Sunday, May 3, 2009

153 Fishes

I had an interesting conversation with a good friend of mine about a well known but not very well understood Gospel story. The story is sometimes referred to as the "miraculous draught of fish." There are two slightly different versions of this story contained in the Gospels: one is in Luke 5:1-11. The other, in the Gospel of John, chapter 21.

The version of the story according to Luke is set near the beginning of Jesus' ministry. He is speaking to a crowd of people at the Lake of Gennesaret. He steps into a boat and continues to teach the people who are standing on the shore. When he finishes his address to the crowd he tells Simon Peter to take the boat into deeper water and cast his nets. Simon and his companions have been fishing all night and they haven't caught anything. None the less, Simon does as Jesus instructs him. So many fish are caught the nets begin to break. But the actual number of fish isn't mentioned. In the act of directing Simon to make this miraculous catch, Jesus establishes his identity in Simon's eyes as the messiah.

Now, the story in John is quite different. For this version of the story the Gospel writer places the action after Christ's resurrection. Simon Peter and several other disciples go on an all night fishing expedition and catch nothing. As dawn breaks a man calls to them from the shore asking them if they have any fish. The disciples do not realize at first that this man is Jesus. He tells them to throw their net on the right side of the boat. They do so and they catch so many fish they are not able to haul them onto the boat. They pull the net full of fish behind their boat to the shore. They have caught 153 fish.

Both versions of the story are rife with symbolism and meaning. If the stories are read in a purely literalistic way, some of the subtleties might escape the reader. I think the number 153 is symbolic but what does it signify? Scholars have speculated about the significance of the number for centuries. Saint Jerome, a fourth century church father, asserted that there were exactly 153 species of fish in the sea. But we know this estimate is much too low. 29,500 species have been identified so far but marine biologists speculate that there are many more yet to be discovered.

In his book "Studies in Biblical and Semitic Symbolism" Maurice Harry Farbridge explains that Saint Augustine was fascinated by the symbolic meaning hidden behind the number and he devised a complicated mathematical expression to reveal the numerological significance. His formula went as follows:10 is the symbol of law (10 commandments) and the number 7 is traditionally associated with spirit. So 10 + 7 = 17. 17 represents holiness. 153 is the sum of all the numbers in progression ( 1 + 2 + 3 .... + 15 + 16 + 17 = 153). Pretty clever.

Mr. Farbridge goes on to explain that, around the first century, Greek philosophy began to influence Jewish interpretations of the symbolism of numbers found in scriptures. Undoubtedly the writers of the New Testament were influenced by Hellenistic culture. Which brings us to Pythagoras and, in my opinion, the key to understanding the significance of 153.

Pythagoras was a pretty interesting character. Today he is mostly known for his theorem but he was a central figure in the ancient world. Born about half a century before Christ, Pythagoras was a mathematician, philosopher and the founder of his very own religion, Pythahoreanism. His disciples observed a strict lifestyle that included vegetarianism, religious rituals and rigorous self discipline.

What can be said with any accuracy about the historical Pythagoras is clouded by the mythical glorifications of his life. Within just a few generations he had become deified and many legends about him were widely disseminated throughout Greek culture. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he was known as a wonder-worker who had a thigh of gold and he could be two places at the same time.

According to an account going back to high antiquity and recorded in the writings of Plato, Pythagoras was traveling along one day when he came upon some fishermen who were drawing up their nets which were filled with fish. Pythagoras told the fishermen that he could tell them the exact number of fish they had caught, which the fishermen thought to be an impossible task. The fishermen said that if he was right they would do anything he said. They counted all the fish and Pythagoras was totally accurate in his estimate. He then ordered the fishermen to return the fish to the sea and for some mystical reason none of them died.

The specific number of fish is not mentioned in the story. However 153 is a number that is closely associated with Pythagoras. Among his other achievements in mathematics, he is credited with discovering that 153 is the denominator 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 ratio of 153:265 was consequently known throughout the Hellenistic world as the measure of the fish.

Why? Take a look at the diagram below...

Two circles of equal size are brought together whose centers are located on each other's circumferences. When this is done the width to height ratio of the intersecting region is very close to 265/153.

So there you have it. But what does it all mean? One conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that the writers of these Gospel stories were men of their time who understood the cultural themes that would resonate with their readers. The writers and the redactors that followed them had very specific points of view and they were dedicated to an agenda. I don't think all the Gospel stories should simply be interpreted as straight-forward, historical biographies. If we do that we may miss the nuanced theological messages that give the stories their structure and their power.

In developing the stories of the miraculous draught of fish, the New Testament writers seek to build on the widespread reverence that Greeks of the day would have had for Pythagoras. The underlying message is that Christ is greater than Pythagoras, able not only to know the number of fish that were caught but also to miraculously draw them into the net.