|The Miraculous Catch of 153 Fish - Duccio, 14th century|
- Simon Peter went over and dragged the net ashore full of one hundred fifty-three large fish. Even though there were so many, the net was not torn. - John 21:11
During our first days in the Holy Land, my tour group was lucky enough to be in a hotel in Tiberius looking directly out onto the Sea of Galilee. While we were there, I began to understand why Jesus spent so much time in this area. Even with blaring music from waterside discos, light shows, and boats full of late night partyers, the Sea had a mesmerizing peacefulness to it. It was as if no matter what people did, nothing could override the sense of peace that hung in the air. It seemed to exist without people's permission or cooperation. Perhaps this is why, in a world full of chaos and people clamoring for him, the Sea of Galilee was the choice place of escape for Jesus.
During our time in Tiberius, our group took a ride on the Sea of Galilee and Tim talked about Chapter 21 of the Gospel of John when Jesus appears to the disciples for the third time after his resurrection. In the passage, the disciples are fishing. Jesus calls out to them from the shore and tells them to put their net on the right side of the boat. The disciples do not recognize Jesus, but they follow his instructions and Peter pulls up the net bursting with 153 fish. The beloved apostle, John, recognizes Jesus in that moment and Peter, in his characteristic exuberance jumps into the Sea and swims to Jesus.
Scholars have long been baffled by the precision of the number of fish John recorded as caught that day and there are competing theories as to its significance. In his teaching to us, Tim pointed out that Aristotle believed there were 153 species of fish in his time; the idea being that Peter caught all the species of fish and that it is a metaphor for the true Church which is composed of all peoples on the world. Most scholars agree that the number 153 is meant by the apostle John to represent the universal Church. But I wanted to know a little more so I dug a little deeper into the significance of the number 153 and found many fascinating ideas.
Firstly, it is important to realize that the analysis of numbers in Scripture is not always hokey numerology (like the numerology that resulted in Harold Camping's strange prediction that the end of the world would be on May 21, 2011). The analysis of numbers, or gematria, has been used by the Jewish people in Scripture analysis for many thousands of years. In both Hebrew and Greek, the letters of the alphabet can serve as both letters and numbers. An example of this is that the book of Proverbs contains exactly 375 proverbs written by Solomon. 375 is also the numerical value of the name "Solomon." Numbers in Scripture have always been meaningful, which is why scholars are so interested in this particular number of fish. When a precise number is used in Scripture, there is almost always a deeper meaning.
Here are some of the many interesting analyses that I found about the use of the number 153:
- If you add the digits of 153 you get 9 which is 3x3 or 3 sets of 3. You can guess why the number 3 is significant, for more read here.
- The Greek words "fishnet" and "fishing" are both exactly 8 x 153. In Scripture, the number 8 always refers to the Anointed One, the Messiah, or to the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
- 153 is also a triangular number, meaning that an equilateral (3-sided) triangle can be uniformly filled with 153 dots. A triangle is often used to represent or to explain the concept of the Trinity, that God is three in one.
- 153 is the number of Psalms plus the Trinity! (And the number of Hail Marys in the full traditional rosary)
Anyway, whatever you think of this kind of analysis, I wanted to write about this because it helps to illustrate an important lesson that I learned on my trip. I have always been a little put off by the idea of reading the Bible over and over again. Most of this comes from the pride of desiring novelty. I do not like repeating, rereading, rewriting, watching more than once or redoing anything. It bores me.
And sure, I have heard over and over again that when we read a passage of Scripture more than once it is never the same because we are never the same. Sure, sure, I know this. As a postulant with a religious order, I read the daily Gospel every day and meditate on it for a half hour but honestly, the thought of reading the same Gospel stories over and over again every morning was not exciting to me, despite many fruitful prayer times.
But now I can honestly say, I am excited. I have learned, primarily through Tim Gray's teachings on my trip, that every single word in Scripture is pregnant with meaning that is not immediately discernible. And if you pay attention, it is possible to pick up on the many messages that God sends us through small details, like the 153 fish.