on the origin of the jesus fish

Jesus Fish

ΙΧΘΥΣ or "Jesus Fish"

I recently came across an excellent article in a 1992 festschrift for David Flusser on the possible origin of the “Jesus Fish” by Gedaliahu G. Stroumsa entitled, “The Early Christian Fish-Symbol Reconsidered.”

In the article, Dr. Stroumsa discusses some of the early studies on the origin of the Greek acronym ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthus), and then presents his theory, which ties Jesus (whose Hebrew name is Yeshua or Joshua) to Joshua ben Nun, who led the Israelites into the “Promised Land.” Because נון (“nun“) in Aramaic means “fish,” and because there are several eschatological and messianic references to fish in Jewish literature (especially those linking the messiah to Jonah, who was swallowed by great fish only to be returned to life after three days, and those referencing that a leviathan would be eaten at a messianic meal), Stroumsa argues that the word ΙΧΘΥΣ first originated in Aramaic-speaking circles as a reference to the messiah, and only then, as what would become the orthodox Christian theology evolved, did the word become a convenient Greek mnemonic acronymic formula for Ἰησοῦς (Iēsous = “Jesus”), Χριστός (Christos = “Christ” or “anointed”), Θεοῦ (Theou = “of God” or “God’s”), Υἱός (huios = “Son”), Σωτήρ (sōtēr = “Savior”), first mentioned in Tertullian’s treatise On Baptism.

The article is well worth a read.

“The Early Christian Fish-Symbol Reconsidered.” in I. Gruenewald, Sh. Shaked and G. G. Stroumsa, eds., Messiah and Christos: Studies in the Jewish Origins of Christianity, in Honour of David Flusser ( Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992), 199-205. PDF

HT: Toto

3 Responses

  1. One of the few articles I have seen applying the academic discipline of anthropology to the field of biblical studies appeared recently in BAR. In this article, Anthropologist Jill Katz concludes that tribal culture in Iron Age best fits the paradigm of a Big Man society. I only wish more anthropologists would apply their methodology to this epoch especially with the plethora of textual material evidence available. After all, Red Sea tribes are no less subject to the natural catalysts that shape other tribal identities.

    Using Jill’s conclusion, an analogy can be drawn between those tribes that ritually consumed the god-body of the whale shark and other aboriginal whaling societies. The Makah of Neah Bay is a Big Man society that ritually consume the god-body of the grey whale during a feast known as Potlatch. The story of Jesus feeding a multitude with one fish may be a remnant myth of this tradition. The Passover Seder may originally been a feast type such as a potlatch. A passage in the Talmud alludes to the relationship between Seder and the Seudat Chiyat HaMatim; a feast following the resurrection of the dead. According to the Midrash, the Leviathan will be served at this feast and a cup of blessing will be passed. It is easy to see how those tribal units ritually drinking fish oil would be selected over those that had a diet of something like tree bark.

    I don’t think it is just a coincidence that the Makah word for potlatch (sounds like peshatl) the Hebrew word for Passover (peshach) and the double fish symbol (pisces) all use the same double phonemes. In the Gospel of John, Jesus caused the fishermen to catch exactly 153 fish before a ritual feast. 153 is the numeric equivalent of Pesach.

  2. edit: Jill Katz concludes that tribal culture in Iron Age ISRAEL…

  3. In the Talmud it is said that the meat of the Leviathan will be served at a feast to the righteous and its skin will be used to cover the booth of the banquet. Sukkot (Festival of Booths) concludes with a prayer; “May it be your will… I have fulfilled and dwelt in this sukkah so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the sukkah of the skin of leviathan. Next year in Jerusalem.” The instruction for making the booth for this festival is very specific. The roof covering, that is reminiscent of the leviathan skin, can be made of any type of branch as long as they are set apart so that stars can be seen between.The skin of the whale shark is the color of the night sky and has bars interspersed with yellow spots (stars).

    The definition of Pesach has come to mean “to pass over” but has an earlier meaning of “protection”. Arabic cognates of Pesach have led some scholars to the conclusion that it means “to hover over”. I assume this is because of the connection to birds. However, the ancient Egyption “pesh” describes a mother bird COVERING her eggs in a nest. She is incubating and keeping them warm. The skin of the Leviathan is to be used as a COVERING of the final temple. I think the skin is for incubating the covenant participants in anticipation of resurrection. Eggs have always been a symbol of Easter.

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