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Thursday, April 12, 2007

153 Fish

The reading for Friday is one to which I'm very attracted ... John 21:1-14 .... with an unfathomable future and an uncomfortable present, the disciples decided to journey to their past and go fishing on the Sea of Tiberias. But it didn't work - the time spent with Jesus had changed them somehow and they no longer fit into their old lives - they couldn't even catch any fish! Luckily, Jesus, in one of his post-resurrection appearances, was nearby on the shore and told them where to cast their nets. They did as he advised and caught 153 fish. It isn't so much the number of fish caught that appeals to me, but that Jesus shows up when they're so forlorn, that he addresses them as Children, makes them breakfast, consoles them.

But about the 153 fish, Wikipedia says ...


The precision of the number of fish has long been considered peculiar, and many scholars, throughout history, have argued that 153 has some deeper significance. Jerome, for example, claimed that the Greeks had identified that there were exactly 153 species of fish in the sea (modern marine biology puts the figure as something over 29,000). Mathematically, 153 is a triangular number, more precisely it is the sum of the integer numbers from 1 to 17 inclusive; more significantly, 153 also has the rare property that it is the sum of the cubes of its own digits (i.e. 153 = 1x1x1 + 5x5x5 + 3x3x3). In the time of Pythagoras, 153 was most significant for being one of the two numbers in the closest fraction known, at the time, to the true value of the square root of 3, the fraction in question being 265/153 (the difference between this and the square root of 3 is merely 0.000025......). The ratio of 153:265 was consequently known throughout the hellenic world as the measure of the fish.

The fact that the measure of the fish was known to include 153, as one of its two numbers, and that the measure of how many fish the disciples are said to have caught is also 153, has not gone unnoticed by many scholars, with some suggesting that the number of fish in the New Testament episode is simply down to being the most familiar large number to the writer, or a deliberate reference to the geometric nomenclature as a sort of in-joke. It is significant that a story was told of Pythagoras, and later reported by Plato, that is very similar, even in wording, to the Biblical narrative of this event; some scholars have argued that that the entire Biblical episode is a coded reference to a geometric diagram, since Pythagoreanism saw geometry and numbers as having deep esoteric meaning, and via Hermeticism (and more minor routes) it was profoundly influential in the development of hellenic mystery religions, and in certain aspects of gnosticism, an early form of Christianity. While such themes would be unusual if the New Testament was only intended to be taken literally, several modern scholars, as well as most ancient followers of gnosticism, have argued that parts of the New Testament were written as gnostic documents ....


There's more, including a Pythagorean diagram that can be constructed from the story of 153 fish, but my head hurts, so ... ;-)

- The Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Jacopo Bassano


Blogger Liam said...

Pythagorian fish diagrams! Cool!

That is very interesting. Are there other examples of numerology in John? I know my medievals took that stuff seriously -- Bede wrote a whole, treatise, I think, on the dimension of Noah's Ark.

10:01 AM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

Raymond Brown leans more towards Jerome's idea of Greek Zoology. In a nutshell, if 153 equals all the fish in the world, and the apostles have been called to be fishers of people, then they are now being comissioned, by the direction of the Risen Christ, to gather together all of the world's people into their nets.

I like it because it's simple...and I failed Geo-trig pretty bad.

10:14 AM  
Blogger crystal said...


I don't know if there's more numerology stuff in John. I did come across a mention of a book on tarot with a forward by Hans Urs von Balthasar ... unrelated but ... :-)

10:39 AM  
Blogger crystal said...

Hi Cura,

after I posted this last night, I went to Sared Space, and the helpful note they had for this reading was almost exactly what you wrote.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Cura Animarum said...

Neat. I guess even Jesuits have a problem with Geometry sometimes. ;o)

12:17 PM  

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