The catch of exactly 153 fish in the closing chapter 21 of John’s Gospel has been an exegetical challenge for a very long time. “So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.” (Jn 21:11) Many theories have been advanced, many speculations suggested. Many of these have been recounted in Fr. Raymond Brown’s excellent two-volume study, The Gospel According to John, which is an expansive resource generally for any study of this uniquely beautiful Gospel.1
Possibilities cited by Brown include “everything from gematria to geometrical progression,” and more. Some of the more significant theories include that of Jerome: Greek zoologists had recorded 153 different kinds of fish, hence a totality predicted in the apostolic mission of gathering all types of men to become disciples from all the nations. Countering that, other ancient authorities had differing numbers for the count of fish types.2
Some other theories—mathematical in nature—noted that 153 is the sum of integers from 1 to 17. A mathematical equivalent notes that 153 is the number of dots needed to form an equilateral triangle with 17 dots on each side. Symbolism is added to say that 17 is the sum of two “complete” numbers, 10 and 7, and that there are 10 commandments and 7 gifts of the Spirit, and other such combinations. Without listing some of the other interesting speculations, to include one more: Cyril of Alexandria sees 153 as the sum of 100 (representing the fullness of the Gentiles) plus 50 (the remnant of Israel) plus 3 (the Holy Trinity).3
The number 153 is still a mystery (the conclusion offered by Augustine) even after all the possibilities cited, according to Brown. He writes, “One cannot deny that some of these interpretations … are possible, but they all encounter the same objection: we have no evidence that any such complicated understanding of 153 would have been intelligible to John’s readers.”4
The possibility for the specific number, 153, that I will toss upon the table specifically could have been intelligible to the early readers of the Gospel—those Gentiles literate in the Old Testament, anyway, as well as the Jews. An additional argument on behalf of the possibility that I will advance is the context of its source in the Old Testament, the context having to do with the correspondence of Elijah to Jesus, and the correspondence of Elisha the heir to Elijah’s mantle and ministry, to Peter the heir of earthly headship of the Church.
The King of Israel in Samaria was Ahaziah, an evil king ruling over the (divided) People of God, son of Ahab and Jezebel. He did not look to the one God for truth, but pursued evil.
He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the way of his father, and in the way of his mother, … who made Israel to sin.
He served Baal and worshiped him, and provoked the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger in every way that his father had done. (1Kgs 22:52-53)
When the king was gravely injured by a fall, he sent men to “inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron” whether he would recover. An angel of the Lord told Elijah to stop the messengers, and tell them to say to the King:
Thus says the LORD, Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore, you shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone, but shall surely die. (2 Kgs 1:6)
When the King heard this message, discerning that it came from Elijah, he sent soldiers to bring Elijah to him. This is where the number 153, crucial to our passage in John 21, comes in.
The King sends first one Captain with 50 soldiers, to retrieve Elijah. Elijah calls down fire from God that consumes the Captain and his men. The King sends another 50 with their Captain; the same result follows. The King sends another 50 with their Captain—now, 153 men have been sent to Elijah all together—and this last Captain, finally, approaches the prophet of God as one should, in his circumstance, showing fear and at least worldly prudence of a son of this age:
O man of God, I pray you, let my life, and the life of these fifty servants of yours, be precious in your sight. Lo, fire came down from heaven, and consumed the two former captains of fifty men with their fifties; but now let my life be precious in your sight. (2 Kgs 1:13-14)
In driving exactly 153 large fish into the disciples’ net in His third post-resurrection appearance to them (John 21), Jesus was taking them, and Peter especially, back to their foundations in Jewish tradition for one more lesson to fit him, and all popes after him, for the task to come. He was teaching Peter especially, once more, of the great divide between this world and the Kingdom of God, now come upon them, and within them, and among them. Peter, and popes after him, must not fear the powers of this world; they must walk and stand in obedience to God.
“Simon, son of John,” Jesus asked him, “do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15) Perhaps Peter did not immediately recognize the reference to the three Captains, each with their 50 men, in the 153 sent to retrieve Elijah by the evil king. Maybe he began to remember as Jesus continued to ask Him two more times, “Do you love me?” Three times His question came, as three times Peter had before denied Jesus, in fear of this world! Three times Captains were sent to the man of God Elijah, sent to bring the man of God back to an evil king. Three Captains sent by the world to retrieve a prophet sent by God—153 were sent, all together. Simon, do you remember the 3 Captains in the 153 sent—“Do you love me more than these?”
