Jesus Fish Symbol
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34. Jesus Fish Symbol


The Christian author Tertullian (160-220 AD) writes about the Jesus fish symbol. The so-called fish symbol comes from the Koine Greek word variously written as "Ikthys," "Icthys," or "Ichthus," meaning simply "Fish." The symbol for the Ichthus, according to Wikipedia, is pictured as "two intersecting arcs, the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point to resemble the profile of a fish." It seems to have been widely used among Christians because its five Greek letters "I CH TH Y S" represent the five words, "Jesus - Christ - Son - God - Savior." The letters "iota" as "I", "chi" as "ch", "theta" as "th", "upsilon" as "y" and "sigma" as "s", are single letters in Greek. The fish sign was widely used and is found as a means of identification on ancient Christian rings, seals, ornaments, ossuaries (which were stone burial bone boxes,) and gravestones from the early Christian era.

Ancient Baptism

Fish SymbolTertullian discusses the Christian fish symbol and its relationship to baptism in 195 AD. He writes, "It is all so simple - no great show, nothing new, no expense. A man is dipped in water, and a few words are said. He comes out of the water, not much (if any) the cleaner. Is it not wonderful that death is washed away by bathing? We too wonder, but we wonder because we believe." The question today is, "What significance do we find in the "Ichthus" used in connection with Baptism?" How can we restore some of the "wonder element" of Baptism in our Church Communities without it being a great show and without the expense? It seems so simple "a man is dipped in water, and a few words are said!"

Baptism Sign

Fish In Early Floor TilingTertullian, in the time of Emperor Julian, discusses the Jesus fish symbol and fishes. In thinking of Christian baptism, Tertullian writes, "We Christians are little fishes, and, like our "Ichthus," which is a short form of the term "Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior," are born in the water. The way to kill little fishes is to take them out of the water." Tertullian's words mean, that if Christians forget their Christian baptism vows when they are born in the water, then that is their end.


TertullianTertullian writes in Carthage in North Africa about 197 AD. He refers this Jesus fish symbol to giving, "we do have our money box, contributed to by those who wish, and who are able, once a month. The money is used, not for feasting and drinking, but to help the poor, orphaned children, the old, the shipwrecked, Christians sent to forced labor in the mines, or exiled to islands, or shut up in prison. This is why people say of us, 'See, how these Christians love one another!'"

Emperor Julian

Emperor JulianAbout the year 250 AD, the house churches in Rome, besides supporting their bishop, 46 presbyters, and a large number of lesser officers from readers to doorkeepers had according to the historian Eusebius, "more than 1,500 widows and poor people, all kept by the grace and loving care of the master" that is Christ. Later still, in 362 AD, the anti-Christian Roman Emperor, Julian, complained, "The Christians feed not only their own poor but ours, while no one in need looks to the temples."

Christian Gravesites

Early Christian GravesStrangely, the Early Church's only possessions before they even owned simple Christian buildings were Christian gravesites for the burial of believers. Gravestones also provide the earliest examples of Christian sculptures. The most common figure found on tombstones is that of the Good Shepherd bringing home a sheep on his shoulders. This tradition is a reminder of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who cares individually for each of his sheep. Eusebius wrote in his "Ecclesiastical History" that "Aristides also, a faithful disciple of our religion, has left an Apology of the faith dedicated to Hadrian." Aristides, (unknown -c140 AD) an Athenian, about 125 AD gives us a description of a Christian funeral. "If any righteous person among us passes away from this world, we rejoice and give thanks to God, and follow his body as if he were moving from one place to another." Why did the New Testament Christians choose the Good Shepherd image to associate with death and the Jesus fish symbol to identify other Christian followers?✞

Sunday Worship

Sunday ButterflyChristian Sunday worship and fasting are also of great importance and significance in the Early Church. The Early Christian apologist Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) uses the name "Sunday" for the day for Christians to meet for Christian worship together. "Sunday" means "Day of the Sun," and comes originally from nature worship, but it is easy to link with Christian ideas. The early Christians seem to readily adopt significant names and holy places like this from pagan religions. Christ is called the "Sun of Righteousness," and described in Malachi 4.2, "But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves." In John 9.5, Jesus says, "While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." Justin Martyr thought of "Sunday" as the first day of Creation, when God says, "Let there be light," which is also symbolic of the day when Jesus rises from the dead. In the New Testament, we can see that for Christians, this day is already beginning to take the place of the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) for worship. We read in Acts 20.7, "On the first day of the week we came together to break bread. Paul spoke to the people." In 1 Corinthians 16.2, Saint Paul writes of Christian giving on the Lord's Day, "On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come, no collections will have to be made." The Apostle John writes in Revelation 1.10, "On the Lord's Day, I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet." We deduce that the Early Church came to describe day for Sunday worship as "the Lord's Day."

