What’s with the fish?

The stone in the picture above honours the life of a palace slave who died in Rome at the age of 8 years and 3 months. It was erected by his parents around AD 220. On the left you can see an anchor. On the right you can see a fish.

Fishing imagery reminded the early Christians of Jesus. He came from Galilee, which is known for its lake and fishing industry.

  • Jesus recruited His disciples from among the Galilean fisherman. He would make them “fishers of men,” rescuing lost souls from a sea of sin (Matthew 4:19).
  • The writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as the anchor of our soul (Hebrews 6:19). Without Christ we will drift from the safe harbour of God’s grace.

The fish symbol became a teaching tool for the early church. Each letter of the Greek word for “fish” (ichthys or ichthus) became part of an acrostic – a memory device – to represent the name and key titles of Jesus.

  • Ι (the Greek letter iota) is the first letter in Ἰησοῦς (ē-ā-süs; the Greek word for Jesus).
  • Χ (the Greek letter chi) is the first letter in Χριστός (khrē-stos; the Greek word for Christ).
  • Θ (the Greek letter theta) is the first letter in Θεος (the-os; the Greek word for God).
  • Υ (the Greek letter upsilon) is the frst letter in Υἱός (hwē-os; the Greek word for Son).
  • Σ (the Greek letter sigma) is the first letter in Σωτήρ (sō-tār; the Greek word for Saviour).

The fish was popular in the underground church, perhaps more popular than the cross. For many Christians, the Roman cross was a cruel reminder of what the authorities did to Jesus, and what they could do to believers and their families. Clement of Alexandria, writing about AD 200, suggested all sorts of distinctively Christian symbols for a man’s signet ring (Paedogogus, 3.11). The cross was not one of them.

Then, in AD 312, the pagan Emperor Constantine claimed to have seen a cross in the sky before the Battle of Milvian Bridge. According to some accounts, he also had a dream where Jesus explained the meaning of the cross to him. All we really know is that Constantine won the battle and gave Christ the credit. In the centuries that followed, the empty cross became the central symbol of the triumphant, imperial church (Robin M. Jensen, Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome, 2010, 1:96).

Today, the sign of the fish seems more appropriate than ever. Fewer countries recognize Christianity as their official, state religion. People who believe in Jesus and worship Him as Lord are persecuted in many parts of the world. Even in liberal democracies, or perhaps especially in liberal democracies, it is no longer politically correct to proclaim Christianity in the public square. Here, in New Zealand, laws undermine Christian views of sex, marriage, and family.

There is still a need for each disciple to bear his own cross and follow after Jesus (Luke 14:27). People can wear the cross as a symbol of their faith, but the fish reminds us of a time when Christianity survived on the margins of society, and when the church was closer to the teaching of Christ and the apostles.