We are in another season of Easter within this rather strange period in human history. It is a historical moment that is trying both our patience and our faith to their limits.
However, the readings at Masses these days, which remind us of the events that happened after the Resurrection of Christ, are meant to strengthen our flagging faith. One of these is the second miraculous catch of fish.
In the Douay-Rheims translation of the Gospel of John we read that “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” (John 21:11).
Earlier in the Gospel the resurrected Jesus, whom they had not yet recognized, had told them to cast their net to the right of the boat. They had been fishing the whole night without catching anything, but in doing as Christ said, they hauled in a “multitude of fishes” (John 21:6).
Previously, I had never really given much thought to the number 153. Perhaps, I thought in my ignorance, by being exact about the number of fishes St. John was just trying to show how “real” the event was. Clearly in my case, for whatever reason, the rather abstract concept of “multitude” somehow overshadowed the very exact “one hundred and fifty-three.”
That was before. In the last few months, however, I have had the good fortune of studying the Bible more closely.
Not only am I compelled to read more of both the Old and New Testaments because of my courses in the Polis Institute (a school for ancient languages in Jerusalem), I am now learning Hebrew and Greek, the original languages in which these books were written respectively.
It was this combination of more exposure to the Bible and of learning these languages that has made me see the number 153 in an entirely different light.
As I soon discovered, many great thinkers have already turned this number inside out and have interpreted it as representing the universal Church from different angles.
St. Jerome took the biological route by pointing out that 153 was the number of all known species of fish at that time.
Meanwhile St. Augustine took the mathematical route by pointing out that 153 is the sum that results by adding the whole numbers from 1 to 17. And why 17? Because it is the sum of 10 (representing the 10 Commandments) and 7 (representing the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit).
Both routes suggest that in specifying the number 153, St. John was hinting at the fact that Jesus Christ came to save all the nations of the world, from which would come those that would belong to the universal Church—Christ’s Church.
Yet engaging as those ideas are, what really piqued my interest in 153 had nothing to do with the Church, but with Christ Himself. It was sparked by a passing comment made by a Catholic Bible scholar, Jeff Cavins, which I heard in a podcast. In it he referred to 153 as a number that pointed to Christ as God.
“How does that work?” I asked myself. By coincidence, just a couple of weeks ago, we had to learn the number equivalence of each letter in the Hebrew alphabet. This lesson was just what I needed for me to answer my question.
In Psalms 46:10, we read: “Be still and know that I am God.”
The original Hebrew words used for “I am God” are אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהִים (pronounced from left to right “anokhi Elohim,” and literally means “I God”).
However, there is a shorter form for the pronoun “I” and a very slightly different spelling of “Elohim,” and using those forms we write “I am God” in Hebrew as אֲנִי אֱלוֹהִים (pronounced from left to right “ani Elohim”).
Using the number equivalents of each letter in the latter Hebrew phrase, we see that אֲנִי = 1 + 50 + 10 = 61, and that אֱלוֹהִים = 1 + 30 + 6 + 5 + 10 + 40 = 92. If we add those two sums, 61 and 92, we get 153.
The suggestion here is that in making the apostles catch the “great multitude of fishes…153” just by his word, Christ was not only providing them breakfast, but likewise telling them “I am God.” Christ always provides for our bodies and our souls.
My suspicion is that whoever came up with this interpretation worked his way backwards. Yet I have to say that this was an inspired, if not brilliant, piece of deduction (and by “inspired,” I don’t necessarily suggest “divinely inspired”).
In any case, whether made backwards or forwards, I will admit that this interpretation has changed the way I regard and will read the Scriptures. It has convinced me that the ability to read the ancient languages of Hebrew and Greek—even Latin—really does opens doors in the study of Scriptures.
Understandably, of course, this sort of Hebrew numerology, technically termed as gematria, may be dismissed by many as silly or even insignificant, as far as Biblical exegesis is concerned.
However, what it is not is uninteresting. It has certainly piqued the interest of one like me who began his education in the exact sciences but has slowly and steadily made his way into the heart of the humanities and of what it means to be human—the languages.
Indeed, in my short foray into gematria, since I first discovered it a couple of weeks ago, I have already encountered quite a few things which I can only describe as very exciting.
Very exciting not only for the new knowledge horizons they are opening, but also—and more importantly—for the stronger convictions in faith that I feel they are now working within me.
Cortes is assistant professor of Communication Ethics in the University of Asia and the Pacific. He has a PhD in Social Communications from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy, and is completing a Certificate in Ancient Philology in The Polis Institute of Ancient Languages and the Humanities in Jerusalem, Israel.