First Full Moon

The fact that Strict Jews fast twice in the week is indicated by the Pharisee who boasts in Luke 18.12, "I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." This practice would be on Mondays and Thursdays. By the year 100 AD, Christians also fast twice a week but change the days to Wednesdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, they remember the betrayal of Jesus in Mark 14.10, when "Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray him to them." On Friday, they recall his crucifixion in Mark 15.24, "they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get." But these events happen, not only on certain days of the week but at one particularly special time of the year, at the time of the Jewish Passover on the "14th of the month Nisan," which occurs on the first full moon in spring. From these calendar days, Christians establish the dates for Good Friday and Easter Sunday, which are still adhered to today.

Jewish Passover

Jewish Passover TableThe Jewish Passover Table celebrates the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus becomes incorporated into the Christian Celebration at Eastertime. Christians in Asia Minor celebrate Easter at the same time as the Jewish Passover because of this. For Jews, Passover is a time for family gatherings. They wish each other "Happy Passover," as Christians wish each other "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Easter." According to John Foster(1921-2000) an eminent Anglican priest and author in "The First Advance, Church History 1, AD 29-500," Early Church Christians begin their "14th Nisan" with a solemn fast, remembering the Crucifixion, and end that same day with joyful Eucharist, to mark the Resurrection. We wonder today how Sunday is true to its roots in the Christian Community?✞

Easter Customs

Martyrdom Of PolycarpThe reason we celebrate Easter customs and the keeping of saints days first appears around Polycarp's martyrdom in 156 AD in the Early Church. The word "Easter" comes from several roots. In Old English, it is "Eastre" or "East." The German "Ostern" probably is as close as we can get to an origin for the meaning of the season. The name "Eastre" is also that of a goddess associated with Spring, according to the writings of The Venerable Bede, (672-735 AD) a British Benedictine monk at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul in the Kingdom of Northumbria of the Angles. The most widely regarded and the greatest of all the Anglo-Saxon scholars is The Venerable Bede. He wrote, "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People," completed in 731 AD, a primary source for early English history. He is also a deeply committed Christian and confesses, "I was no longer the center of my life, and therefore I could see God in everything." He later advises, "Until you are happy with who you are, you will never be happy with what you have." His words ring true, especially today in our secular society. John Foster explains that the Western Church did not observe Easter customs until Polycarp, (69-c155 AD) visited Rome in c154 AD and attempted to persuade the then Bishop of Rome that the observation of Easter customs had been handed down by the Apostles. In c155 AD, Polycarp dies a martyr, bound and burned at the stake. When the fire fails to touch him, he is stabbed until dead. "The Martyrdom of Polycarp" is a very early work describing Christian martyrdom. It is one of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers believed to have personally known some of the Twelve Apostles. A little after Polycarp's martyrdom and perhaps because of it, we find the city of Alexandria starting to observe Easter and also in Rome on the Sunday following the Jewish Passover. Easter is celebrated on Sunday because that particular day of the week is the Resurrection Day of Jesus, and it seems wrong that the yearly festival should be on any other day. So Easter, Christianity's oldest and most significant celebration, comes to be fixed on the first Sunday after the Spring full moon, with the previous Friday (now called Good Friday) as the fast commemorating the crucifixion.

Saints Days

PolycarpAs early as 156 AD, festivals or "Saint's Days" remembering the martyrs come into the Christian Year alongside Easter customs. In that year, Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, is reputed to have admitted, "Eighty-six years I have served him. How can I blaspheme my King, who saved me?" He loved and served his savior Jesus and gave his life in the process. His friends, writing an account of Polycarp's martyrdom, add these words about his grave, "There we shall gather, with joy and gladness, to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom." Polycarp must have been a wonderful person!

"Jesus Fish Symbol"
by Ron Meacock © 2019

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