After his resurrection, Jesus manifested while seven of his disciples were fishing on the Sea of Tiberius a.k.a. Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-3). It had already been a long day and the experienced fisherman had come up empty (John 21:3). Jesus, whose identity was concealed from the disciples, instructed his charges to cast their nets on the right side of their boat (John 21:6). The disciples complied and the action resulted in the recognition of Jesus (John 21:7) and a massive haul of 153 fish (John 21:11).
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. (John 21:11, NASB)The odd detail of 153 fish is so precise that it has long fascinated commentators. It is the only time the number appears in the Bible. Many have followed the logic of C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) who wrote that “the number is significant or it would not have been recorded; it is improbable that it represents the fortuitous but precise recollection of an eye witness (Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 581).”
For many, the detail is simply too specific to be insignificant. Some suggest that it indicates that the author was present for the catch. Others have gone to great lengths to find meaning in the number itself. Here are a few examples:
- While commenting on Ezekiel 47, Jerome (347-420) claimed that the Greeks had identified exactly 153 species of fish in the sea (Commentary Ezekiel, PL 25:474C). This would make the fish the symbolic equivalent of the holistic and diverse nature of the salvation Jesus offered (Revelation 5:9). Not only has modern science obviously debunked the claim itself but it appears the remark was never valid. Jerome cites the naturalist writer Oppian but there is no evidence that Oppian ever made the assertion. In contrast, Pliny (23-79) stated that there were 74 varieties of fish (Gary M. Burge [b. 1952], John: The NIV Application Commentary, 585). At the very least, the belief that there were 153 species of fish was never widespread.
- In the 19th century, Lt. Col. R. Roberts calculated exactly 153 individuals who were specifically blessed by Jesus in the four canonical gospels (E. W. Bullinger [1837-1913], Number in Scripture, 276.)
- The mathematician Archimedes (287-212 BCE), in his treatise On the Measurement of the Cycle, used the whole number ratio 153:265 to accurately approximate the irrational ratio square root of 3, “the measure of the fish”. As such, 153 was known from the time of Archimedes as “the measure of the fish” or the vesica.
- Many have looked to the number’s unique properties and its connection to the number 17 for inspiration. Gregory the Great (540-604) found meaning in the fact that 153 was the result of 17 multiplied by 3 and again by 3 (17x32). Augustine of Hippo (354-430) adds that 153 is the triangular of 17 (Tractate Evangelium Joannes122.8). This means that it is the sum of the integers from 1 to 17 inclusive. This number can be expressed as a triangle. 153 also has the rare property that it is the sum of the cubes of its own digits (i.e. 153 = 1x1x1 + 5x5x5 + 3x3x3). It cannot be denied that 153 is a unique number but how does it relate to the text?
- Others have found meaning in gematria, a system by which numerical value is assigned to a word or phrase. Amazingly, the words “fish” and “Simon” (a fisher of men) equate to 153 in Greek. In Hebrew, “church of love” also adds to 153. In 1958, John Adney (J.A.) Emerton (b. 1928) suggested that the gematria correlated to Ezekiel 47 which predicts that 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 (Ezekiel 47:10 NASB).” Engedi has a numeric value of 17 and Eneglaim 153 (Emerton, Journal of Theological Studies 9 (1958) 86-89).
- A more advanced (or convoluted depending upon your perspective) version of combining math and the Bible was developed in 1975 called theomatics which was based upon gematria and isopsephia. Theomatically, fish related items have a numeric value based on the number 153. For example, “fishes” (153 x 8), “the net” (153 x 8), “multitude of fishes” (153 x 8 x 2), and “fishers of men” (153 x 14) all have numeric values divisible by 153.
Who took the time to count the fish? Do you think the specific number 153 has meaning? Why? Why not?
The story of the miraculous catch in John (John 21:1-11) is often juxtaposed with a similar fish story at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry presented in Luke’s gospel (Luke 5:1-11). In Luke, the disciples’ net breaks and the fish are lost (Luke 5:6). In John, after studying at the feet of the master, they are able to bring in and count the fish (John 21:11) - those perplexing 153 fish.
If there is meaning to the number, it cannot be said with any certainty. D. A. Carson (b. 1946) summarizes that “if the Evangelist has some symbolism in mind connected with the number 153, he has hidden it well (Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 673).”
Perhaps the simplest explanation is the best - the disciples caught 153 fish and were so impressed that they counted the haul. Leon Morris (1914-2006) reminds, “Fishermen..have always loved to preserve the details of unusual catches (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 764).”
Have you ever been fishing? If you caught 100+ fish in one day, would you count them? What is your best fish story?
“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” - Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)