Three times Peter had not loved Him more than those three Captains! Three times Peter had feared the power of the rulers of this world more than he had feared and trusted God, in his denials of Jesus. Three times he had failed to live the prudence fitting for a steward in the Kingdom of God. Perhaps here he remembered as well the parable of Luke 16:1-8, where his master commended the “dishonest steward” (corresponding in a way with the final Captain of the 50), a parable intending to teach that “the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light.” Peter, and future popes, must be leaders of the People of God in all holy prudence, and divine wisdom as well.
Jesus was forming Peter, and popes after him, to be the worthy shepherd of the sheep of Christ—shepherd of all the sheep, including shepherd of all the other shepherds. To Peter alone, singularly, He commanded in the context of love: feed and tend (guide, lead, nurture) my sheep. Jesus was making Peter His vicar; Jesus Himself would leave them, but Peter would remain (in some sense) in His stead as shepherd of all.
This singular appointment entrusted to Peter, and to popes following him, until the Lord comes again, was suggested in the accounts of Elijah and Elisha, immediately following the sending of the 3 Captains in 2 Kings 1. In 2 Kings 2, Elijah is to be taken up to God, and Elisha is to take up Elijah’s mantle, and ministry. Thus, the 153 fish (the 3 Captains, and “Do you love me more than these?”) pointed Peter through his own three-fold denial to his three-fold restoration and commission. The Elijah reference—Elijah’s imminent being “taken up” in 2 Kings 2—pointed Peter, as well, to the imminent ascension of Jesus, and more. Just as Elisha would take the mantle and ministry of Elijah, and continue it, so Peter was to be given the role of Shepherd of the disciples, and those to come, in the place of Christ—a vicar of Christ on earth: “Tend my sheep.”5
The End Times
There is an eschatological sense about the final appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the seven disciples here in John 21. Consider the mysterious comment by Jesus here, when Peter asked about the nearby Beloved Disciple:
When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?”
Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”
The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” (Jn 21:21-23)
It seems highly likely that the Lord is speaking here of “remaining” in fidelity “in Him”—a crucial imperative spoken to His own, in John’s Gospel (Gk menein—abide, remain, dwell)—remaining until the end, until the final coming of Christ. That is, perhaps John—the “Beloved Disciple”—represents those who find contemplative rest in the heart of Jesus throughout the ages: they will remain, though the world will grow in darkness, hardness, and distance from God until the end. Jesus urges His own:
Jn 15:4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.
Jn 15:6 If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.
Jn 15:7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.
Jn 15:9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.
Jn 15:10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.
Jn 15:16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
Perhaps, then, since Jesus is speaking in Jn 21 not of John “remaining” personally until Jesus comes again, but of the johannine dimension of the Church, then possibly He is speaking not only of Peter personally suffering martyrdom (as he did) but of the petrine dimension of the Church. If so, then His words take on more urgency for us all. Perhaps then, Jesus is telling us that in the last days, the johannine dimension of the Church will remain secure in Christ, but the petrine dimension of the Church will be attacked, and “when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” If our institutions be destroyed or taken captive, if all outward celebration and worship be bound and suppressed, even so, the heart of Christ will be present with us and for us, who are in Him. Remain in Him! If that is not clear, then learn! Learn to remain in Him.
- Raymond E. Brown, S.S., The Gospel According to John (Doubleday & Company, Garden City N.Y., 1970), vol 29-29A of The Anchor Bible ↩
- Ibid p. 1074 ↩
- Fr. Brown gives the reference for this from Cyril of Alexandria as In Jo. XII; PG 74:745 ↩
- Ibid, p. 1075. ↩
- The interpretation of Jn 21:15-17 to include the headship of Peter over the other apostles, as well as new believers (i.e., the pope over the bishops, as well as priests, and laity), was discussed by Fr. Brown. He wrote, “The First Vatican Council in 1870 cited John xxi 15-17 along with Matt xvi 16-19 in relation to its dogmatic definition that “Peter the apostle was constituted by Christ the Lord as chief of all the apostles, and as visible head of the Church on earth.” (DB 3053-55) italics Fr. Brown. He included this in a much more involved discussion of the implications, and complications, of papal primacy and succession, which is beyond the scope of this essay. ↩