagans in Acts 17:23.
John’s Gentle Unexplained Metaphor
So, why does John not explain his
meaning for 153 fish ?
Since John gives no reason, we can safely conclude John knew that no
explanation was required by his readers. So, we can reasonably
conclude that none of the Fathers’ explanations could have been John’s
intended meaning. John must have known the
context of time and place would have been sufficient to make his meaning clear. And therefore,
no explanation need be given. And so, unlike the Father’s explanations,
none was given by John.
John went to the very heart of
who and what the
Greeks are and to how they identified themselves. For a proud
person it can be hard to hear blunt statements like,
“You are wrong!”
And so, there was another pastoral reason
why John does not make the meaning of 153 fish explicit.
John lived with the Greeks and he knew that the Greeks held their natural wisdom in the highest
esteem and that they even identified themselves by it. He knew
about the problem St. Paul recounted above in his letter to the
Corinthians. John knew the Greeks needed to accept that their
wisdom had its foundation in Jesus Christ. The Greeks
had mistakenly thought that their logic precluded the possibility of the
Christian Gospel as being true. They valued their wisdom about natural
things, but denied Jesus had any role in it. They were guilty of
the sin of pride.
“Humility is the mother of all virtues," but the sin of pride puts
roadblocks into one's journey towards God. A humble person will
accept correction, but a proud man looks down on those who correct him
and enjoys dismissing corrective words without any serious examination.
John was not just a communicator. He was a pastor. He would
have know that most overly proud people will reject correction without
serious consideration of ideas that contradict or diminish the false
value they place in themselves. A better way to get such a person
to examine an idea is to get them to think that a particular idea is
their own. One way to plant such an idea into another person's head is
by using a gentle metaphor.
So, as a pastor,
John wants to be as gentle as possible when pointing out to the Greeks
that their wisdom was faulty. This is why John uses a subtle and
gentle metaphor of 153 fish. And this explains why John does not explain his
meaning. He knows his idea that Jesus is the source of all
153 fish, and therefore the source of all wisdom, will surely be
perceived by the Greeks. And he does not want
to rub the Greeks noses' in the fact that their wisdom, their logic, was faulty in initially rejecting
A Proof ?
John lived with the Greeks. So, he had to know about their
misperception that their wisdom was in compatible with the
Gospel. 1 Corinthians 1:22-24. And as a pastor he must have
wanted to do something about it. The best pastoral approach
would have been to use a gentle metaphor. Using “153 fish” to
suggest to the Greeks that their own natural wisdom had its
source in Jesus Christ would have been a brilliant idea.
Therefore, guided by the Holy Spirit John must have done so.
So, by gentle analogy John
shows that not only does Jesus not contradict natural wisdom, He is the
source of all wisdom.
Father Bob Stine’s answer is like a piece of a
jigsaw puzzle that makes all the other pieces fit together. It answers
all the questions without leaving any loose ends, unlike all the other
proposed answers that really do not fit and could not be John’s primary
St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory, and St. Cyril all offer
ideas which are good theology, and which are plausible secondary
meanings. However, their ideas were all
different and their is no real evidence that any of their ideas
would have been obvious to John’s readers.
Therefore, we can safely
conclude that neither St. Jerome’s,
nor St. Augustine’s nor St. Gregory’s
St. Cyril’s idea could have been John’s primary intention.
Read more details on
John sometimes refers to Jesus with the simple term
“kyrios” Strong’s number 2962.)
Here, in these passages after the catch of the
153 fish (John 21:7, 12) John
adds the definite article
“ho” Strong’s number 3588.)
John says in
“It is the Lord!”
This was the Hebrew way of referring to
“Yahweh.” Whenever the Jews would read the Divine Name they would
never actually pronounce “Yahweh.” The Jews would simply pronounce
“the Lord.” John is implying
here in a strong way that Jesus is not just another Greek god.
Rather, Jesus is the One True God, the only God, and therefore the
source of all wisdom.
Fr. Bob’s explanation shows what “153 fish” really
means. John lived with the Greeks in Ephesus. He had first-hand
knowledge of their mistaken notion that the Gospel was in contradiction to
It is very hard to imagine John not wanting to
address and correct the problem the Greeks had.