EWTN Catholic Q&A
153 Fish
Question from L. Juergensen on 10-23-2002:

Father Echert,

In John 21:1-19, Jesus commissions Peter as the shepherd of the Church. Three times Jesus tells Peter to "feed my lambs", "tend my sheep", and "feed my sheep".

The passage instills two questions:

1. What is the significance, if any, of the fact that the disciples, as a group, were unable to haul in the net full of fish, yet Peter, alone, was able to do so?

2. The net hauled in by Peter is described as containing 153 fish. I have read that St. Jerome considered this number to represent the number of nations in the world at the time of Christ. However, the Jerome Biblical Commentary (first edition), by Fr. Brown et al., states that St. Jerome considered the number 153 to represent the number of species of fish in the seas. Any truth or significance to any of these views? Is there a writing by St. Jerome explicitly addressing this matter?

Many thanks,

L. Juergensen

Answer by Fr. John Echert on 10-31-2002:

The Gospel of St. John records:

21:9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish lying on it, and bread. 21:10 Jesus said to them, "Bring some of the fish that you have just caught." 21:11 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. 21:12 Jesus said to them, "Come and have breakfast." Now none of the disciples dared ask him, "Who are you?" They knew it was the Lord. 21:13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 21:14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

I think it safe to assume that when St. John includes a detail such as the precise number of fish that were caught, there is important symbolism to be found in the historical reality. We do well to consider the writings of the early Fathers, in such matters, but here we do not find a consensus. St. Cyril viewed this number as a combination of the fullness of the Gentiles (100) plus the remnant of the Jews (50) plus the Trinity (3). St. Augustine had a more elaborate approach, in which he added up the total as follows: 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15+16+17. He then noted that seventeen was a number representing the combination of the Ten Commandments and the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. St. Jerome noted that 153 was commonly regarded at the time as the total number of varieties of fish to be found in the Sea of Galilee (Tiberius), and that the catch was therefore symbolic of the universal offer of the Gospel to the world. It is the view of St. Jerome which has remained most popular to the present, and which I personally favor. However, it is possible for multiple allegorical interpretations to be valid and intended by God, manifested through the guidance of the Holy Spirit upon spiritual giants such as the early Fathers.

Father Echert