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Why  153  Fish  in  John  21:11  ?

Sections :

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
John’s Purpose
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 very unlikely

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. 

St. Augustine  states :

“ ... 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.”
See  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 Lords help, would a person be able to determine its hidden” meaning.

Were the Father’s Wrong ?

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  “153 fish”  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 Be John’

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  Idea

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 two and three

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 Fathers

To examine this issue closely we have to ask two questions.

Why did each of the Fathers explain their meaning for the number 153? 
Answer :
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 meaning.

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.

The 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 in John’s 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 implied in 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 context 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 manner 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 Substance ?

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 is 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 hear.

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 Gospel.)

 So, we need to ask,

“Was John creating a parallel between these two passages to highlight a special meaning to the passage sandwiched between them?”

Here is the exact center between John 20:30 and John 21:25

John 21:11-13
“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
.  Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.  Jesus 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 ?




Continue ...
Problems with Square Root of 3 Answer


Sections :

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
John’s Purpose
Why Church Fathers Did Not (could not?) Give John’s Idea


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