Thursday, May 31, 2012

153 Fish

I started Robert Grant's 1952 book, Miracle and Natural Law in Graeco-Roman and Early Christian Thought.  In this post, I'll talk about John 21:11, which states (in the KJV): "Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an hundred and fifty and three: and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken."

Why does John 21:11 mention 153 fish?  Grant proposes that we compare this story with a story in Porphyry's Life of Pythagoras.  (Porphyry lived in the third century C.E., and Pythagoras lived in the sixth century B.C.E.)  In Life of Pythagoras 25, we read:

"Meeting with some fishermen who were drawing in their nets heavily laden with fishes from the deep, he predicted the exact number of fish they had caught. The fishermen said that if his estimate was accurate they would do whatever he commanded. They counted them accurately, and found the number correct. He then bade them return the fish alive into the sea; and, what is more wonderful, not one of them died, although they had been out of the water a considerable time. He paid them and left."

According to this story, Pythagoras knew how many fish the fishermen had caught, before they even counted them.  Is that what we see in John 21?  There are some parallels, such as the statement that the nets are full of fish, and something about the number of fish that were caught.  But there is no statement in John 21 that Jesus predicted the number of fish that were caught, and that he turned out to be right.

So why does John 21:11 mention 153 fish?  My guess is that it mentions the number to highlight that a lot of fish were caught, and yet the net was not broken.  What better way was there to show that there were a lot of fish in the net, than to mention a specific large number?


  1. We have a corner store nearby known for 30 years as Freddie the Freeloader's. It was recently bought by a Korean named Julie who renamed it 'J and 153 with Flowers' (a direct reference to John 21 as told in her newspaper story - quite lovely actually). So why the 153? Is it for literary reasons such as closing a frame with John 1 or more locally within the story itself? Is it the count of the number of nations - perhaps symbolizing the Gospel to the whole world? Is it just a big number? If so what is a usual catch in Gennesaret?

  2. The 153 nations interpretation sounds cool.

  3. Both Bullinger's landmark work, "Number in Scripture", and a book by Del Washburn, "Theomatics", give solid interpretations on the number 153.

    Theomatics is the modern equalivent of the ancient practice of "gematria".

    Washburn says that, "every number mentioned in the Bible is a key number for Theomatics--like a key to unlocking the numerical values of sentences, whole paragraphs, and other concepts in the Bible".

  4. I'll check my Companion Bible to see what Bullinger says there. Do you recall the gist of what Washburn says the 153 meant?

  5. Looks like Bullinger doesn't comment on it in the Companion Bible. Maybe I should track down Number in Scripture.

  6. I found some web sites that gave the gist of their interpretations----that it relates to the elect.


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