This entry is part 66 of 96 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Simon Peter went aboard and pulled the net to shore. It was full of large fish, one hundred fifty-three, but although there were so many, the net was not torn.
Many weird and wonderful attempts have been made to find special meaning in the number of fish in the net.
- Jerome, for example, reported that ancient writers believed that there were 153 different species of fish in the net, thus symbolising all the nations of the world.
- Augustine, noting that 153 is a ‘triangular’ number (the sum of the numbers from 17 downwards), then pointed out that 10 refers to the number of commandments, and 7 to the sevenfold Spirit of God. The elect then (according to Augustine) are saved by grace and by keeping the commandments.
- According to Cyril, 100 = the large number of Gentiles who were to be saved; 50 = the smaller number of Jewish people to be saved; and 3 = the Trinity, by whom they are all saved.
- The medieval scholar Rupert of Deutz suggested that the number represents the fullness of the church: 100 represents the married, 50 the widows, and 3 the virgins.
- A modern scholar has taken a similar line, linking this number with the feeding of 5,000 in John 6 (5 loaves of bread were taken and 12 baskets left over, 5 + 12 = 17).
- Others give a numerical value to each letter, coming up with phrases such as “the church of love,” or “the children of God.”
- Another interpretation reverses the usual numerical order, so that, in English Z would equal 1 and so on. On this basis, 153 would symbolise an abbreviation of Ichthus, which was an early Christian code for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour’.
- Of course, the number 153 might have been recorded simply because that was the number of fish in the net! This is the view of Hendriksen and Morris, among others. (As a variation on this, it has been suggested that the exact number was given in order to emphasise the truthfulness of the account, since fishermen are prone to exaggerate!)
Barclay (DSB) discusses a number of these interpretations.
Ian Paul, lists a number of the options mentioned above (and a few others besides). He outlines three principles for dealing with such numerological conundrums in the Bible:
- Any claim must fit the data of the text itself.
- The reading must have been a possible one for the original author and readers.
- Any ‘deeper’ meaning must cohere with the ‘surface’ meaning of the text. To this extent, they are similar to parables.
There are (Ian Paul notes) three large numbers mentioned in the NT – this one, the 276 people saved from shipwreck in Acts 27:37, and the 666 of Rev 13:18. Curiously, each of these is a ‘triangular number’. If for the present number of 153 the base number of 17 is significant, then it might indeed represent the whole of the known world. On the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) a list of 17 regions is listed.
According to James B. Jordan:
In Ezekiel 47, we see baptismal waters ﬂowing from the overturned Bronze Sea of the Temple, ﬂowing out to the boundaries of the Land. Remember that Jesus claims to be the source of such living waters. In Ezekiel 47:9, we are told that “very many ﬁsh” will live in the (formerly) Dead Sea as a result of these living waters. In verse 10 we read, “And it will come about that ﬁshermen will stand beside it; from En-Gedi to En-Eglaim there will be a place for spreading of nets. Their ﬁsh will be according to their kinds, like the ﬁsh of the Great [Mediterranean] Sea, very many.”
The Dead Sea is the boundary of the new land after the exile, and a place of contact with gentiles. The ﬁshes are clearly gentile nations. The fact that the sea is formerly dead and now is brought to life surely indicates the inﬂuence of Restoration Israel over the nations before Christ, and points to the greater inﬂuence of the Kingdom after Pentecost.
Now, it is well known that Hebrew letters are also numbers: the ﬁrst nine letters being 1-9, the next nine being 10-90, and the last ﬁve being 100-400. “Coding” words with numbers is called gematria. If we subtract the “En” from En-Gedi and En-Eglaim, since “en” means “spring,” then the following emerges:
Gedi = 17 (ג = 3; ד = 4; י = 10)
Eglaim = 153 (ע = 70; ג = 3; ל = 30; י = 10; מ = 40)
Again, this seems too close to the mark to be a coincidence. Once again, we have the number 17 (Gedi, mentioned ﬁrst) and its relative 153 (Eglaim, mentioned second) connecting to the evangelization of the gentiles, symbolized by ﬁshing.
Conclusion: The number 153 represents the totality of the nations of the world, which will be drawn in the New Creation.
Ian Paul (who cites the above from Jordan) favours both a ‘surface’, literal meaning, and also a ‘deeper’ symbolic meaning. He concludes:
First, we just need to recognise that these texts are, in some important ways, strange to us, so we do need to enter into the world of the text with a sense of disciplined imagination.
Secondly, there is a good case, supported in multiple ways, for seeing the 153 as having both real and symbolic significance. I don’t see any reason to doubt that someone counted the number (fishermen would be in the habit of doing so, surely?) but like many other things in this gospel, the reality also has symbolic significance.
Thirdly, the connections with the number 17 at Pentecost, and the parallels in this episode with the commissioning of the disciples in the similar experience in Luke 5, do suggest that the symbolic significance has to do with gospel ministry which will draw on people from all over the world. This is a ‘hidden’ meaning which simply says the same thing as the narrative in Luke 5, though in a distinct way and using distinct language and symbolism.
Fourthly, this does make the meaning of the narrative strongly focussed on the theme of restoration and renewing commissioning, a theme that is reinforced in Jesus’ threefold restoration of Peter in the next pericope. The disciples are once again, beyond their failure and fear, being called to proclaim the good news about Jesus to all the world.