by Al Maxey

Issue #660 ------- May 22, 2015
And in that Heaven of all their wish,
There shall be no more land, say fish.

Rupert Brooke (1887-1915)

Mystery of the 153 Fish
Reflective Study of John 21:11

The 21st chapter of the gospel record penned by John the apostle is fascinating on a number of levels, and it has also presented a bit of mystery to biblical scholars over the centuries. In verses 22-23, for example, we find a statement made about John by Jesus that has left the impression in the minds of some that John never died, and that he may actually still be alive today. There is the account of a great miracle performed by Jesus in which He allows these fishermen to bring in a huge catch of fish (more about this in a moment). We also find an interesting exchange between Jesus and Peter around a charcoal fire on the beach: a conversation that reveals much about the heart of this apostle and the inner transformation that was occurring. I have dealt with this dialogue between Jesus and Peter in some depth in Reflections #189 ("Breakfast on the Beach: Dramatic Dialogue at a Fish Fry"). In John's final statement in this chapter he makes this astounding observation: "Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written" (John 21:25). Wouldn't you love to know what some of those "other things" were?! We can only imagine!

Perhaps one of the most puzzling passages in this chapter, however, is found in verse 11. When Peter pulls the fishing net ashore it is discovered to be "full of large fish," and the number of the catch is said to be 153. Yet, "even with so many the net was not torn." This is in sharp contrast to an earlier episode when these disciples caught a great many fish (again as the result of a miracle performed by Jesus) and their fishing nets were torn, and their boats even began to sink as a result of the large catch (Luke 5:1-11). It was on that occasion that Jesus called them to become "fishers of men." In John 21, though, we find Jesus and His disciples years later at a post-resurrection/pre-ascension meeting, a meeting filled with spiritual significance, especially for Peter. I have dealt with that significance in other studies, so will not do so here. Instead, I want to consider the possible significance (if there is any) of the number of fish caught that day. John informs us that the number was 153. Why was this even mentioned? In the Luke 5 account of a similar miraculous catch (which most likely was even larger) no specific numerical accounting was given. So, why was one given here? Those Christians who believe that every sentence, word and letter of the biblical text is "God breathed" dare not disregard this number, for based on that belief they must assume God had a specific purpose in mind for revealing it to future generations. This has led, as one might well imagine, to countless speculations over the centuries as to the possible meaning of this number.

Dr. Charles Ellicott (1819-1905), a distinguished English theologian, observed, "We have no clue to any mystical interpretation of this number, and it is probably not intended to convey one. The various meanings which men have read into it ... take their place among the eccentricities of exegesis from which even the latest results of criticism are not free" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 6, p. 547]. There have indeed been countless "eccentricities of exegesis," both ancient and modern, with regard to this number, and some of them are quite bizarre. We humans, after all, love a good mystery, and when a number, such as this, is presented in Scripture with no accompanying explanation, we tend to try and formulate one (often, in the process, creating even more mystery and confusion). Yes, "mysteries have been found in this number" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 869], yet one has to admire the honesty of Dr. John Gill (1697-1771), an English pastor and theologian, who wrote, "What mystery there may be in the number, I know not" [Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. Nevertheless, the number is there in the biblical text, so it is not unexpected that men have attempted to discern what, if any, significance this number may have. Thus, "various efforts have been made from early times to give some symbolic meaning to this enumeration" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, pt. 2, p. 503]. "Numerous attempts have been made to establish a symbolic meaning for the number of the fish, but no solid results have been achieved. All attempts are too fanciful to be credible" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 200]. "It is fanciful to imagine, and even worse to seek, some kind of symbolism or mysticism in the number 153, or some mysterious way in which the number 153 is attained. John's narrative is exact, that is all; he remembers the very number of the fish. The wonder of it all has never faded from his mind. Those who say, 'undoubtedly symbolic,' need to furnish the proof" [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 1410].

Perhaps one of the most credible explanations, and certainly one of the most practical, is that these businessmen (for that is what they were, after all) were in the habit of tallying up the catch of the day (number of fish, size of fish, species of fish) for marketing purposes and for distribution of the proceeds among those who participated in the catch. John may also have simply been impressed with the miraculous aspects of this catch, and thus shared this comment as to number and size (they were said to be "large") with his readers. It may be just that simple. Matthew Henry (1662-1714), a Welsh Non-Conformist pastor, theologian and author, suggested "perhaps it was in order to the making of a dividend" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword]. "Peter never landed a haul of fish without counting them, and John, fisherman as he was, could never forget the number of his largest takes. The number is given because it was large, and because they were all surprised that the net stood the strain. The only significance our Lord recognizes in the fish is that they were food for hungry men" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 869]. Larry Deason, a dear brother-in-Christ, observed in his commentary on the gospel of John, "The best explanation is that the number is an historical reminiscence of the number actually caught -- and nothing more" [That You May Have Life: An In-Depth Study of the Gospel of John, p. 426]. Or, as the famous Greek scholar Dr. A.T. Robertson simply stated, "It was just a great fish story that John recalls vividly" [Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword]. What we can and do draw from this, however, is that the account before us "is the remembrance of an eyewitness" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 200], which is an important fact to note, for it lends legitimacy to the entire account. Indeed, at the end of this very chapter we read, "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true" (John 21:24). That the number 153 "is simply an index of the authenticity of the narrative, and of the fact that the fishes were counted on the occasion, is eminently sensible. The fact that it is not a round number adds to the probability of this, and also enters a caveat against allegorical interpretation" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, pt. 2, p. 503].

