Gospel Gazette Online
Vol. 14 No. 3 March 2012
Page 2


The Fish Symbol

Louis RushmoreThe fish symbol used by early Christians is post-biblical in origin. Put another way, it is unscriptural in origin, but the fish symbol is not anti-biblical or against Scripture. For instance, an automobile is unscriptural – meaning that automobiles do not appear in Scripture – although, automobiles (and airplanes, too) are not anti-scriptural or counter to Scripture.

The fish symbol appears to have been in use by Christians by the second century to distinguish Christians discreetly from non-Christians. The idea was to lower the risk of discovery by injurious persons during periods of heightened persecution of Christians.

Of all the symbols used by the early Christians, none was more widely used than that of the fish. …Referring to Christ, it was in familiar use as early as the 2d century. Its significance was drawn from the fact that the letters of ‎…the Greek word for fish, form the initials of the acrostic… ‎(Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour). (McClintock and Strong)

Ichthys, from Koine Greek: ἰχθύς, (capitalized ΙΧΘΥΣ or ΙΧΘΥϹ) is the Greek word for “fish”. (Alternative transliterations include Ichthus and Ikhthus). In English, this refers to a symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs, the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point so as to resemble the profile of a fish, used by early Christians as a secret symbol and now known colloquially as the “sign of the fish” or the “Jesus fish.” (Wikipedia)

…the fish’s first known use as a Christian religious symbol was sometime within the first three centuries AD. Possibly around the 16th century Christians began using the Greek word ichthys for “fish”. Ichthys is the most commonly used word in the New Testament for fish. (“History”)

According to one ancient story, when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company. Greeks, Romans, and many other pagans used the fish symbol before Christians. Hence the fish, unlike, say, the cross, attracted little suspicion, making it a perfect secret symbol for persecuted believers. So the early Christians made practical use of this symbol for practical convenience. (“Origin”)

Reference to fish or symbols of fish were sometimes characteristic of pagan beliefs before the use of the fish symbol by Christians. However, precisely because of the varied use in ordinary life or paganism without specificity of context as to what it referred, Christians used the fish symbol as a secret code to identify Christians with whom they were unacquainted upon encountering each other. In other words, a symbol that was so common as to not necessarily refer to anything in particular could be used without divulging that one was a Christian. Not all symbols or practices that may have been employed by or even originated within paganism mean the same thing today or mean the same thing to everyone. For instance, the names of at least some of the days of the week were pagan in origin, but they no longer carry that meaning to contemporary people in the contexts in which we typically conduct ourselves.

The fish became a symbol for Christianity in the early days of the post-apostolic church. It frequently is found carved on the walls of the catacombs beneath the ancient city of Rome. (Jackson)

The most favorite symbol seems to have been that of the fish. …The corresponding Greek Ichthys is a pregnant anagram, containing the initials of the words: “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour.” …The origin of this symbol must be traced beyond the middle of the second century, perhaps to Alexandria, where there was a strong love for mystic symbolism… It is familiarly mentioned by Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Tertullian, and is found on ancient remains in the Roman catacombs, marked on the grave-stones, rings, lamps, vases, and wall-pictures. The Ichthys-symbol went out of use before the middle of the fourth century… (Schaff)

Not holy or deserving to be venerated, the fish symbol, however, conveys the affirmation that those who display it purport to be Christians – particularly acknowledging that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and the Savior. One is neither more holy nor less holy by adopting or not adopting this symbol in some form in his or her life. As such, the fish symbol is a means of communication, not unlike using alphabetic words, pictures or gestures to communicate between individuals.

Works Cited

“History of the Christian Fish Symbol, The.” 30 Mar 12 <https://www.eureka4you.com/fish/fishsymbol.htm>.

Jackson, Wayne. “What Is the Significance of the Fish Symbol?” Christian Courier 30 Mar 12 <https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/180-what-is-the-significance-of-the-fish-symbol>.

McClintock and Strong Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Seattle: Biblesoft, 2006.

“Origin of the ‘Christian’ Fish Symbol.” 30 Mar 12 <https://www.albatrus.org/english/religions/pagan/origin_fish_symbol.htm>.

Schaff, Philip. “Allegorical Representations of Christ.” History of the Christian Church. CD-ROM. Saginaw: Historical Exegetical ‘Lectronic Publishing, 1996.

Wikipedia. 30 Mar 12 <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ichthys>.

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