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Why  153  Fish  in  John  21:11  ?

What is the significance, meaning, or symbolism, that John’s Gospel records how Jesus and the disciples caught 153 large fish in the miraculous catch of John 21 in the Bible ? What is the Catholic Church Fathers tradition ? 153 large fish is metaphor for wisdom.

Sections :

Church Fathers : Sts. Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Cyril A.
No Reason ?
Why Church Fathers’ Answers Could Not Be John’s
Problems with Square Root of 3 Answer
Context Points to the Answer : An Explanation That Works
Archimedes : Context of Time and Place
Greeks and Wisdom
Calculating the Measure of the Fish
John’s Purpose
Why Church Fathers Did Not (could not?) Give John’s Idea



Click on Blue text for details.

There are well over a dozen independent reasons listed below that support the following conclusion that  “153 fish”   is a metaphor for wisdom.  There is a high degree of certainty that this answer is correct.

There are too many converging reasons all pointing to this answer for all of them to be coincidental. No other answer, that has been presented, gives any evidence that Saint John could have expected his readers to infer any other explanation. But, a detailed examination of Greek culture makes clear the Greeks of this place and time, of John’s writing, would have recognized the correlation between 153 and Archimedes’ most influential work, his work on Pi.

A thorough examination of this investigation raises several questions.  But, there is only one answer, given here, that can offer a satisfactory explanation to each of these questions.

John explains his purpose for using the metaphor of “153 fish” immediately before this account of the miraculous catch. He states :

John 20:30-31
“Now Jesus did many other signs … that are not written in this book.
31 But these are written that you may (come to) believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God…”

John was writing in Greek to a Greek audience from the Greek city of Ephesus. See  ( Irenaeus Against Heresies III.1.1)
So, we must ask what was the obstacle that kept the Greeks from accepting the Gospel.

The cultural context in which John the Evangelist lived and wrote is the key to understanding to what he was alluding to by the reference of 153 Fish in John 21:11.  The simplest explanation is the most probable.

1 Corinthians 1:22-24
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and
to Gentiles, but … Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  NAB

Above all else the Greeks esteemed Mathematics, Wisdom and Philosophy. It was their guide to living a good life. Their greatest mathematician was Archimedes.   In his Measurement of a Circle  he calculated the value of Pi.  It was his most influential work. The unusual number of 153 figured most prominently in that work.

John lived and wrote his Greek Gospel in the Greek city of Ephesus.  As a Pastor, he knew they falsely believed the Gospel of Jesus was foolishness and in contradiction to their wisdom.  John includes the detail of 153 fish in John 21:11.  The Greeks would have immediately recognized how his use of the number 153 alluded to the wisdom and the work of their esteemed cultural hero, Archimedes  and by extension to all Greek wisdom. They would have understood that John was claiming that Jesus, who is God, is the source of all the fish, and by extension He is the source of all wisdom.  

The Net Does Not Tear

The same net which contains all the fish, and by extension all the wisdom, both Greek (natural wisdom) and Christian (wisdom of revelation), does not tear because there is no inconsistency between these two types of wisdom.

The Church Fathers were separated from John the Evangelist by time and space.  They lived in a different culture than John.  Most likely they had lost familiarity with Archimedes’ actual text.  Without that context they could not see to what John was alluding.

And, we can conclude that the reasons the Church Father gave for the meaning of “153 fish” could not have been John’s primary intention for another reason.  St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Gregory the Great, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and Evagrius Ponticus each write out a different explanation for the meaning of “153.” 

Why do they each write out their explanation? 
Because the Fathers knew that their own particular explanations were not in the minds of the readers until those readers had the chance to read those explanations the Fathers wrote.  We know that John the Evangelist was an effective communicator, par excellence. 

So, why does John not explain his meaning for 153 fish ?
Since John gives no reason, we can safely conclude John knew that no explanation was required by his readers.  So, we can reasonably conclude that none of the Fathers’ explanations could have been John’s intended meaning.  John must have known the context of time and place would have been sufficient to make his meaning clear.  And therefore, no explanation need be given.  And so, unlike the Father’s explanations, none was given by John.

So, by gentle analogy John shows that not only does Jesus not contradict natural wisdom, He is the source of all wisdom.
Read more on why John desired not to explain his metaphor and how he knew its meaning would be obvious to the Greeks ...

Below are the list of arguments supporting the conclusion of this website.  We might suppose that some are just coincidental, but it is very difficult to suppose that they ALL are just coincidental.  Click on the hyperlinks below for more details.

One of John’s over all themes in his Gospel was wisdom.

“ … and the sayings of Jesus have been woven into long discourses of a > quasi-poetic form resembling the speeches of personified Wisdom in the Old Testament.”
Introduction to John’s Gospel in the NAB Bible

So, if John was using “153 Fish” as a metaphor for wisdom that would have fit perfectly with his theme.

John wrote his Greek Gospel in the Greek city of Ephesus.  He lived with and pastored the Greeks,
He would have surely desired to show that their natural wisdom did NOT mean Jesus’ Gospel was foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:22), and on the contrary that Jesus was the source of All Wisdom, (153 Fish.)   As their pastor John was surely motivated to address this issue.

That this is John’s goal - to bring non-believing Greeks into the Gospel - seems to be confirmed by John’s explicitly stated his reason for writing his book.  In the passage just before this account of the miraculous catch of fish in  John 20:31  he writes :
 “But these are written that you may (come to) believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God…”

It is addressed to non-believing Greeks so that they “may come to believe.”  And so, a metaphor to the wisdom would be perfectly in line with their greatest need and his stated goal. That is, an understanding that Christian wisdom is not foolishness  [Corinthians.] But in fact, the Gospel of Jesus was compatible with their natural wisdom.