Nevertheless, speculations and allegorical interpretations abound, for we humans love to speak where God has chosen to remain silent. Simple, practical, perhaps even mundane interpretations rarely appeal to the masses. We want something titillating, and the scholars have not disappointed us. For example, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), one of the greatest of the early church theologians and philosophers, pointed out that the number 153 is the triangular of 17 (if you add all the numbers decreasing from 17, the result is 153. Thus: 17 + 16 + 15 + 14 + 13 + 12 + 11 + 10 + 9 + 8 + 7 + 6 + 5 + 4 + 3 + 2 + 1 = 153). Okay, but what significance does the number 17 have? Why that number? Well, he pointed out, Jesus took 5 loaves to feed the multitude and the leftovers filled 12 baskets (12 + 5 = 17). Add the 10 Commandments to the 7-fold Spirit = 17. Joseph was sold into Egyptian slavery at the age of 17 (Gen. 37:2) and lived in Egypt for 17 years (Gen. 47:28). Luke lists 17 nations that were represented on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:7-11). Etc. Although we can admit to the ingenuity of Augustine's speculation, it is highly questionable whether this was John's intent in recording this number (or whether it was our Lord's intent in providing that number of fish), for there is nothing in the text itself to suggest this number was in any way figurative or symbolic. [NOTE: along the same line of reasoning, some among the Pythagoreans regard 153 as a very unique and special (some would say "magical") number, for it is the sum of the cubes of its own digits: 1x1x1 + 5x5x5 + 3x3x3 = 153. Interesting fact, to be sure, but was this really what Jesus or John had in mind, and, if so, what does it signify? Is there some connection, some ask, to the fact that the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and temple, as well as the New Jerusalem itself (Rev. 21:16), was a perfect cube in size? Again, we can only speculate at best, yet one biblical scholar went so far as to suggest the number 153 was "a sort of 'wink wink' for the reader who is in the know."]

There are many other theories as well. Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), the Dutch jurist, theologian, statesman and author, called by many "the father of international law," believed the number 153 was a reference to the 153,600 "aliens who were in Israel" (2 Chron. 2:17), as per the census taken by King Solomon. Since these were non-Jews, who were taken into the nation as proselytes, Grotius felt the 153 fish might be a reference to the conversion of Gentiles, who would be caught up in "the gospel net" that was cast into the sea of humanity by Peter, John and the other disciples. Thus, Jesus was being prophetic in causing this precise number to be caught in the net. St. Jerome (342-420 A.D.), a theologian who produced the Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate, "refers to the opinion of a learned naturalist of the second century, Oppian, who is said to have ascertained that there were 153 different kinds of fish in the sea, and that the apostles took one of every kind, revealing the ultimate success of the 'fishers of souls' with every kind of man" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 17, pt. 2, p. 503]. This, however, as the above reference work points out, is "an allegory based on false science and insecure data" [ibid]. "The notion that the ancients counted 153 varieties of fish, an idea derived by Jerome from Oppian, cannot be verified and would amount to nothing if it could be. Pliny might be consulted on a point like this, for he knows of 174 kinds" [Dr. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, p. 1410].

Some have attempted to assign a number value to the letters of Peter's name so as to arrive at this number, thinking that 153 fish must represent "the fisherman," a term by which Peter was sometimes later known. "In Hebrew characters Simon Iona is equivalent to 118 + 35, i.e.: 153. Some of the church Fathers also understood that 100 meant the Gentiles, 50 meant the Jews, and 3 meant the Trinity" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 1, p. 869]. Other scholars, as they searched the four gospel records, claim the Lord directly blessed 153 people in 48 separate incidents. Notice the following information found on one of many such blog sites devoted to this theory: "The book of Mark records Christ, on a total of three occasions, personally blessed three people. These events were the healing of a man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:23), healing a man who was deaf (Mark 7:32), and making whole another who was blind (Mark 8:22). Matthew, however, writes that on 23 occasions Jesus blessed a total of 47 people. Some of those whom He bestowed God's grace to include a leper (Matt. 8:2), a non-Israelite woman and her daughter (Matt. 15:22), Mary Magdalene (Matt. 27:56), and Joseph of Arimathea (Matt. 27:57). Luke writes that on 14 occasions 94 people were blessed. They include the seventy disciples sent out to preach and heal (Luke 10:1), ten lepers cleansed at the same time (Luke 17:12), and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2). Lastly, the apostle John bears record of 8 incidents where 9 people were helped by Jesus. Nicodemus (John 3:1), the woman accused of adultery (John 8:11), and Lazarus (John 11) are among those personally touched by the Savior of mankind." Add these up and you get 153. Therefore, it is concluded, the catch of fish that day indicated the blessed touch of the Savior upon mankind, which blessings would now be distributed through His disciples.

