February 20, 2004

153 Fish

Category: Bible - NT - John :: Permalink

In the January 30 issue of Clarion, Reuben Bredenhof writes about the catch of 153 fish in John 21:11. He begins by discussing people he identifies as “the code-breakers”:

While there are skeptics ready to dismiss this number 153 as an overstatement or invention, there are others who think that there probably were fish caught, sure, and the number is not accurate, certainly not, yet the number is not simply an exaggeration that has slipped in, but is a number that demands interpretation. It is a number that is a code, a count of fish that is profoundly symbolic of something else, something much more meaningful than fried fish for breakfast with the risen Lord. In this view, the number 153 jars the reading experience — what an unusual place for a specific number, for a precise tally of fish, of all things! In the drama of the disciples meeting the resurrected Saviour, why would this sum of landed fish be included? And so, many interpreters of Scripture have sought to “rescue” this number from irrelevance, assigning it an important, hidden meaning (p. 58).

Bredenhof then presents a number of ways in which the church fathers attempted to explain the 153 fish. (He doesn’t deal with modern commentators, such as James Jordan, who also see symbolism in the number.) He cautions that “we should not be hasty in rejecting all these interpretations, even though strange in our view alphabetical code and symbolic numbers are not totally foreign to the Scriptures” (p. 59).

In the end, however, Bredenhof rejects the idea that the number itself is significant. Whereas Revelation is full of symbolism, he says, John’s Gospel is “uniquely a historical book” (p. 60). John is writing as an eyewitness. That’s why he includes particular details, such as numbers:

John often gives numbers in his description of the Lord’s ministry: two disciples with John the Baptist, six water pots at Cana, five loaves and two small fish, three and a half miles out on the Sea of Galilee, four soldiers who divided his clothes, 38 years of sickness, 300 denarii, 5 husbands, and … 153 fish” (p. 60).

According to Bredenhof, then, the only point of the 153 fish is that it is

simply yet profoundly another detail by John the eyewitness. This remarkable number only confirms again the account that John has provided for us: John was there, and he can testify that this Jesus is the Christ!” (p. 60).

I’m not convinced.

First, Bredenhof’s explanation of the number leaves me cold. The number itself becomes meaningless and the exegete should just ignore it. It doesn’t matter that it was 153 fish (though that’s what John says); all that matters is that there were a lot of fish (which is what John doesn’t say). And the only point for recording it is to let us know that John was there, so that we have all the more reason to trust the rest of what he says. (I’m not sure how it proves that he was an eyewitness, though.)

Second, the way that Bredenhof describes “the code-breakers” isn’t really fair. He makes it sound as if they do not believe there were 153 fish and that the number is only symbolic. But that isn’t the case at all. Certainly some who take the number as a symbol (a better term here than “code”) also believe that there really were exactly 153 fish caught.

Furthermore, to say that some believe the number needs interpretation, which implies that others do not, is faulty: All exegetes interpret the number; some interpret it as a symbol and others do not.

But even more significantly, Bredenhof’s argument for not seeing symbolism in the numbers in John’s Gospel is weak. He admits that the Bible does use number symbolism, and that John himself is capable of it (witness Revelation). His only argument against seeing number symbolism in John’s Gospel is that John’s Gospel is historical.

But why can’t a historical account use number symbolism? I would submit that many of the historical narratives in the Old Testament do use number symbolism. Frankly, I don’t know what else to do with Elim’s twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. Either you take that to be a tour guide description which is totally irrelevant or you try to figure out the symbolism (which isn’t all that hard, given that there are twelve tribes of Israel and seventy nations of the world).

But what about John’s Gospel itself? Bredenhof refers to several numbers in the Gospel. He mentions the six water pots. Is it a coincidence that Jesus has six disciples at this point? (The pots themselves, connected with the Old Covenant purification rites, are surely also rich with symbolism.) What about the 38 years? That happens to be the number of years Israel was wandering in the wilderness. Significant? I think so.

In John 4, it’s the sixth hour (4:6) and then later Jesus mentions another hour (4:21), six plus one being seven. The woman has had five husbands in the past and has one man right now who is not her husband (4:18), which makes six, and Jesus is there as the seventh man, the bridegroom (3:29). Is there something symbolic going on here? Quite possibly. (Warren Gage would point out that this passage is chiastically related to Revelation 17, where the mountains are seven kings, five fallen, one is, and the other hasn’t yet come. Make of that what you will.)

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the other numbers Bredenhof mentions have symbolic significance.

For that matter, consider John’s Gospel as a whole. John starts, deliberately, by echoing Genesis 1 and then goes on to present seven days.

Then he tells us about Jesus’ first sign and Jesus’ second sign … and stops numbering. But if you keep counting, you end up with the seventh sign being the cross and the eighth the resurrection. Coincidence? I don’t think so. Speculation? I don’t think so. It’s John who told us to count the signs, after all.

And is it just a coincidence that on the sixth day, at the end of the book, Pilate says, “Behold the man,” that Jesus rests the seventh day, that Jesus rises the first (eighth) day?

If John is doing that kind of number symbolism elsewhere in the book– let alone the fact that he does it in Revelation and that other writers do it elsewhere in the BibleĀ — why can’t he be doing number symbolism here?

John could have said, “We caught lots and lots of fish.” He didn’t. He deliberately recorded the tally. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I don’t claim to understand the symbolism here. But I suspect the number is symbolic. And I’m pretty sure it’s doing more than simply letting us know John was an eyewitness.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:22 pm | Discuss (1)

One Response to “153 Fish”

  1. Paul Remlinger Says:

    The number 153 mentioned at John 21:11 is FULL OF MEANING; I have been studying this for a VERY LONG TIME; I have TONS of information about it; e-mail me if you would like to know more; I (initially) would rather discuss the subject over the phone vs sending you an e-mail about it; you will need some lead-in information which perhaps can be accomplished over the phone; the information will make your head spin ………………………….

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