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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.

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.

And there was another pastoral reason why John does not make the meaning of 153 fish explicit.

John lived with the Greeks and he knew that the Greeks held their natural wisdom in the highest esteem and that they even identified themselves by it.  He knew about the problem St. Paul recounted above in his letter to the Corinthians.  John knew the Greeks needed to accept that their wisdom had its foundation in Jesus Christ.  The Greeks had mistakenly thought that their logic precluded the possibility of the Christian Gospel as being true. They valued their wisdom about natural things, but denied Jesus had any role in it.  They were guilty of the sin of pride.

“Humility is the mother of all virtues," but the sin of pride puts roadblocks into one's journey towards God.  A humble person will accept correction, but a proud man looks down on those who correct him and enjoys dismissing corrective words without any serious examination.

John was not just a communicator.  He was a pastor. He would have know that most overly proud people will reject correction without serious consideration of ideas that contradict or diminish the false value they place in themselves.  A better way to get such a person to examine an idea is to get them to think that a particular idea is their own. One way to plant such an idea into another person's head is by using a gentle metaphor.

So, as a pastor, John wants to be as gentle as possible when pointing out to the Greeks that their wisdom was faulty.  This is why John uses a subtle and gentle metaphor of 153 fish.  And this explains why John does not explain his meaning.  He knows his idea that Jesus is the source of  all 153 fish, and therefore the source of all wisdom, will surely be perceived by the Greeks.  And he does not want to rub the Greeks noses' in the fact that their wisdom, their logic, was faulty in initially rejecting the Gospel.

A Proof ?

Saint John lived with the Greeks.  So, he had to know about their misperception that their wisdom was in compatible with the Gospel. 1 Corinthians 1:22-24.  And as a pastor he must have wanted to do something about it.  The best pastoral approach would have been to use a gentle metaphor.  Using “153 fish” to suggest to the Greeks that their own natural wisdom had its source in Jesus Christ would have been a brilliant idea.  Therefore, guided by the Holy Spirit John must have done so.


Father Bob Stine’s answer is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that makes all the other pieces fit together.  It answers all the questions without leaving any loose ends, unlike all the other proposed answers that really do not fit and could not be John’s primary message. 

St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory, and St. Cyril all offer ideas which are good theology, and which are plausible secondary meanings.     However, their ideas were all different and their is no real evidence that any of their ideas would have been obvious to Johns readers.

Therefore, we can safely conclude that neither St. Jeromes, nor St. Augustine’s nor St. Gregory’s nor St. Cyrils idea could have been Johns primary intention.  Read more details on St. Jerome’s and Fathers.

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.

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

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

3.  “153” is an allusion to the wisdom of Archimedes because 9 out of his 10 equations end with that number 153.

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

5.  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.

6.  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.

7.  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 reference to the number 3 could be an allusion to :

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

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

10.  √3  which when expressed in a rational approximation ends with number 153.

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


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

13.  John’s meaning for his reference to 153 fish must have been unmistakably clear to his readers as he offers no explanation.  And if we suppose that “153 fish” is not a reference to wisdom then we are left with the conclusion that the great Evangelist Saint John the Apostle has failed in regards to communicating his point.  That is hardly an acceptable position to hold.

14.  The only explanation that could have been clearly obvious is that “153 fish” is a specific reference to the natural wisdom of the Greeks and a general reference to all of Jesus’ Divine Wisdom.

15.  Since John lived with 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.

16.  And, if this is not the answer here, then we have no record of John addressing his most pressing problem in Evangelization.  And that is a problem.


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

In Luke 5:1-11 there is another miraculous catch, although no number of fish is given.  (Jacopo Bassano, AD 1545, The Miraculous Catch)

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