Monday, April 19, 2010

So . . . why 153 fish?

That's the question I was asked after yesterday's sermon.

There are two main ideas:

Father George Rutler writes: ". . . the importance consists in this: There were specifically one hundred and fifty-three fish. This happened. In a legend, there would have been a million, and the fish would have been gossamer or golden or not fish at all but sparkling stars. The fishermen never forgot the details. As architects say, God is in the details."

2) "153" IS A SYMBOLIC NUMBER. Aristotle is said to have taught that there were 153 different species of fish in the Mediterranean. I've tried without success to find the exact reference in Aristotle, but St Jerome (345-420) alludes to this teaching when commenting on Ezekiel 47:9: "Those who have written about animated nature say that there are an hundred and fifty-three kinds of fish. One of each of these kinds was caught by the Apostle, and more remained uncaught. For noble and ignoble, rich and poor, all sorts and conditions of men, are drawn out of the sea of this world to salvation." So, the story is a symbol of the apostles' ministry of evangelising ALL people . . . without "breaking the net."

It’s interesting to look at other commentaries on the passage from the patristic age. Now, the kind of interpretation of Scripture that owes more to the ingenuity of the preacher than to the text itself is not entirely lacking among the Fathers! As many readers know, I am a serious devotee of typology as a way of holding together the Old and New Testaments (remember the posts on Luke 24?) And it is also clear to me that typology is the key to understanding the evolution of the liturgy from the texts of Holy Scripture in both east and west. However, in my youth I knew a Pentecostal preacher - a godly man - whose imagination nonetheless ran right out of control when it came to biblical types and shadows and numerology. He could prove just about anything with his Bible, his imagination, and his calculator. I thought he was in a league of his own, until as a student I was introduced to some of the Fathers, who leave him for dead! Just look at these passages from St Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376-444) and St Augustine of Hippo (354-430) on the 153 fish:

First St Cyril: ". . . they put the mass of captured fish before Him Who had commanded them to be caught; and the quantity of the fish is indicated by the number 153. The number 100, to the best of my judgment, signifies the complement of the nations, for the number 100 is a very perfect number, being compounded of 10 times 10; and for this reason our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, in one place, speaks in the parable of having 100 sheep belonging to Him, signifying the complete sum of rational creatures, and in another place declares that the best ground will bring forth a hundredfold, meaning thereby the perfect fertility of the righteous soul. The number 50, on the other hand, betokens the elect remnant of the Israelites, saved by grace; for 50 is half 100, and falls short of the perfect number in amount. And by the three, reference is made to the Holy and Consubstantial Trinity, the number alone showing this; for to the glory and ceaseless praise of the Trinity the life of those who have been taken captive through faith is consecrated, and implies connexion with the Godhead. For God is in all those who believe in Him, and keeps nigh unto Him, by means of sanctification, those who have been won over by the teaching of the Gospel."

