So the Gospel lesson last Sunday in church was the story from John of Jesus appearing to some of the disciples from the shore of the Sea of Galilee three days after his death. The disciples are fishing and having no success when they see Jesus on the beach tending a cookfire. He tells them to come ashore and join him for breakfast. They reply that they have caught no fish, and hence have nothing to cook.
Jesus tells them to throw their net out on the other side of the boat, which they do. They haul in the net only to find that they have caught lots of fish. 153 of them. This story holds many lessons. But the only thing I can seem to focus on is those fish. Why does John so specifically tell us the number of fish that the disciples caught? Is there some significance to the number 153? Or is John just indulging in a little literary trick by cultivating a sense of authenticity through the use of specificity?
I decided to do a little research on these 153 fish, by which I mean I Googled “153 fish” and found, much to my lack of surprise, that the question of whether or not there is any significance to the number 153 in the context of this story is one that has entertained the minds of Biblical scholars, ancient mathematicians and ordinary crackpots since the day it first appeared in print.
I won’t bore you with some of the more attenuated explanation of the significance of the number 153. Some of my favorites focus on significance of the last digit “3” as being a holy number (the Holy Trinity, Jesus rising on the 3rd day, Jesus praying 3 times in the garden, there being 3 hours of darkness at his death, his being 33 years old at the time of his death, the fact that if you add up the digits in the number 153 (1+5+3) you get nine, which is 3 squared). I also like the purely mathematical theories (such as 153 being the sum of one squared plus five squared plus three squared), an interesting mathematical formula but one that doesn’t answer many questions about the fish.
The deeper one looks into the number 153, the spookier things get. 153 is the total number of days in any five consecutive months in the Gregorian calendar, which does not include February – for example, March (31), April (30), May (31), June (30) and July (31). Add up the days and you get 153. Kinda cool and a little spooky, but hardly illuminating.
I think the answer to the significance of the 153 fish has less to do with God’s mysterious and prophetic side, and more to do with his sense of play and delight. Accordingly, I think it’s significant that Channel 153 on the Dish Network is the Outdoor Channel, and where do you find fish? That’s right, outdoors. And Channel 153 on the Sirius Radio Network is the traffic and weather channel for Atlanta and Miami, the kind of information you’d want to know if you were thinking about going out for a little bass fishing. United Nations Resolution Number 153 admitted the Gabon Republic to the United Nations. Have you ever been to Gabon? Lots of fish there. Here’s a coincidence. Former Dallas Cowboy quarterback Roger Staubach threw exactly 153 touchdown passes in his professional football career. Some of them were against the Miami Dolphins. And speaking of TDs, former Dodger baseball star Tommy Davis had 153 RBIs in 1962, still a club record. And what do the TV shows Gilmore Girls (2000-07), Hunter (1984-1991) and Ben Casey (1961-1966) all have in common? Each of them filmed exactly 153 episodes before going off the air.
I’m afraid we’ll never know if there is any significance to the number of fish caught that day on the Sea of Galilee; it’ll just have to remain one of the mysteries of faith, I guess.
Tom Tyner of Bainbridge Island writes a weekly humor column for this newspaper. This is from his “Classics Files.”