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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
No Reason ?
Some have said, that there was no reason at all for
John to note that it was 153 fish. No reason other than it just happened
that way. While a lot of things are possible, that explanation seems
Writing on animal skin or parchment John uses his
limited and precious space to note this detail of 153 large fish. And he
does this even while
stating that he omitted many other details. See John 20:30. He must have had a reason to include the detail of 153 fish. The fact that the church
fathers searched for some meaning to explain the number 153 suggests
that they knew that there must be some meaning that John attached to it.
“ ... but the
definite number of a 153; and of the reason of this number we must
now, with the Lord’s help, give some account.”
St Augustine, Tractate 122 (John 20:30-21:11), section 8)
St. Augustine knew that there must be some reason
why John included this peculiar detail of “153” fish. His invocation
for “the Lord’s help” seems to indicate that he believed the answer was not obvious and only
with difficulty, and only with the Lord’s
help, would a person be able to determine its
Were the Father’s
No. They each offered good theology. And each of
their answers were valid secondary meanings to the reference of 153
fish. However, the Fathers did not claim that their explanation for
was also John’s meaning. And, the fact their explanations differed from
each other suggests that none of them had found the others’ answers to
be completely satisfactory. And, we are not required to agree with the
Church Fathers when they are not in agreement with each other.
I agree with the Church Fathers on two points. St.
Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, Evagrius Ponticus, and St.
Cyril of Alexandria each gave a different explanation as to what 153
fish meant. Each seems to imply that each of the others has given an
incomplete if not inadequate answer, therefore necessitating their own
additional explanation. Not one of their answers
offers a truly satisfactory explanation as to what John the Evangelist
intended to convey by his reference to153
fish. This will be explained below.
Second, each of these Fathers offer a secondary, or symbolic
meaning for the number 153, rather than hold the
position that this number had no special or symbolic meaning at all.
They were all convinced that it must have had some special meaning.
While the Fathers use mathematical formulas to explain the reason for 153 fish,
the textual evidence and context strongly points to the conclusion that John
was just using the reference to 153 large fish as a simple metaphor.
Why Church Fathers’ Answers Could Not
A Communication Failure ?
Mixing the Metaphors :
Net Not Tearing
= Unity ???
A Message of Little or No Substance ?
A Communication Failure ?
Problems with St. Jerome’s
Jerome wrote that Oppian’s Halieutica lists a total of 153 types of fish.
This number of species is supposed to represent all the nations, and so
thus the Gospel is for people of every nation.
However, Wikipedia states:
“Jerome, for example, wrote that Oppian’s
Halieutica listed 153 species of fish, although this could not have
been the intended meaning of the Gospel writer because Oppian
composed Halieutica after the Gospel text was written, and at any
rate never gave a list of fish species that clearly adds up to 153.”
Wikipedia, and sources
St. John could not have been using “information” that
would not be made available until the time of Jerome or even Oppian.
In order to defend the position that John intended this connection to
153 a person would have to maintain that this “knowledge” of the
number of species of fish was known at John’s time. Further, it
would have to be so widely known that John could safely assume his
readers already knew it. No one has been able to demonstrate that
anyone “knew” there were 153 species of fish prior to Jerome’s
assertion. It seems very difficult to believe that this
“information” was so wide spread in John’s time that he could just
assume everyone knew it. Therefore, it seems impossible for Jerome’s idea to
have been John’s. John could not have expected his readers to know he
had intended Jerome’s association of 153 with the supposed number of
species of fish.
Communication Failure and Other Church
To examine this issue closely we have to ask two
Why did each of the Fathers explain their
meaning for the number 153?
Because they knew that their own
particular meaning would not have been realized by their readers unless
they did explain it.
Why does St. John not explain his meaning?
Like the Fathers, he too would have known that if he had intended one
their meanings it would have been necessary to explain that
connection like they did. However, he does not. Why
does he not explain his meaning? This points very strongly to the
conclusion that he offers no explanation because he knows no explanation
is needed. He knows his audience will recognize his meaning
right away. It could not have been one of the Father's
explanations that requires an explanation. .
An evangelist seeks to convey a message. His
message might be slightly hidden or symbolic, but he is not going to
make it unfathomable. We can make several reasonable deductions.
1. John states at the end of this Gospel that he
did not include many other things that Jesus did. See John 20:30.
Since John did decide to include this very specific and unique number,
153, there must have been a reason for it. It was not wasted
space on the sheepskin. It conveys some message.
2. John was an effective communicator. He
would have known how to make sure his meaning was apparent to those whom he was writing.
3. John does not give an explicit explanation
of his meaning, so we can safely conclude that his readers already had all the
sufficient information and context they needed to figure it out.
They would have known the message.
4. And John must have
known that his readers, of his time and place would have been able to
figure out any symbolic meaning, on account that he does Not explain it.
John would have known that his readers would have recognized his
5. The message that John is giving in this passage
must have some meaning that was not already obvious to the reader before
such reader reads this Gospel. The reference to “153 fish” and its context must
convey some idea new to the reader. The reader must walk away from the
Gospel enriched with some new idea that he did not hold before reading it.
Church Fathers above
all knew that “153” had to have some significance. They searched
very hard to find a meaning for it. But they all offered reasons
that differed from each other as to what it meant.
