Three More Fish Stories (John 21:11)
Kiley, Mark, Journal of Biblical Literature
(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)
The perennially interesting conundrum of the 153 fish finds its most complete recent treatment in the commentary of Craig Keener.1 Of the approximately dozen suggestions that are highlighted there, it is probably fair to say that the one holding sway at this moment sees the number as a gematrical sum alluding to the Hebrew for children of God. In this critical note, I wish to add three suggestions to the hopper.
1. Peter when old. This is perhaps the simplest of the three suggestions, based on an inter-Greek exercise of gematria.
The number 153 is the sum of the digits of the following Greek letters: gamma, rho, nu.
γ = 3
ρ = 100
v = 50
These letters form the consonantal spine of the word for old, in verbal form applied by Jesus to Peter in John 21:18.2
2. Justice. As described by the neo-Pythagorean Iamblichus, justice is "a power of rendering what is equal and fitting comprehended by the mean of an odd square number."3 This fourth-century C.E. definition, preserving earlier tradition, is relevant to the Fourth Gospel in the following way: The first odd number is 3; its square is 9.4 The mean of 9 is 5. Five is the "mean" of the number of fish 1, 5, 3. There are also five places in the farewell discourse, each buffered by a different theme, where the disciples are commanded to ask (...).5 Further, according to one recent commentator, five provides the numerical substructure of the whole text.6 By his having returned to the Father, Jesus has demonstrated the justice of God (16:10), and that justice is here adumbrated in the 153 fish.
3. Providence. The sum of the digits in 153 is 9,7 and it occurs following a portion of the text in which eight people are present at the cross of Jesus.8 This 8, 9 sequence is used as a structuring principle in Sirach's panegyric in honor of Simeon the high priest, according to a recent article by Jeremy Corley.9 He links this pattern to statements in Sir 18:6 and 42:21 and Qoh 3:14 and suggests that the numerical pattern alludes to the exact providence of God's action in history, where nothing needs to be added and nothing subtracted.10 John's attention to 8 and 9 may have a similar intention of praising God's providence in the history of its preeminent high priest, Jesus.
Moreover, the sum of 8 and 9 is 17,11 and 153 is the result of multiplying 9 × 17. This "increase and multiply" dynamic may be playing with Gen 1:28 LXX, whose ... is directed to the man and woman. The double command echoes the identical command to the sea creatures in Gen 1:22, though 1:28 goes on to give the couple dominion over the fish of the sea. Therefore, the providential reading of 153 is grounded in the lifting up of Jesus as well as in the initial creative and sustaining will of God.
Conclusion. Each of these three options presents itself against a horizon-ofnine. Nine is present in option 2's square of 3, as well as in the sum of the digits and use of 9 as a multiple in option 3. Nine is a remote horizon for option 1 as well: The high point of Peter's confession, that which acts as immediate pretext for the Peter-as-old saying, contains nine words in the Greek: ..., , "Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you" (21:17). We cannot be certain about the evangelist's motivation in utilizing 9 as a background horizon. Perhaps the fact that the last items in the Hebrew lexicon build on the nine stem, JJWn, suggested the root as a fitting one for the conclusion of the text. We know, after all, that Daniel's 1,290 days (Dan 12:11) constitute the penultimate statement ofthat apocalyptic presentation. The Johannine editor may have chosen this numerical frame as a suitable one for the text's final reflection on Jesus' coming (21:23). …