Jesus Fish Symbol
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34. Jesus Fish Symbol


TertullianThe Christian author Tertullian (160-220 AD) writes about the Jesus fish symbol, which 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 further discusses the Christian fish symbol and its relationship to baptism. 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." "What significance do we find in the "Ichthus" used in connection with baptism?" How can we restore baptism's "wonder element" in our Church Communities without it becoming a great show? It seems so simple "a man is dipped in water, and a few words are said!"

Baptism Sign

Fish In Early Floor TilingIn the time of Emperor Julian, Tertullian relates the fish symbol to Christian baptism. He 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, then that is their end. He connects this Jesus fish symbol to Christian 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, exiled to islands, or shut up in prison. Therefore, people say of us, 'See, how these Christians love one another!'"

Emperor Julian

Emperor JulianAccording to the historian Eusebius about 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 "more than 1,500 widows and poor people, all kept by the grace and loving care of the master." 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 provide us with the earliest examples of Christian sculptures. The most common figure found on tombstones is the Good Shepherd bringing home a sheep on his shoulders. This tradition is a reminder of Jesus, 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." About 125 AD Aristides (unknown -c140 AD), an Athenian, gave us a Christian funeral description. "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 ButterflyIn the Early Church, Sunday worship and fasting were also of great importance and significance. The Early Christian apologist Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) used the name "Sunday" as 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 seemed to readily adopt significant names and holy places from pagan religions and "baptize" them into the Christian faith. 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 said, "Let there be light," which is also symbolic of the day when Jesus rose from the dead. In the New Testament, we can see that this day for Christian worship was already beginning to take the place of the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday. 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 wrote 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 wrote 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 quickly came to describe the 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 a Pharisee, who boasts in Luke 18.12, "I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get." This practice would have been on Mondays and Thursdays. By the year 100 AD, Christians also fasted twice a week but changed the days to Wednesdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, they remembered 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 recalled his Crucifixion in Mark 15.24, "they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get." These events happened, not only on certain days of the week but at particular times of the year. Easter fell at the time of the Jewish Passover or "14th of the month Nisan," on the first full moon in Spring. From these calendar days, Christians established the dates for Good Friday and Easter Sunday, which are still adhered to today.

Jewish Passover

Jewish Passover TableThe Jewish Passover Table celebrated the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. The Exodus became 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 began their "14th Nisan" with a solemn fast, remembering the Crucifixion, and ended that same day with joyful Eucharist, to mark the Resurrection."

Easter Customs

Martyrdom Of PolycarpEaster customs and the keeping of saints days first appeared in the Early Church around 156 AD, the year of Polycarp's martyrdom. 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 season's meaning. The name "Eastre" is also the season of a goddess associated with Spring, according to the writings of The Venerable Bede (672-735 AD.) He was 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. He was the most widely regarded and the greatest of all the Anglo-Saxon scholars. He wrote "The Ecclesiastical History of the English People," completed in 731 AD, a primary source for early English history. He was also a deeply committed Christian and confessed, "I was no longer the center of my life, and therefore I could see God in everything." He later advised, "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 Apostles had handed down the observation of Easter customs. In c155 AD, Polycarp died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake. When the fire failed to touch him, his captors stabbed him until dead. "The Martyrdom of Polycarp" was a very early work describing Christian martyrdom and one of the Apostolic Fathers' writings. They knew some of the twelve Apostles personally. A little after Polycarp's martyrdom and perhaps because of it, we find the city of Alexandria and Rome starting to observe Easter on the Sunday following the Jewish Passover. Christians celebrated Easter on Sunday because that particular day of the week was the Resurrection Day of Jesus. It seemed wrong that the yearly festival should be on any other day. So Easter, Christianity's oldest and most significant celebration, came to be fixed on the first Sunday after the Spring full moon. The previous Friday (now called Good Friday) is the fast commemorating the crucifixion.

Saints Days

PolycarpAs early as 156 AD, "Saint's Days" or festivals remembering the martyrs came into the Christian Year alongside Easter customs. In that year, Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, was 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, whose name meant "much fruit," must have been a wonderful witness to his faith!

"Jesus Fish Symbol"
by Ron Meacock © 2021

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