The answers given by the church fathers above are
certainly good orthodox and useful messages. And they that make for good effective
teaching. However, they cannot be John’s primary reason and they
cannot be the message
that he meant to convey by including this number of 153. Their
reasons could not have been John’s because that would violate
the reasonable deductions of 2 - 5 above. The mathematical
characteristics of the number 153 that the church fathers used were read
by them into the text. It seems very difficult if not impossible to
defend the idea that John would have known that his readers would have
seen these mathematical formulas as part of his message.
Further, even if it could be shown that John did
know that his readers would have somehow seen the formulas and
understood the correlations used by the fathers above, then the message
would not have contained anything new. Therefore, the explanations
given by the Fathers - St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, Evagrius
Ponticus, and St. Cyril of Alexandria, have to be dismissed as not being John’s intention because
that would violate deductions #4 and #5 above.
For example, it cannot be
imagined that St. Augustine would have thought along these lines: “I,
St. Augustine, did not know that there were exactly 10 commandments, or
that the gifts of the Holy Spirit totaled the number of 7, or that the
Persons in the God-head totaled to exactly 3, until I read this passage
Gospel. But, now I see it is so because (10 + 7) x 3 x 3 = 153.”
The data that there are a total of 10 commandments,
7 gifts of the Holy Spirit, and 3 Persons in the Trinity, cannot be
extrapolated from this passage in John. St. Augustine knows this data apart
from this text and reads it into John’s Gospel here. Good preaching for
St. Augustine, but it cannot be John’s point because of the reasons and
deductions stated above. Similar arguments could be made why the reasons
proposed by the other fathers also could not be John’s reasons.
The fact that each father referred to above used a
different mathematical formula makes the case even more solid that John
could not have expected his readers to see any one of these formulas as
being the correct one. Different people because of their own particular
tastes might prefer one formula over the other, but none of them are
the text of John. The fathers of the church read them into the text to
make a theological point of their own. These could not have been John’s point(s.)
Many possible meanings have been proposed for the
number 153. There are various mathematical associations and formulas
that can be used to arrive at that number.
However, scripture scholar Raymond Brown
points out the weakness of these arguments. There is no reason to
believe that any of the initial readers of John’s Gospel would
recognized any of those connections :
“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).
And here, I believe is the key. We must examine
what John’s initial readers would have known. And from that
we will be able to understand what meaning John knew he could attach to
the number 153 that he knew would have been recognized by his readers.
Mixing the Metaphors : Net
Not Tearing = Unity ???
In Luke 5:1-11 the word fish is used as a metaphor
for all believers. Many people have assumed John meant the same.
And some argue the net not tearing was John’s way of teaching that the
Church has perfect unity. As will be seen below, John already
taught that message in a much more definite manner. The idea that
this is John’s message here is self-defeating.
If the net need NOT to tear to show that there was
no schism in the Church, and if this was John’s point, then the skeptic could
easily point to the passage in Luke to contradict his point and “show”
that there is schism because the net does tear in that passage.
John’s Gospel cannot and does not do away with the legitimacy of Luke’s.
In this supposed scenario, John would have chosen a metaphor that
was already corrupted in its foundation, and John’s message would have
gone off the rails before he ever started. This cannot be John’s
message. Therefore, John must
have had a different meaning for “153 fish”
Secondly, why would John bother to state by the
way of a weak metaphor what he had already stated explicitly and in a
that was much more forceful and done so with much more authority ?
See Jesus’ High Priestly prayer and how he had already, and much more
effectively taught that there is no schism in God’s Church.
John 17:20-21 and CCC # 813 - 834.
A Message of Little or No
Further, we can see another and deeper problem.
If we accept any one of the father’s various mathematical formulas and
explanations - with Jerome’s being a slight exception - the net
evangelistic gain for John and his reader would be zero.
For example, let us assume that John had intended
one of the various mathematical formulas that the
Fathers used to explain the number 153. Even if the reader knew to
interject one of those formulas he would not be able to infer from this
passage of John how many gifts there were of the Holy Spirit, or how
many Persons there are in the God-Head, etc. He could only arrive
at that data by some other means. That information would then have to
be read into the text. And the reader could extract from this text
nothing more than what he read into it. Then, the net evangelistic gain
for John and his reader for this passage would equal Zero.
We have a slight exception with Jerome’s idea that the “153 fish”
means the Gospel is for everyone. But that message
already pretty much obvious. And besides Jerome’s proposal has the
insurmountable difficulties stated above.
Whereas, the meaning of “153 fish” as defended at this website is a
message that adds or makes a finer point in the Gospel message and it is a
message that the Greeks desperately needed to
And hence, such an attempt to defend these explanations by the Fathers
as being John’s idea fails to meet reasonable criteria.
Parallels in John’s Gospel
In his book, The Genius of John, author Peter F.
Ellis shows parallels all the way through the Gospel of John. There is
a phrase or idea that is repeated to draw attention to the special
meaning of an idea sandwiched in the center between the two.
See several examples of this type of
Chiastic Parallel from his book.
Although not mentioned by him there is another
parallel at the end of John’s Gospel.
John 20:30 states that Jesus did many other things
not mentioned in John’s Gospel.
And John 21:25 repeats that.
(See notes why
chapter 21 had to be written by the same author as the rest of the
So, we need to ask,
“Was John creating a parallel between these two
passages to highlight a special meaning to the passage sandwiched
Here is the exact center between John 20:30 and
“So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of
large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and
although there were so many,
the net was not torn.
said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared
ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.
came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish.”
Was John implying that there is a special meaning
to the net not being torn as well as the 153 Fish ?