The One Hundred and Fifty-Fourth Fish

After Easter, the passage from John 21
about the catch of 153 large fish in the Sea of Galilee comes up a couple of times. The disciples go night fishing. After a fruitless night, the Lord, from the shore, asks: “Have you caught anything?” “Nothing.” “Cast your nets on the right side of the boat.” Reluctantly, they do. What does this stranger know about it? They gather in their nets a huge number of big fish. “Who is it who told them to cast their nets?”
Nearing the shore, John recognizes that it is the Lord. At this, Peter, in fishing garb, puts on his clothes and jumps into the water. This sequence strikes me as the opposite of what I would expect. Why put your clothes on if you are going to leap into the water? In any case, Peter wades to the shore while the other disciples ground the boat. They were not too far out, anyhow.

When they land, what do they see? A charcoal fire burns, and a fish is roasting on it. Jesus also has some bread. He tells them to bring some of the fish. They, impressed, have caught 153 large fish. In the Sea of Galilee, some 18 types of fish exist. Most people today think that a semi-tropical fish, the mushti, was the fish that the disciples caught. It grows to about two pounds and is quite tasty. In the springtime, schools of them come to the warm water in great numbers. So the Lord might have seen them.
But my problem is this: Where did the 154th fish come from? Evidently, the Lord already had a fish and the bread before the disciples landed the boat. Did He catch it in a net? I asked a wise friend of mine about this. She told me that, since the Lord could create the world, there was no problem about the 154th fish, or the bread.
But using Occam’s razor, I am not sure we need to invoke the creation of the 154th fish ex nihilo. Perhaps a market was around, or other fishermen had landed. Evidently, the Lord saw the disciples coming. He prepared breakfast. (No mention is made of coffee!) In the text, I count seven disciples present — Peter, the sons of Zebedee, Nathanial from Cana, Thomas the twin, and two other unnamed disciples, perhaps Andrew or Jude. Most of the apostles, except Matthew perhaps, could fish.
The Lord lacked enough fish for all seven of them. He asked for a couple freshly landed ones. One of the disciples probably cleaned them quickly. The seven were hungry. The nets were heavy, but did not break. As far as I can tell, none of the disciples worried about the 154th fish. Whether all 153 of the fish were of the same species is unclear; catfish, sardines, and biny are also found in this sea.
When invited to have breakfast, no disciple dared to ask: “Who is this man who tells fishermen about fish?” They were impressed. They knew it was the Lord. Who else could find so many good-sized fish so quickly? Evidently, when the fish, including the 154th, were cooked enough, Jesus gave each one some fish and bread. I have heard scholars speculate, on the basis of this passage, “Why is not fish also a matter of the Eucharist?” I guess the simplest answer is that Jesus did not say at the Last Supper of some fish course, as He did the bread, “This is my body.” Seems fairly obvious to me.
Finally, we are told that this was the third time that Jesus was “revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” The New Testament makes it clear that Christ did not reveal Himself to everyone after His resurrection. Those who saw Him evidently were themselves selected as witnesses. Thomas, who was there this time, was even told earlier that those who have “believed” but who have not “seen” are more blessed.
Christ told the apostles that He would make them “fishers of men.” The fishing metaphor is a good one. We never know when we will find someone who will be “caught,” be fascinated enough by what the apostles have to tell them to pay attention. The New Testament indicates that the catch may be slow-going, one by one. And it may take a long time. But the 154th fish, I must confess, fascinates me. It stands outside the miraculous catch. Yet the Lord seems perfectly comfortable roasting it. Evidently, Christ was a fisher of fish as well as of men. There is something nice about that thought in this late Easter season.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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