John 21:11. 153 fish. Father George Rutler comments on the meaning of 153 fish

John 21:11.
153 fish. Father George Rutler comments on the meaning of 153 fish

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Fr. Rutler makes several interesting points.

I believe that St. John had a special reason and meaning for the 153 large fish.

St. Jerome and others suggest different possible meanings, however it is hard to see how any of the Father’s suggestions could have been John’s primary meaning.

“Biblical numbers in the patristic thought must be understood symbolically (pointing to higher truths) and not mystically (having a metaphysical importance in themselves),” writes Fr.Vassilios Bebis, Orthodox priest.

Saint Augustine writes,

“As to the reasons, indeed, why these numbers are
so put in the Holy Scriptures, other people may trace out
other reasons … [than] those which I have given …
but there is no one surely so foolish or so absurd as to
contend that they are so put in the Scriptures for
no purpose at all, and that there are no mystical
reasons why those numbers are there mentioned.”
The Trinity (4.6.10)


I understand the previous two quotes to be in agreement.
They are just using the word “mystical” in a different sense.
The first is rejection numerology, in regards which I think all Catholics agree.

St. Augustine means that there has to be a symbolic meaning to 153.

The fact that the church fathers searched for some meaning to explain the number 153 suggests that they knew that there must be some meaning that John attached to it.
St. Augustine states :
“ … but the definite number of a 153; and of the reason of this number we must now, with the Lord’s help, give some account.”
(See St Augustine, Tractate 122 (John 20:30-21:11), section 8)

St. Augustine knew that there must be some reason why John included this peculiar detail of “153” fish.
His invocation for “the Lord’s help” seems to indicate that he believed the answer was not obvious and only with difficulty, and only with the Lord’s help, would a person be able to determine its meaning.

As it turns out the Church Fathers were not in agreement as to what 153 fish meant. And no one has been able to explain how St. John could have intended any one of the meanings the Fathers gave.

How to Solve a Mystery

The most important thing is to be asking the right questions.

If you are asking the wrong questions, even if you have all the answers, those questions are not going to take you where you want to go. In that case, You will not arrive at the solution.

To figure out what John meant by “153 fish” we need to ask,

Why did St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, and the other fathers explain out the meanings they had for 153 fish ?

Second question:

Why did St. John the Evangelist not explain out his meaning ?


Happy Feast of St. John the Baptist.

Why did St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, and the other fathers explain out the meanings they had for 153 fish ?

Because each of the Church Fathers wanted their readers to know the connections they were making to the reference of 153 Fish. And each Father knew their readers needed for them to tell their readers what that particular Father was thinking.

Second question:

Why did St. John the Evangelist not explain out his meaning ?

Because he knew his meaning was so obvious that he did not need to tell them. It is not obvious to us, but John knew that it would be obvious to his readers of his time and place.

For example, If I were to say to a modern North American audience,

“One small step for Man .

A giant leap for Mankind

[Thank God, he was not forced in his day to use the so called “inclusive language.”
Standard English is much more inclusive than the so called “inclusive language.” ]

Another example, If I were to say to that audience,

“9 – 1 – 1”

In each case, my reference point would be obvious.

To non-Americans I will explain, although many will already know.

The first is a reference to Neil Armstrong’s quote when he stepped onto the Moon fifty years ago in 1969. Americans look to him as a hero for science, space exploration, and adventure.

The second is a reference to the terrorist’s Jet crashes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and is now used to reference any emergency or that particular event.

So, now the next question is,

“What obvious meaning would ‘153’ have to the Greeks in Ephesus, where St. John wrote, in the first century ?”

Till next time,

God bless you all,


Obviously, the second picture below was much later.

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Fr. Rutler is very erudite, inspiring, thought provoking.

John 21:8-11
But the other disciples came in the ship, (for they were not far from the land, but as it were two hundred cubits,) dragging the net with fishes. As soon then as they came to land, they saw hot coals lying, and a fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus saith to them: Bring hither of the fishes which you have now caught. Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land, full of great fishes, one hundred and fifty-three. And although there were so many, the net was not broken.

Maybe 153 was the number of nations known in the world. It really does not matter, as it has not been revealed to us. What I note is that there were seven Apostles present. That number seven again. The six in the boat followed after Peter, dragging the net when Peter jumped in the water.

But note: Six dragged the net to the shore. Yet, as the net lay against the shore, Peter hauled it ashore by himself. He must be a very powerful man, and God’s grace was with him.

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The title you put on this thread is somewhat inaccurate. Father George Rutler does not actually comment on the meaning of the 153 fish. He quotes three comments from other authors – Oppian, Augustine, and Louis de Montfort – and he adds a factual observation of his own, but I’m not sure it truly qualifies as a “comment.”.

