Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The 153 Fish of John 21:11

Scholars have long puzzled over why, in John 21:11, the miraculous large catch of fish is so explicitly counted out as being 153 in number:

Simon Peter went up and dragged the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although so many, the net was not torn.
ανεβη σιμων πετρος και ειλκυσεν το δικτυον επι της γης μεστον ιχθυων μεγαλων εκατον πεντηκοντα τριων και τοσουτων οντων ουκ εσχισθη το δικτυον.

This account differs from another miraculous catch of fish in Luke 5:1-11 in three ways. In Luke, the fish are not counted, they are not described as being large fish as they were in John, and in Luke, the large number of fish harm the nets:

they caught such a great quantity of fish that their nets began to break
συνεκλεισαν πληθος ιχθυων πολυ διερρηγνυτο δε το δικτυον αυτων (Luke 5:6)

These three differing details would seem to be significant to understand especially the Johannine account. 

Commentators even in ancient times felt the need to explain the number 153 in some way. St. Jerome, for instance, in his commentary on Ezekiel 47:6-12 claimed that the Greco-Roman poet Oppian counted 153 different species of fish in the world. This could then mean that the 153 is symbolic for the Church encompassing all races of humans. The problems with St. Jerome's theory are that Oppian actually lists about 157 different species and wrote over a hundred years after John. Other ancient and modern writers have posited equally creative but ultimately unconvincing theories.

I wonder if the number is not so much symbolic as it is nostalgic for the earliest Christian community. The number is interestingly close to the number of the earliest Christians prior to Pentecost:

And in these days, Peter having risen up in the midst of the disciples, said, (the multitude also of the names at the same place was like a hundred and twenty,)
και εν ταις ημεραις ταυταις αναστας πετρος εν μεσω των μαθητων ειπεν (ην τε οχλος ονοματων επι το αυτο ως εκατον εικοσι) (Acts 1:15)

It would seem possible that the group counted here as the "multitude" (οχλος) did not include the Disciples themselves. So if you add the 12 to the 120, you get 132 exactly. But Luke does not say the number of the multitude was precisely 120. He says it was "like 120" (ως εκατον εικοσι). In other words, he was rounding it to some more standard and common number. 

And the choice of 120 as that more standard and common number was by no means coincidental. 120 was understood to be the number of the men who constituted the Great Assembly ( כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה ) of elders after the exilic period. (Yer. Ber. 4d; Meg. 17b). 

If the earliest Church saw themselves as a new Great Assembly, it would makes sense to describe their number as "like a hundred and twenty" even if the actual number was something random like 141 members and 12 Apostles.

I am suggesting that perhaps the Johannine Community had preserved the memory that in those earliest days before Pentecost, the gathered Christians, believers and Disciples, as well as the family of Jesus, including his Mother (Acts 1:14), numbered 153. By making that the number of fish caught in those pre-Pentecostal nets, John depicts the earliest Christians, held as one by the nets of the Church. And the net of the Church does not break, just as the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it. (Matt 16:18).

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