A Fishy Theory, That Doesn't Net Up Very Well

Last October (which tells you how far behind I am in my posting schedule {g}), I was having a correspondence with someone who referred to a fringe theory (in the sense that most scholars don't advocate it or think much of it, in at least one sense of that phrase) concerning the 153 fish caught by the apostles in the final chapter of GosJohn in a sort-of-repeat of the Lukan big-catch incident. (John 21:1-11; Luke 5:1-11)

This theory, is that the author (editor/final-redactor/whatever) of GosJohn completely invented the anecdote by, in effect, copy-pasting it over from a story about the Greek philosopher Pythagoras that was having a bit of a revival in its popularity thanks to a book about Pythagoreanism, written by Plutarch more-or-less contemporaneously with GosJohn. (Obviously it helps if one has already decided GosJohn was written in the final quarter of the 1st century, or later. But that's another discussion, and is probably still a majority opinion across the ideology boards among scholars anyway.)

Even for historical incidents, it isn’t unusual for authors reminiscing about their importance to apply geometria to spice up a number value. Moreover, it might be impossible to find any real number of fish that this game couldn’t be played with in reverse to find the ‘real’ reason the author ‘invented’ the number! But of course, in this case it looks (at first glance anyway) like there's a specific connection between the works. So let's take a look at it as a theory.

For those who don’t know, the theory goes something like this:

1.) Jerome (the famous Vulgate-Latin Biblical translator, writing many centuries after the composition of the canon on any dating scheme) claimed that the Greeks had identified exactly 153 species of fish in the sea, when commenting on John 21.

2.) Pythagoras (centuries earlier than the canon's composition) had discovered that the ratio of 153:265 was the closest known measurement to the square root of three.

3.) In Iamblichus’ biography of Pythagoras, a story is told in Chapter VIII about an incident one day during a walking trip from Sybaris to Crotona. Pythagoras meets some fishermen pulling up their heavily laden fishnets. He tells them he knows the exact number of fish they had caught (the implication being he had calculated it in his head from the basic size of the fish, size of the net, etc.) The fishermen declare that if he is right, they will do anything he asks. His request is that, if he is correct, they will return the fish to the sea unharmed. He turns out to be correct (no number recorded here), and so they keep their part of the bet. (Pythagoras was well-known to be a vegetarian and didn’t want any animals harmed.) To be fair, Pythagoras pays the fishermen the value of the catch and goes on his way to Crotona. The fishermen later discover his name from some children while telling their story, and so they spread the account abroad.

(The one-paragraph story can be found here. An even shorter one paragraph version can be found in a biography of Pythagoras by the great neo-Platonic anti-Christian apologist and philosopher Porphyry, though his account has no connection to his counter-apologetics. Porphyry and the other great counter-apologists do however forget to mention that the Christians invented their history only lately, and instead treat the basic character of the story as being history + wicked invention. Doubtless this is due to mere censorship on the part of the Christians who report them to dispute with them, and who then invented things the counter-apologists did not say in order to make the claim seem to be about non-disputed historical events... {cough} {g})

4.) Plutarch, in the Eighth Question of his Eighth Book to the Symposiacs (aka "Convivial Questions"), is going to a lot of mystical trouble to explain to his readers why Pythagoreans don’t eat fish. Along the way, Plutarch (briefly) emphasizes that it isn't because Pythagoras hated fish; on the contrary, it was because he he was kind to them. And so the fisherman story is introduced--and in some wording that has some interesting topical relevance to the overall story of Christ: finding the fish to be prisoners, Pythagoras bought their liberty and set them free back into the ocean, as if they had been his own kinsfolk and good friends.

Plutarch lived and wrote between the mid-40s and around 120 CE.

5.) Therefore, the catch of 153 fish in GosJohn is (or may be) intended to be a reference to Pythagorean geometry (i.e. the measure of the fish). Having borrowed the reference, and then trying to come up with a number, the Evangelist either just happened to remember an obscure factoid concerning Pythagoras (153:265 == ancient square root of 3), or decided to borrow the Greek numbering of fish species. (Neither Plutarch nor Iamblichus connect a number to the fish saved by Pythagoras.)

Aside from some dodgy logical connections, the problem from a narrative-analysis standpoint is that the story doesn’t net up very well. Jesus actively helps His disciples catch a miraculous haul, and has nothing at all to do with the counting (that’s just mentioned as a detail in passing). Nor is He exhorting His followers to set the fish free--which one might have thought would be the whole point for an overtly redeeming character being saddled with a Pythagorean anecdote borrowed from Plutarch! (Notably, in the Lukan account of a miraculous catch of fish, which happens much earlier in the story of Jesus under rather different circumstances, Jesus emphasizes that from now on instead of catching fish Peter and the others will be catching people to live.)

One could suppose on the other hand that the story was invented to compete with Pythagoras (and/or with Apollonius, the neo-Pythagorean?) via borrowing from Plutarch and flipping things around.

But it’s a deeply clumsy borrowing if so! If Jesus is being presented as a greatly superior alternate ‘savior’ to Pythagoras, then why is he eating the fish?! And expecting the disciples to do the same! The souls aren’t freed allegorically--they’re diabolized!!

If a theory is supposed to involve a mythic innovator who manages to run completely against his supposed intentions at every conceivable turn, in his borrowing and mythical coding, then I would suggest this might perhaps be considered evidence that this particular mythic innovation theory needs more work. {s!}



Jason Pratt said…
Just a quick comment-tracking note.
guitarstrummr said…
Hey I just came across this "interpretation" and am really curious about something.

Could it have been that the author of John (whoever it was that wrote this) did know that the Greek's considered there to be 153 fish species in the sea, and so he included the number 153 to illustrate the completeness of the catch? Perhaps trying to illustrate that when following Jesus, one's catches will be complete and nothing will be lacking?

In this case, the ideology of the passage becomes the focus and not the source.
Jason Pratt said…
I'm sorry I somehow missed this comment before! Fellow apologist JPHolding recently did a video on the topic, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KhUCT2N2ip4 He doesn't include nearly as much information, but does include some points I neglected to mention, and it's a short video so readers are welcome to check it out. Anyway, after watching it I thought I'd pop back here to compare the data; and that's when I saw the comment.

It is entirely possible that the Evangelist touched up the number to poetically signify either the totality of the catch (a point I'd certainly approve of as a Christian universalist), or at least what we might today call a total sample size (out of every people and tongue and nation, and other phrases of that sort).

However, the earliest I was able to trace the fish-kind-numbering thing was Jerome, no earlier than the mid 300s. His phraseology does suggest it's a categorization that predates Roman appropriation of Hellenic culture, but there's no way (for me currently anyway) to tell for sure how old the concept is that Jerome is referencing.

Still, if that's how the number got there, I'd have no problems with it. Sober scholars and students of ancient historical practices are well enough aware that minor flourishes of this sort make exactly no difference about the historicity of the claimed event. The texts of the Judeo-Christian canon even tend, by comparison with their contemporary texts, to be more restrained than usual about this sort of thing. It was a big haul of fish. How big? Um... here's a meaningful but not unrealistic number, approximately correct, representing all-the-bigness, know what I mean?

But it might also just be a historical coincidence.


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