Last Lord’s Day, I preached on the post-resurrection appearance of our Lord recorded in John 21:1-14, in which the gospel writer transcribes the precise number of fish miraculously caught by the disciples in the Sea of Tiberias. The strange number of 153 fish strikes both the casual bible reader and the scholar as peculiar and has caused some to wonder if there is some deeper significance to John’s use of the number. Because I didn’t take the time to double-click on the numerological significance of the number 153 in my message, I did promise a blog post to attempt to explain the possibilities.
Today, we don’t typically think about numbers having any meaning apart from their apparent arithmetic representation. But in pre-Christian antiquity going back to Pythagoras and his students, who were described by Aristotle as “the first to take up mathematics, not only advanced this subject, but saturated with it, they fancied that the principles of mathematics were the principles of all things,” numbers were widely believed to have deep symbolic meaning as the ground of everything and there was a great deal of interest in numerological speculation. During the time from the 500s BC through the 5th Century AD numbers carried deep symbolic meaning which would have influenced Jesus’ communication to the first century culture and certainly would have influenced the gospel writers. Because of this background, Jesus could have sought to communicate something in the specific number of fish in the miraculous catch or John could have used 153 as an approximate number to communicate a deeper symbolic meaning. Here are some possibilities for the symbolic meaning of the number 153:
1) Some have noted that the Hebrew name for God “YHWH” occurs 153 times in the book of Genesis.
2) In the fourth century, it was assumed that there were a grand total of 153 species of fish, so an early church father named Jerome saw that miraculous catch represented ALL fish so he interpreted the number symbolically as a reference to the universality and completeness of the church which embraces all kinds of people from every tongue, tribe and nation.
3) Augustine thought the number 153 was significant because it is the sum of the first 17 integers (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15+16+17=153). And this is only significant because the number 17 is the combination of God’s grace in the 7 gifts of the Spirit plus the law summarily comprehended in the 10 Commandments (7gifts +10 laws =17) Augustine wrote in Letter 55 to Januarius,
In the number of fish that after his resurrection our Lord orders to be caught on the right side of the boat, to show this new life, we find the number 50 multiplied by 3. If one adds 3 (the symbol of the Trinity) to that, the holy mystery is still more apparent. Then the new man, perfected and come to rest, purified in body and soul through the pure words of God, which are like refined silver that has been purified seven times, will receive his reward-the coin. With this reward the numbers seven and ten are met in Him. For in this number (17) we find- as in other numbers that represent a combination of symbols- a wondrous mystery….And when will his body finally be liberate from all its enemies? Will it not be when the last enemy, death, is annihilated? Until that time, therefore, the number of 153 fish will suffice. For if the number 17 is taken as the side of an equilateral triangle…the sum total of the units is 153.
4) Evagrius Ponticus, a very gifted 4th century Christian monk, likely had the most complex interpretation of the significant and unique mathematical properties of the number 153. His interpretation makes sense only in light of Pythagorean numerical symbolism which distinguishes between triangular, square, octagonal, hexagonal and circular numbers. He wrote in his introduction to his 153 chapter book on prayer that 153 is the sum of a square number (100) + a triangular number (28) + a circular number (25) . (153=100+28+25). The Triangular number symbolically represents the Trinity and the Hexagonal number symbolically represents the 6 days of Creation. Essentially the number 153 tells the story of the gospel of The Triune God of Heaven who has intervened in time coming down to His Created Earth to enact His plan of redemption. It is this very God who stands before the apostles on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias giving them a miraculous catch of exactly 153 fish. Evagrius Ponticus writes in the introduction to 153 Chapters on Prayer, a manual on contemplation,
I have divided this treatise on prayer into 153 chapters. With them I am sending you a tidbit of the Gospel, so that you can rejoice in a symbolic number that joins together a triangular and a hexagonal figure. The triangle stands symbolically for the Trinity, the hexagon for the orderly creation of the world in six days. The number 100 describes a square, the number 53 a triangle and at the same time a circle. Why? Because it is the sum of 25 and 28. 28 is the triangle and 25 the square, since 25 is five times five. Thus this sum represents a square figure since it represents the fourfold qualities of the (seven) virtues. Through its round form the circle expresses the river of time and is simultaneously an appropriate symbol for true knowledge of the world. In the river of time week follows week, month follows month, year follows year, and season follows season, as the movement of the sun and moon, spring and summer, etc., show. The triangle, which is expressed in the number 28, stands for knowledge of the Holy Trinity… So much on this number.
Triangular number are the sum of consecutive numbers beginning with 1 and Hexagonal numbers are the sum of numbers beginning with 1, from which three numbers have been left out. So the number 153 is, according to Pythagorean interpretation, “triangular” (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15+16+17=153) and at the same time hexagonal (1+5+9+13+17+21+25+29+33=153)
I’m not sure what this says about you if you’ve made it this far in the blog post? What does it say about me that I am even writing about this? So is the number 153 arbitrary? Is it simple precision? Or is it symbolic? After my study, I think there might be something substantive to these numerological interpretations. However, I am very satisfied and have even taught that John gives the number 153 in order to accurately record the details of the encounter to give proof for the authenticity of the resurrection. He is very detailed, particularly in that passage because he has a theological point to prove: Christ is risen from the dead! There is no real need to look for mysteries in the bible codes and create exegetical fallacies via hyper-exegesis of greek or hebrew nouns, verb tenses and syntax when the scriptures are characterized by perspicuity (being clear and plain). A preacher said once, “If you want to know what the text means, ask a third grader.” I can go with that. But the third grader in me still wonders about the number 153.
(153 Chapters on Prayer, cited from a translation by Andreas Ebert in his co-authored book with Richard Rohr, The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective)