153 Fish: Gematria

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The number 153, which appears in the New Testament, is intriguing. Unlike numbers like 7 (e.g., Genesis 1, the 7 days of creation) or 12 (e.g., the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles), the number 153 has no transparent significance. Here is a breakdown of some major lines of interpretation.

John 21:11: So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn.

What is the significance of 153 here?

1. Symbolic/ Lucky Number

153 is a triangulated number = 3 X 17 while 17 = 10 +7.

a) The equation 17 X 3 = 153, so 153 is a triangulated number; 10= 10 disciples present in receiving the holy spirit (John 20:24); there are 7 signs in John; there are 7 disciples present when the fish are caught (John 21:2).

b) The number 153 is the sum of the numbers from 1 to 17; and 17 = 10 + 7
10=the Decalogue; 7= the sevenfold spirit (Rev 3:1; 1 Cor 12:11; cf. vv. 9-10); Augustine, Tract in Joh 122, (http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701122.htm).

2. Disciples/Children of God

153 corresponds by gematria to the Hebrew phrases: the “church of love” and the “children of God,” which represent the gathered community of disciples.

a) The concept of gematria: the calculation of the numerical sum of the letters in a word or phrase (in ancient Hebrew, each letter also corresponds to a number), so that the computed sum refers to the word or phrase itself.

b) The phrase “church of love” is not a Johannine phrase, but “children of God” is (1:12; 11:53).

c) The concept of fish relates to discipleship. Christ will make the disciples “fishers of human beings” (Mark 1:17). This verse is behind John 21:11, where Peter (a disciple) “hauls” the fish in for a big catch. The word “hauls” here is the same as “draws” (used in 12:32) of Christ who draws the gathered community to himself. So 153 = the gathered community of disciples.

3. Waters of New Life

The number 153 refers to Ezekiel 47:10, which signifies the waters of new life.

a) The phrase appears in Ez 47:10: “People will stand fishing beside the sea from En-gedi to En-eglaim; it will be a place for the spreading of nets; its fish will be of a great many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea.” Ezekiel 47:10 refers to fishers (Jer 16:16 and Mark 1:17) who spread nets for fish of all kinds. Jerome comments on Ezekiel 47:10 in relation to John 21:11.

b) The Hebrew words, Eglaim (the spring of Eglaim) and Gedi (the spring of Gedi), in this verse, have the numerical values, 153 and 17 respectively (according to gematria), while 153 is a triangular number (17 X 3).

c) References in John to Ezekiel 47:10 are found, too, in John 7:38 and 19:34: streams of living waters =new life.

References:

F. H. Colson, “Triangular Numbers in the New Testament,” The Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. 16, No. 61 (Oct., 1914), pp. 67-76
http://www.jstor.org/stable/23947922

Robert M. Grant “One Hundred Fifty-Three Large Fish (John 21:11),” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Oct., 1949), pp. 273-275; http://www.jstor.org/stable/1508507

Richard Bauckham, “The 153 Fish and the Unity of the Fourth Gospel,” Neotestamentica, Vol. 36, No. 1/2; in Word, Sacrament, and Community: Festschrift for Professor N Suggit (2002), pp. 77-88; http://www.jstor.org/stable/43049111

Joseph A. Romeo, “Gematria and John 21:11: The Children of God,” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 97, No. 2 (Jun., 1978), pp. 263-264
http://www.jstor.org/stable/3265625

For more ideas, see: Riding the Beast

© Joya Stevenson 2018