For those who may want to pursue a study of even more such theories, and they abound, I would suggest the book by E.W. Bullinger titled "Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance" (originally published in 1894, but released more recently by Kregel Publishers in 1967) in which the author devotes six pages to these speculations (pages 273-278). As one can quickly perceive from this brief study, not everything we find in the Scriptures lends itself to an easy interpretation. Indeed, there are many passages that are quite problematic for those reading and studying these writings. Perhaps, however, there is a vital lesson to be learned from this: no one has "arrived" at perfect perception of every passage in the OT and NT documents. Indeed, truth be told, we each are probably wrong more often than we are right in our understandings. Your insights are not infallible; neither are mine. We are all merely students of the Word, and as such need to be patient with and accepting of one another when we differ in our perceptions and practices. I can't say with any degree of certainty whatsoever what the number 153 represents, if anything -- neither can you! And this is true of countless other matters as well. So, instead of squabbling with our spiritual siblings over the Scriptures, perhaps we would do better to simply cease our strife over such speculations, and instead strive to "love one another deeply from the heart" (1 Peter 1:22), for "love covers over a multitude of sins" (1 Peter 4:8). In the final analysis, these words from "the fisherman" will carry more eternal weight than the weight of 153 large netted fish!

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in New Zealand:

"Fruitless Deeds of Darkness" (Reflections #659) was another great article, Al. My attention was particularly drawn to the last paragraph. When are people going to realize that the "worship service" evolved significantly because of the emergence of church buildings, but from the beginning it was not this way?! And when did Christianity become a new set of laws replacing an old set of laws?! "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). Because someone says "Sibboleth" instead of "Shibboleth" (Judges 12:6), are we to excommunicate them? Another question comes to mind: "Where is God on Sunday mornings?" I love what Paul said to the Athenians: "God does not dwell in temples made with hands; neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything ... though He is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:24-27). It is our prayer that the scales might fall from the eyes of many. Loved your article on women being "silent" (Reflections #592 -- "Challenging A Corinthian Quotation: Paul's Powerful Refutation of Church Sexism"). Great explanation! Have a fantastic week -- you deserve it! By the way, I was talking to a brother this morning regarding your Reflections articles and he said, "It would be neat if we could get him out here!" I agreed. New Zealand is a beautiful country of mountains, rivers, and beaches, with moderate climate. I feel sometimes that I am living in one of the best places in the world. If you can ever make it here, I will "prepare ... a lodging" (Philemon 22). You and your wife would be most welcome here any time you see yourself clear to come. God bless you!

From a Reader in Alabama:

I am really enjoying your Reflections articles, Al. I like writings and sermons and classes that are pregnant with meat, and not the same old milk sermons/teachings that we are fed every Sunday.

From a Reader in Ottawa, Canada:

Wow! What an article ("Fruitless Deeds of Darkness")!! I have posted it to my own blog site. I hope that is okay. Your articles are very much appreciated and valued, and I review them from time to time on my blog site. I find they tend to put me in a prayer attitude of thanksgiving and joy! Again, thank you so much for this article on Ephesians 5:11.

From a Reader in Georgia:

Man! I'm going to have to start a list of my favorite "Maxey-isms" before I forget them. You got my attention with this one from your last Reflections article: "It is difficult for one to comprehend that which one has chosen not to consider." Wow!! I think that is a root cause for much of the disagreement we see in the churches today. It is the attitude: "We know what we know and we don't need to be further informed." We don't even want to consider the arguments of the other person, but simply choose instead to fling our five hermeneutical stones at the topic. If we would only at least hear the other person, then we might just learn something, or at a minimum understand the person more fully before we engage them. I read a response from a lady who has a Master of Divinity degree who opened up about how negatively it impacts women who are kept out of any participation in the "worship service." It was powerful and couldn't have been expressed by a man as adequately as she did. I remember her saying that at some point a woman comes to the conclusion that God doesn't need her in the assembly. Stop and grasp that for a moment!! God doesn't need me! Yep, we need to listen and we need to consider what we have failed to consider in the past. Once again, well done, brother!!

From an Author in Kentucky:

I was thinking yesterday about the Restoration Movement and the claim that has long been made by the more traditional Churches of Christ that the church went into apostasy, was lost for many centuries, and was finally restored to its pristine purity by our spiritual forebears less than two hundred years ago. Therefore, all that is necessary for us to do is protect and preserve that which has been restored. those who hold to this claim are very proud of the fact that they have been "holding the line" all their lives, and anyone (like you or me) who dares to question the status quo is an "apostate" of the worst kind. What is the difference in substance between this claim and the claim of the Mormons or the Jehovah's Witnesses (or the Muslims, for that matter) who base their claim of a true or correct revelation from God because the true word of God had been corrupted or lost, and that all who wish to be right with God must come to them to be saved? Just something to chew on!

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