The Church Father’s explanations could not have been John’s primary explanation for 153 fish.

“Children” seems to be an allusion to (the need) for wisdom.

“153” is an allusion to the wisdom of Archimedes because 9 out of his 10 equations end with that number 153.

The eightfold repetition of fish and its measurement is a subtle clue that a metaphor is being employed.

If you calculate the “Measure of a Fish”  into a rational number
the final number is 153.  Therefore, there is an implied connection between John’s reference to “153” and the symbolic meaning of the fish.

The method by which one calculates the “Measure of a Fish”  employs the wisdom and mathematical achievements of  Pythagoras, Euclid, and Archimedes.  And therefore, this is an allusion to Greek wisdom.

The eightfold repetition of fish as well as eight references to its measure suggests the numbers 8 and 2 could imply a special meaning.  The wisdom of Christianity could be summarized by its most distinctive teaching. That God became Man. That Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity took on a 2nd nature. And the most distinctive miracle that authenticated Jesus’ teachings is that He rose from the dead on the 8th day.

The reference to the number 3 could be an allusion to :

11.  Third Person of Trinity, and therefore to Wisdom.

12.  Pi, π , which has Biblical value of 3  (1 Kings 7:23.)

13.  √3  which when expressed in a rational approximation ends with number 153.

14.  Archimedes 3rd Proposition where he calculates the value of  Pi, π. 


John’s use of an
unexplained metaphor suggests the possibility that he is correcting someone else’s error.

The Church Fathers assumed that precise and unique reference to “153 fish” was a metaphor.  John’s meaning for his reference to 153 fish must have been unmistakably clear to his readers, as he offers no explanation.

The only explanation for “153 fish” that is suggested so far,  that could have been clearly obvious to John's readers is that
“153 fish” is a specific reference to the natural wisdom of the Greeks and a general reference to all Wisdom.  And that Jesus is the source of all wisdom.  And therefore, there is no contradiction between the Greeks'  wisdom and the spiritual wisdom of Jesus and His revelation.

See a detailed discussion on the importance of the number 153 in Greek culture.  Read :
The Number 153 Was Very Prominent and Recognizable in Ancient Greek Culture

And this interpretation of “153 Fish” lends itself to a very natural explanation of why Saint John would switch from one style of Greek to another in this final chapter 21.

If “153 fish” does not mean what is stated above in statement 14 then we are pushed toward the following two positions :

20 A.  Saint John the Evangelist, one of the chosen four by God, has failed to communicate what he meant by 153 fish.

20 B.  We have no record of John addressing the most pressing issue for the Greeks who were directly under his pastoral care. 

Each of these positions is most problematic and very difficult to hold.


When we consider John’s decision to include the conspicuous reference to the Apostles as  children,” and most importantly how Archimedes used the number 153, and the secondary clues of the use of the word fish, its repetition, and its measurement, as well as the reference to the number 3 it is clear that the evidence is overwhelming.  “153 fish” had a special meaning as a metaphor for wisdom.  And this is not to mention the insurmountable difficulties we have today in trying to defend the position that John could have safely assumed that one of the early Father’s positions was already on the minds of his readers and that it was so prominent that it need not be mentioned by John.  In fact, there seems to be no evidence Anywhere that Anyone made the particular connections to the number 153 that the Fathers made before they themselves wrote out their own particular explanation.  And the conclusion that 153 is a metaphor for wisdom is confirmed when we consider the motivation that John the Evangelist would have had in regards to the Greeks since he lived among them and was their pastor. It seems impossible to imagine that John would not have addressed their misperception that their wisdom precluded acceptance of the Gospel.

Clearly, “153 fish” is a reference to wisdom.

Jesus can command that some be brought to Him - even though He already has some - because He is the source of all wisdom.  The Apostles struggle to haul it in because the quantity was so great, verse 6.  Yet Peter alone seems to master the load well enough by himself in verse 11.  Peter has a singular gift in defining what is or what is not true wisdom.

There is only one conclusion that fits all the data. John was using the event of the 153 Fish as a metaphor to refer to Archimedes, his work on Pi, and hence to all wisdom.  The same net which contains all wisdom does not tear because their is no inconsistency and no contradiction between the wisdom Jesus teaches and the natural wisdom of the Greeks.  John explains away the objection the Greeks had to the Gospel.

John 21:11 - A Verse, A Piece of Wisdom, for Today

This scripture passage is one of the most important verses for today’s world to consider. Our culture and our world is on brink of abandoning wisdom and guidelines that go back thousands of years on issues such as love, truth, happiness, freedom, and self worth.  This new worldly “wisdom” is contrary to the natural law and to Christian revelation. Conversely, John 21:11 implies that all true wisdom is compatible with Christian revelation, where the net which holds them both does not tear.  And sadly, a redefinition of these values and what our culture is based on will mean that the most innocent and the most vulnerable, the little children, will suffer the most.



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Sections :

Church Fathers : Sts. Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Cyril A.
No Reason ?
Why Church Fathers’ Answers Could Not Be John’s
Problems with Square Root of 3 Answer
Context Points to the Answer : An Explanation That Works
Archimedes : Context of Time and Place
Greeks and Wisdom
Calculating the Measure of the Fish
John’s Purpose
Why Church Fathers Did Not (could not?) Give John’s Idea


Print Free Pamphlet - - Brief Summary


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