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No. 133: 153 Large Fish

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 133
Copyright (c) 2000 Biblical Horizons
September, 2000

Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.

(John 21:11)

This is one of those texts in the Bible that many people puzzle over. It is not a puzzle for some. They say this just happens to be the record of the number of fish that were caught, evidence of a true fisherman’s recounting (e.g., Leon Morris; William Hendriksen). It is true that there were exactly 153 fish caught, but that is not the reason the precise number is given. It does not occur to such non-literary interpreters that the Holy Spirit often does not give precise numbers, and that if the precise number were not important, the text would only say “many fish” or “about 150 fish.”

Other commentators rightly notice that John’s gospel is full of signs and of allusions to Biblical symbols, such as those associated with the tabernacle, temple, feasts, sacrifices, days of creation, and so forth. Thus, they admit that the number must have some meaning; but what? A considerable number of proposals have been advanced over the centuries, and these are often listed in various commentaries (e.g., Beasley-Murray; Raymond Brown). Some are bizarre and arbitrary, and many have little to do with the actual event and context.

Raymond Brown contends that what argues against all such interpretations is that we have no reason to think the initial readers of John’s gospel would have caught any of them. I take up this objection below.

The number 153 can be factored as 3 x 3 x 17. We can examine the number 17 in the Bible, and we will find that it does occur in some important places. Of course, the numbers 7 and 10 are both numbers of completeness or totality. They are related to each other as 2 + 5 and 2 x 5. (Compare the relationship of 7 and 12: 3 + 4 and 3 x 4.) Both Book 3 and Book 4 of the Psalter contain 17 psalms. Also, notice the following:

Patriarchlifespanfactoredsum of factors

Abraham175 = 7x5x57+5+5 = 17

Isaac180 = 5x6x65+6+6 = 17

Jacob147 = 3x7x73+7+7 = 17

This can hardly be a coincidence.

Now, since both 7 and 10 are numbers of completeness and totality, their presence here would indicate a complete catch of large fish, of the nations of the world (see below). Multiplied twice by 3 this might indicate God’s total permeation of this redeemed world. I believe, however, that there is an even better understanding available.

Long ago, Augustine of Hippo pointed out that 153 is the triangular of 17. This means that if we add 17 + 16 + 15 + 14 … + 1, we come up with 153. This number can be expressed as a triangle:

















We in the modern world do not usually study triangular numbers, but they were known in the ancient world and thus formed part of the education of scholars like John, who, as the sophistication of his writings shows, was highly educated. Accordingly, I don’t think Brown is correct in assuming no ancient readers would have caught on to this. And since the Bible is ancient literature, we should investigate the possibility that the number 153 is intended as a triangular of 17. (There is in fact one other significant triangular number in the Bible: 666, which is the triangular of 36, itself the product of 6 x 6.)

Unfortunately, Augustine ignores the context of the passage in explaining the meaning of 7 and 10. Seven, he says, is for the seven-fold Spirit of God, and 10 is for the Ten Commandments. Commentators disposed to ridicule “allegorical interpretions” are thus able to dismiss his suggestion. My purpose is to rehabilitate it.

Let us look back at the event recorded in John 21. To begin with, we have to remember that in Biblical symbolism the land represents Israel and the sea represents the gentiles. The land is above the sea, with mountains on it reaching up toward heaven. The land is a “priestly” territory between God’s heaven and the rest of the world. Throughout the Old Testament the gentiles are often spoken of in terms of the sea, or are reached by crossing waters of one sort or another. This land-sea symbolism is applied consistently in the book of Revelation to distinguish the Jews and Judaizers from the gentiles.

Corresponding to this, the priestly people are symbolized as sheep, goats, and oxen, while the gentiles are symbolized by fish. Jonah, for instance, is swallowed by a big fish and then spat out again. This symbolized Israel’s going into Assyrian exile and then being returned to the land. Thus, the fish was Assyria, a place where Israel would be protected while dwelling in the gentile sea.

None of the priests, prophets, and kings of the Old Testament were fishermen. They were all farmers or animal husbandmen. By way of contrast, none of Jesus’ disciples was either a farmer or a husbandman. The most prominent of the disciples were fishermen. Nobody is shown eating fish in the Old Testament, but Jesus feeds the 5000 with fish, not with beef jerky. After His resurrection He eats a fish, not a piece of lamb. The disciples are almost never spoken of as shepherds; they are fishers of men. This shift in imagery indicates that Jesus’ new kingdom is going to go to the whole world, to the gentiles. (Significantly, Jesus combines shepherding and fishing right here in John 21, as Peter is told to “feed My sheep.”)

And now, in John 21, Peter catches 153 large fish. Clearly, these large fish speak of the nations of the world who are going to be caught in the net. The net is the kingdom of God, focussed in the Church. The net does not break, despite the large number of big fish. The Church will not be destroyed by the nations she converts, but will hold them and bring them to Jesus, as Peter does. As the net draws the fish, so Jesus draws all men to Himself.

The big fish as the gentile nations provides us with an explanation of the number 153 as the triangular of 17. The number of nations in the world in the Old Covenant, according to Genesis 10, was 70 (7 x 10). The next number that combines these two factors is 153. Notice:

7 + 10 = 17

7 x 10 = 70

▴ 17 = 153

▴ 70 = 2485

Thus, the number of the nations of the world in the New Creation is 153. The world that God called old Israel to minister to was large, 70 nations. The new world that is going to come into the New Creation is even larger, 153 nations.

It is probably significant that 17 nations are mentioned in Acts 2:7-11. This includes Galileans. If we discount the Galileans as the fishermen rather than as the fish and thus start with verse 9, we can still come up with 17 from the last phrase in verse 10: “the sojourning Romans, both Jews and proselytes,” since the Jews are now one of the nations that need to be evangelized. It seems no accident that 17 peoples are listed here as those to whom the gospel first came. That being the case, we can see the initial presentation of the gospel as coming to 17, and then triangulating out to 153.

(Of course, this does not mean that we should try to find exactly this number of nations in the world. The number is a symbol.)

There is another good possible explanation for the number 153, and given the sovereignty of God, it is likely that this explanation is also correct – that both explanations are valid, each from its own perspective.

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 acording 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 substract 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.

[Students may wish to consult the following two articles, which were of help in preparing this essay: J. A. Emerton, “The Hundred and Fifty-Three Fishes in John XXI.11,” Journal of Theological Studies 9 (1958):86-89; Bruce Grigsby, “Gematria and John 21:11 – Another Look at Ezekiel 47:10,” Expository Times 95 (1983-84):177-178.]

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