A Great Catch: The 153 Fish

“I welcome you on the eve of a great battle.” So began General Dwight D. Eisenhower on May 15, 1944, solemnly addressing the admirals and generals and officers of the Allied Expeditionary Force, announcing the proposed strategy for Operation Overlord, codename for the Normandy invasion. Underestimated as an orator, Eisenhower’s speech riveted the attention of all in the tense atmosphere. The location was an unlikely one: a lecture hall of Saint Paul’s School in London. The boys had already been evacuated to Berkshire during the Blitz. The top brass, who had arrived from the advance command post of the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Forces at Southwick House in Hampshire, were seated on school chairs, with two armchairs occupied by King George VI and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. General Bernard Montgomery, the future Field Marshall, brought out his maps to show the British and American positions. The school served as headquarters of the XXI Army Group under Montgomery, and he felt at home there because he was an Old Pauline. Planning took place in the office of his old Headmaster, or High Master, which was the title used from the day of the school’s foundation in 1509 by John Colet.

As a close friend of Erasmus, and an even closer spiritual advisor to Thomas More, Colet was the epitome of a Renaissance humanist, laden with learning he had brought back from France and Italy for lectures in his own university at Oxford. More lured him back to his birthplace of London where his father had been a rich merchant and twice Lord Mayor. As Dean of Saint Paul’s cathedral, Colet put his reforming principles to work with eloquent imprecations against the pride, concupiscence, covetousness, and worldly absorptions that had tainted the priesthood. Archbishop Warham of Canterbury dismissed frivolous charges of heresy brought against Colet by offended clerics. Colet’s combination of charm and audacity engendered the respect even of Henry VIII, despite his bold preaching against the king’s French wars. As a priest with no children of his own, and no nieces or nephews because all twenty-two of his siblings had died in childhood, Colet devoted much of his inherited fortune to founding Saint Paul’s school for teaching 153 boys literature, manners, and, with Renaissance flair, Greek on a par with Latin. Erasmus said that when Colet lectured he thought he was hearing a second Plato. If so, his Platonism was Christian. He wanted a great catch, similar to the 153 fish that the apostles had hauled in at the command of the Risen Christ. The boys would be welcome “from all nations and countries indifferently.”

The catch was great indeed, and since then the school has turned out graduates including, just for starters:  John Milton, Samuel Pepys, John Churchill, G.K. Chesterton, three holders of the Victoria Cross, and the astronomer for whom Halley’s comet is named—all rising from the first 153.

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Exegetes, sometimes with too much time on their hands, and even earnest saints, have teased 153 and other numbers into signifying possibly more than their meaning. Jerome tried to find some significance in the fact that the second-century Greco-Roman poet Oppian listed 153 species of fish in his 3,500 verses about fishing, the “Halieutica,” dedicated rather sycophantically to the emperor Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus. Of course, Oppian was wrong in his counting; besides, he wrote after the compilation of the Gospel. Augustine found that 153 is the sum if the first seventeen integers, which may reveal nothing more than his skill at arithmetic. In his devotion to the Rosary, 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.

There may be no end to such agile mental exercises, and I once wrote a book—Coincidentally—rather whimsically illustrating how it is possible to detect endless matrices if you try hard enough. For example, faddish New Age fascination with the esoteric numerology of Kabbalah cultism can strain minds. It may not have been a helpful influence on the popular singer who gave millions of dollars to a Kabbalah institute and recently was confined to a mental health facility purportedly against her will. Carl Jung wrote at some length about what he termed “synchronicity” and warned that an obsession with “acausal principles” could unbalance reason. Yet even a detached observer might pause at the fact that the Sacred Tetragrammaton appears 153 times in Genesis.

The point here is that there are many levels of meaning in divine revelation that may be clues to the operation of Divine Providence. “For I know the plans that I have for you, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11). Even our limited mathematics may articulate something of the symmetry by which the pulse of Creation may be taken: “‘To whom then will you compare Me, or who is My equal?’ says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who has created these things, who brings out their host by number” (Is. 40:25). Perception of this saves the saints from madness and inspires them to awe.

Contemplation of the unity of the True God and True Man encounters layers of reality beyond the comprehension of human intelligence. Nonetheless, we can perceive the existence of those dimensions. A “Participatory Anthropic Principle,” first forwarded by John A. Wheeler, suggests that the universe is structured with a set of physical constants or “cosmic coincidences” without which there would be no intelligent life on Earth, and that it is only by participating in that structure by rational perception that the constants or coincidences have their potency.  So there may be in those 153 fish the Voice saying: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).

It would be a mistake to suppose that the apostles went back to fishing in disobedience to the Master’s command years before that they drop their nets and follow him. Christ is the Alpha and Omega, meaning that he is able to know everything from start to finish at the same time. Before the Resurrection, Jesus told the apostles that they would meet a man in Jerusalem carrying a pitcher of water, from whom they would rent an Upper Room: “So they went and found it just as Jesus had told them (Luke 22:13).” Thus he was also able to “set up” his men, ordering them to go to the Sea of Tiberius, knowing what he had prepared for them there, in order to instruct them.

In his humanity he did a domestic thing in cooking breakfast. In his divinity he predicted what the apostles would become. Whatever else may be encoded in the number 153, the fact is that this event happened, for had it been an oriental myth there would have been a million fish. This number was a detail never to be forgotten. Even when the youngest of them, the cadet of the Twelve, was the last to survive and his mind was weary with age, he said with a thrill like that of a youth: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life” (1 John 1:1).

There is one thing we know that prevents miniaturizing Christ as the best of men but only a man: “For in Him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities. All things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (I Col. 16-17). In him was an urgent appeal to the intellect, which for the Jew was a function of love and not confined to the brain, as is clear in the Resurrection appearance to Cleopas and his companion on the Emmaus road: “O foolish ones, how slow are your hearts to believe all that the prophets have spoken. Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). Here was the culmination of his earlier rabbinical catechesis: “‘Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,’ they replied. ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?’” (Mark 8: 18–21).

The unseen calculus that fascinated Oppian when counting fish in coastal Cilicia much more amazed William Blake when describing an imagined “Tyger” which certainly was not rampant in London: “What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” If there is substance to some anthropic principle in the play of numbers, it is found in the fact that after the 153 fish had been dragged to shore, a small fire was burning as Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. And Peter wept in remembering that by another small fire in Jerusalem he had said three times that he never knew the Man.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Miraculous Draught” painted by Henri-Pierre Picou in 1850. 

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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