Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More on the 153 fish . . .

Just when you thought we were about to move on from Sunday's gospel reading, Fr Neville Rohrlach emailed me another - very ingenious - interpretation of the 153 fish! This comes from The New Testament: An Introduction, Volume 3, by Fr Paul Nadim Tarazi, published by St Vladimir's Seminary Press, NY., 2004:

Even the number of fish caught may have a symbolic role to play ("Simon Peter ... hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them"). John could have said simply "a great shoal of fish (as in Luke 5:6) or something to that effect, so if he included an actual number, the number is probably symbolic. Like 666 in Revelation, it was most likely derived by adding up the numeric values of letters in a word or phrase. Since the passage underscores the necessity of including the Gentiles in Christ's church, the author must have had the totality of Abraham's "children" in mind (which may also be behind Jesus' address to the disciples as "children' in Jn 21:5) The relevant scriptural text would then be the one about the institution of circumcision (Gen 17:1-14), in which male children of every origin or status were invited into the covenant with Abraham. The opening of that passage reads as follows:

'When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blame- less. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly." Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, "Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations (hmon goym). No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations (hmon goym). I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come forth from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you. And I will give to you, and to your descendants after you, the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God."' (Gen 17:1-8)

The Hebrew letters hmon goym would amount to 160. (h=5, m=40, o/w=6, n=50, g=3, y=10) If one deducts seven for the seven disciples present when the fish are brought in (Jn 2,1:1), then one would end up with 153. The symbolism of this number would then confirm everything else in this passage by indicating that for God's promise to Abraham to be fulfilled, everyone in the Roman empire - Jew and Gentile alike - must be included in his people, the church. The seven disciples would represent what Paul calls "the Israel of God," that is, the Jews who accept Jesus as the Messiah, while the 153 are the Gentiles who are now invited to join them as an integral part of God's people - as a branch grafted onto a tree (Rom 11:16-24).

The mission to the Gentiles is then explicitly brought into the context of the meal itself. Before the disciples could start eating the bread and the fish they already had, the Lord tells them: "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught" (Jn 21:10). Only then does he invite them to breakfast (v. 12) and distribute to them his food (v. 13). This is clearly Eucharistic imagery reflecting what Paul wrote about the Lord's supper in 1 Cor 11:17-26, and this Eucharistic meal completes the resurrection revelation. (20) "This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead" (v. 14) [Emphasis added]. The number "three" symbolizes assuredness and completeness just as Jesus' "three days" in the tomb expressed the certainty that he was truly dead, so now "three revelations" of the risen Lord demonstrate with an equal degree of assuredness that he truly lives.


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