Then St Augustine: ". . . of the reason of this number we must now, with the Lord's help, give some account. For if we determine on the number that should indicate the law, what else can it be but ten? For we have absolute certainty that the Decalogue of the law, that is, those ten well-known precepts, were first written by the finger of God on two tables of stone. Deuteronomy 9:10 But the law, when it is not aided by grace, makes transgressors, and is only in the letter, on account of which the apostle specially declared, The letter kills, but the spirit gives life. 2 Corinthians 3:6 Let the spirit then be added to the letter, lest the letter kill him whom the spirit makes not alive, and let us work out the precepts of the law, not in our own strength, but by the grace of the Saviour. But when grace is added to the law, that is, the spirit to the letter, there is, in a kind of way, added to ten the number of seven. For this number, namely seven, is testified by the documents of holy writ given us for perusal, to signify the Holy Spirit. For example, sanctity or sanctification properly pertains to the Holy Spirit, whence, as the Father is a spirit, and the Son a spirit, because God is a spirit, so the Father is holy and the Son holy, yet the Spirit of both is called peculiarly by the name of the Holy Spirit. Where, then, was there the first distinct mention of sanctification in the law but on the seventh day? For God sanctified not the first day, when He made the light; nor the second, when He made the firmament; nor the third, when He separated the sea from the land, and the land brought forth grass and timber; nor the fourth, wherein the stars were created; nor the fifth, wherein were created the animals that live in the waters or fly in the air; nor the sixth, when the terrestrial living soul and man himself were created; but He sanctified the seventh day, wherein He rested from all His works. The Holy Spirit, therefore, is aptly represented by the septenary number. The prophet Isaiah likewise says, The Spirit of God shall rest on Him; and thereafter calls our attention to that Spirit in His septenary work or grace, by saying, The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and piety; and He shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of God. Isaiah 11:2-3 And what of the Revelation? Are they not there called the seven Spirits of God, Revelation 3:1 while there is only one and the same Spirit dividing to every one severally as He will? 1 Corinthians 12:11 But the septenary operation of the one Spirit was so called by the Spirit Himself, whose own presence in the writer led to their being spoken of as the seven Spirits. Accordingly, when to the number of ten, representing the law, we add the Holy Spirit as represented by seven, we have seventeen; and when this number is used for the adding together of every several number it contains, from 1 up to itself, the sum amounts to one hundred and fifty-three. For if you add 2 to 1, you have 3 of course; if to these you add 3 and 4, the whole makes 10; and then if you add all the numbers that follow up to 17, the whole amounts to the foresaid number; that is, if to 10, which you had reached by adding all together from 1 to 4, you add 5, you have 15; to these add 6, and the result is 21; then add 7, and you have 28; to this add 8, and 9, and 10, and you get 55; to this add 11 and 12, and 13, and you have 91; and to this again add 14, 15, and 16, and it comes to 136; and then add to this the remaining number of which we have been speaking, namely, 17, and it will make up the number of fishes. But it is not on that account merely a hundred and fifty-three saints that are meant as hereafter to rise from the dead unto life eternal, but thousands of saints who have shared in the grace of the Spirit, by which grace harmony is established with the law of God, as with an adversary; so that through the life-giving Spirit the letter no longer kills, but what is commanded by the letter is fulfilled by the help of the Spirit, and if there is any deficiency it is pardoned. All therefore who are sharers in such grace are symbolized by this number, that is, are symbolically represented. This number has, besides, three times over, the number of fifty, and three in addition, with reference to the mystery of the Trinity; while, again, the number of fifty is made up by multiplying 7 by 7, with the addition of 1, for 7 times 7 make 49. And the 1 is added to show that there is one who is expressed by seven on account of His sevenfold operation; and we know that it was on the fiftieth day after our Lord's ascension that the Holy Spirit was sent, for whom the disciples were commanded to wait according to the promise."

Well, that's pretty exhausting stuff, isn't it! I included it really just to prove that I wasn't exaggerating.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My personal view is that Fr Rutler is right . . . i.e. that the passage clearly smacks of eyewitness testimony, while at the same time the number 153, coinciding neatly with zoological theories of the ancients, enables the incident to become a great symbol of the universality of the apostles' ministry, just before the Lord renews the vocation of Peter.


Anonymous said...

I agree and love the comparison to the number of fish Aristotle mentioned, and the fish in the mediteranean in Ezekiel 37 - there is a strong connection. 'Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. 10 Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. Robin Jones

Michel Antonesco said...

Could mean 142 Patriarchs of Jerusalem + 11 Apostles (James is part of the 142) = 153. In 2013 we are at 142 nd Patriarch. Makes one think

Alice Linsley said...

I've known Pentecostals and other Dispensationalists who, like the man described here, draw meaning from details such as numbers to strengthen their own faith.

Anonymous said...

On the Dead Sea Scrolls Enoch solar calendar Christmas Day is on the 7th day of the 10th month.

The average human gestation period is 277 days.

277 days from a conception on Christmas Day, brings you to the birth of Christ on The Day of Atonement –
day 10 of month 7 !

They knew there was Something Special about Christmas Day !

( According to one researcher Christmas Day was never the winter solstice when the Julian calendar was first formulated, as so often asserted without any proof ! )

The Dead Sea Scrolls calendar allows us to finally identify the Temple Sadducee omer day starting their Feast of Weeks – the 19th Abib ! ( The Dead Sea Scrolls show that the Qumran community had this day one week later, on the 26th Abib.)

When using this Temple Sadducee 19th Abib omer, amazing numerical patterns show up between the Feast of Weeks 49 day count and their corresponding day dates !

Aside from that, amongst many other interesting features on this calendar: if you count starting from Christmas Day, 153 days forwards falls on the Temple Sadducee Day of Pentecost ! ! !

For much more see: SPECIAL.xls

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