“One Hundred Fifty-Three Large Fish” (John 21:11)
Robert M. Grant
The Harvard Theological Review
Vol 42, No. 4 (Oct., 1949), pp. 273-275
“ΟΝΕ HUNDRED FIFTY-THREE LARGE FISH”
The theory that this number reflects the number of kinds of fish recognized in antiquity comes from Jerome, Comm. xiv in Ezechiel(Migne, PL **25,474C). **He says. “Writers on the nature and propertiesof animals, who have learned `fishing’ in either Latin or Greek (one ofwhom is the most learned poet Oppianus Cilix) say there are one hun*dred fifty-three species of fish.”
It was customary in antiquity — andthe practice has not come to an end — to generalize from single in*stances, and we shall not be far from the mark if we suspect thatJerome’s only source for this statement is his understanding of Oppian.Jerome knew the work of Pliny on natural history, and Pliny *(N. *H.ix. 43) states that there are seventy-four species of fish, in additionto thirty varieties of crustacea.
But does Oppian say that there are one hundred fifty-three?In actual fact, Oppian states (Hal. i. 8ο–92) that there are countless myriads of species of fish, although "we must make our calculations with human minds" since only the gods know certainly howmany there are. To make such a calculation is fairly difficult, sinceA. W. Mair’s “classified zoological catalogue” in the Loeb Libraryedition of Oppian (fishes, etc., pp. 519-2 τ) is not quite complete, andin any event one cannot be sure how Jerome or his source countedwhen Oppian lists genera instead of species.
As far as I have beenable to tell, without counting genera and duplications, Oppian lists123 fish (if we include 3 whales and i dolphin), 17 molluscs, 7 crustacea, **2 **echinoderms, **2 **named vermin plus the unnamed leech, as well as the water-newt, turtle, beaver, seal and sponge. This adds up to 157.Perhaps the whales and dolphin should be dropped to make 153, butthis seems unnecessary favoritism either to the vermin or the water- newt and his companions.
The point in question is very simple. No one who did not have the number 153 already in mind could approach Oppian’s work andcount the species of fish, especially since Oppian himself declaresthem uncountable and does not list them in any systematic way. Moreover, Oppian’s work was probably written between 176 and 1-8ο A.D.Thus to explain the Fourth Gospel by means of it is impossible. WhatJerome or some earlier Christian discovered was due to coincidence,and incomplete coincidence at that.1
1 Note that according to John 21:13 the fish were presumably edible. Thusmany of the species listed in writers on fish are excluded. Josephus (Bell. iii. sob)