Fantastic fishing

Even after a fruitless night of fishing, tired and ready to “call it a night”, the disciples dutifully cast the nets again. On their own they had caught nothing, but in response to Jesus’ command, there is a fantastic catch of fish (cf. 4:50, 53; 5:8; 11:43). The mention of precisely 153 fish (v. 11) has led to symbolic interpretations of all kinds. And indeed, there must be symbolism involved (unless one assumes that the disciples took time out to make a count).

Saint Jerome believed that the zoology of his time taught that there were 153 different kinds of fish; and the number, as a result, reflected universality. Jerome was probably incorrect about the zoologists of his own day, but his idea about universal symbolism was probably correct. Augustine of Hippo argued that the significance lay in the fact that 153 is the sum of the first 17 integers with 17 representing the combination of divine grace (the 7 gifts of the Spirit) and law (the Ten Commandments). Augustine goes farther and notes that “153” is the “triangular number.” He arrives at this conclusion noting that 153=1!+2!+3!+4!+5! (math refresher: factorials). When the factorials are arranged (see diagram), one sees an image of the Trinity.  (Sorry: I was an undergraduate math major , and just had to include this…!)

Over time there have been a host of theories, but the scholar D. A. Carson discusses this and other interpretations and concludes “If the Evangelist has some symbolism in mind connected with the number 153, he has hidden it well.” Perhaps we can let Carson have the last word.

Futile fishing

FISHERS-OF-MEN1 After this, Jesus revealed himself again to his disciples at the Sea of Tiberias. He revealed himself in this way. 2 Together were Simon Peter, Thomas called Didymus, Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, Zebedee’s sons, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We also will come with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. [from today’s gospel]

Many quickly pass over the beginning of this passage to move to the miraculous catch signaling the presence of Jesus on the shoreline. But to do so would be to miss the “apostolic roll call.”

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