So many of the stories in the gospels are short on details. There are so many questions we want to ask. What, exactly, happened? Who was there? What were they doing, and why? What were they feeling and thinking? But many if not most of our questions are left unanswered, lost to the realm of speculation and mystery.
And then, every once in a while, we get a detail so persnickety that we’re left wondering what it has to do with anything. A detail like this: the risen Jesus directs his disciples to a miraculous catch of exactly 153 large fish (John 21:11). Not “over a hundred.” Not 152 or 154. One hundred fifty-three, no more, no less.
Perhaps God wanted to give later interpreters a chance to show off their cleverness. Many, assuming that there must be a reason for including such an odd detail (and 153 is definitely odd, right?), have expounded their own pet theories about what the number might symbolize (shout out here to my colleague Marianne Meye Thompson, whose commentary on John is my favorite, and lists some of the possibilities).
Jerome, the 4th century theologian known for translating the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate), thought that there were 153 kinds of fish, and thus suggested that the miraculous catch presaged how the disciples’ mission would reach all the peoples of the world. (Note that such symbolism is possible whether Jerome was right about the number itself or not.)
His contemporary, Saint Augustine, noticed that 153 is the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 17 (no doubt making his math teacher proud). Seventeen, of course, is in turn the sum of 10 and 7. Ten is the number of commandments; seven can symbolize the Holy Spirit. Thus (to quote Thompson), potentially, “ten and seven represent, respectively, the old and new covenants, law and grace, letter and spirit.”
For those of us removed from ancient culture and not given to numerology, this may all sound a bit strange (though we obsess over other things that they would have found incomprehensible). The alternative, of course, is to not see any symbolism in the number at all. We’re simply meant to understand that it was a big haul of big fish, an extravagantly generous take in the way that the so-called feeding of the 5,000 was generous. Moreover, miracle upon miracle, the net didn’t tear, even with all those fish (John 21:11).
That seems reasonable. But that interpretation, of course, just puts us back at square one: then why tell us that there were exactly 153 fish? Who knows — and as I’m sure many of you are saying right now, “Who cares?”
Whatever the truth of the matter, whatever symbolic importance the number might have had then that is now lost on us, surely that last interpretation still holds: Jesus is not miserly in his giving. Imagine how the story might read otherwise: Jesus called out to them, “Have you caught any fish?” They answered, “No.” He said, “Cast your net on the right side of the boat, and you’ll find some.” And when they did, they suddenly pulled up ten fish and an old sandal.
The Bible tells us in different ways and in different places: God isn’t stingy, but a generous giver. He gives as much as our nets will hold.
And even more, he feeds us in the process. More on that in the next post.