  1. The Greco-Roman poet Oppian listed 153 species of fish in his 3,500 verses about fishing, the “Halieutica.”
  2. Augustine found that 153 is the sum of the first seventeen integers.
  3. Louis de Montfort found something prophetic between the catch of Galilean fish and the sum of fifteen decades of Hail Mary’s plus the first three beads.
  4. The Sacred Tetragrammaton appears 153 times in Genesis.

Thanks for the comments above.

I infer from them that questions other than the ones I presented should be examined first. That is fine with me.

However, I believe that another tangent issue should be addressed first.

When I presented the discussion in the context of

“How to Solve a Mystery”

I also gave the appropriate questions to ask.

But in most cases no one is giving to us these questions

(And even when that happens we are not always inclined to recognize that they are the best questions to pursue.)

So, the question is how do we recognize the best questions that will lead to solving the mystery as opposed to other questions or lines of reasoning that are more likely to lead to endless discussion without leading us to the solution.

So, I have created a tangent thread

How to Solve a Mystery” Enhancing our Evangelization Techniques

I would say that we pray for the prudence to discern which mysteries shall be revealed in this life and which shall not be.

Speculation about mysteries that are unknowable strikes me as academic at best, and at worst, well…

We live in an age of complication; an age of demands for satisfaction, for gratification. God, in His Wisdom has decreed that we shall not be fully satisfied or gratified in this life - else we are not pilgrims. Knowledge is good, but where knowledge fails, hope prevails.

Rather than in complication, peace is found in simplicity.

I agree with everything you stated above.

Thanks for your reply.
We can learn by faith and by reason.
Would you accept the possibility that maybe God does allow us to know with reasonable certainty what the answer is to this question by way of reason ?

I noticed that as well. Just guess at what 153 large fish must have weighed? Even at what I think is a low estimate of 2 lbs /fish, that’s over 300 lbs.

So St. Peter was a ‘physically’ strong man.

Along with just thinking that the 153 fish catch actually occurred, and it is merely a statement of historical fact, it also brings to my mind the Lord’s first promise made to Peter: “I will make you to become fishers of men” (Mk1:17).

Was the 153 large fish (such a precise number), along with being factual, also metaphorical, or a “figure” of how many, say, powerful converts (i.e. ‘spiritually’ strong /large) that Peter himself personally won?


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Mysteries, even as to the existence of God, may be almost fully addressed by reason, but He leaves just that little bit missing so that we must have faith to fill the gap.

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And when we arrive at what I claim is the answer will see that it is very simple and I would say even obvious to John’s readers but yet it touches on a mystery of God that goes very deep

Yes I noticed that he does not explicitly endorse any of the father’s meanings. Could it be he saw a weakness in claiming that any of those could have been John’s primary meaning.

They all touch on valid secondary pollyvalent meanings. But it’s hard to make the case that any of them could have been John’s. For example, While Jerome references Oppian on 153 Types of all fish representing all nations ,
never actually uses that number 153.
and a person has to be very arbitrary in arriving at that number. For example which mollusks and which clams have to be included to arrive at that exact number Seems very contrived.

And He Oppian writes many years after John so how could John have expected his readers to know that there were supposedly are 153 types of fish

No one has been able to present any evidence as to how John could have expected his readers to make any of the connections that the early fathers made which were all different

Yet I contend that John’s primary meaning was simple and obvious and it can be shown to be so

Did you tell us what your answer is? I can’t see it anywhere on this thread.

Yes that’s how I see it. I’ve always liked the passage at the beginning of John 21 where Peter says “I am going fishing” and the others say “we will go with you.” They initially catch no fish but when Jesus instructs them they catch many, as a final reminder and emphasis that they are empowered only through Jesus and that he will be with them in their mission.


Jesus saith to them: Bring hither of the fishes which you have now caught. Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land, full of great fishes, one hundred and fifty-three. And although there were so many, the net was not broken.

Simon Peter was strong enough to pull the net ashore, single handedly, at Jesus’ command.

In obedience to Christ, Peter’s successors are given the power to pull the Church “ashore.” The net of the Church cannot be broken. It is a safe enclosure for the “catch” and its capacity is endlessly abundant.

The number of souls thus brought to Christ and salvation through the Church is precisely numbered (not specifically 153, but symbolically). The number is a known (to God) and is acknowledged as representative of His divine will in the plan of salvation.

There are others included through the mercy of the Father, though they arrive outside the gathering of the “fisherman’s net.”


Very interesting reflection!

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John and the others knew the exact number simply because, being fishermen, they counted the fishes.

Their main interest was fishing that was their economy.

But Jesus said to Peter : “Shepard my sheep” which was quite different activity.

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