In the beginning

Column: John’s mysterious detail puzzles scholars

by Father Mike Stubbs

Filmmakers are constantly searching for ways to make their creations more believable. The latest trend favors 3-D movies, which project images right into the viewer’s face. Consider the box-office hit, “Avatar,” which appeared this last Christmas.

There is nothing new about this search for added realism. It even precedes the
invention of the motion picture. Even when storytellers had to rely upon the written word, they were looking for ways to make their stories more believable. Sometimes, authors would include details that would not advance the plot or shape a character, but only make the story more concrete.

There is a possibility of that happening in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jn 21:1-19. The reading recounts the miraculous catch of fish.

Simon Peter and some other disciples have been fishing in Lake Galilee. Despite their best efforts all night long, they have caught nothing. Then the risen Christ appears to them and instructs them to try again. Upon complying with Jesus’ request, they succeed in catching 153 large fish.

The precision of that number — 153 — stands out sharply. The inclusion of that detail has long intrigued Christians.

Does the number 153 mean nothing significant in itself, but only serves as a way to add to the sense of realism, a detail to make the scene more concrete? Or, can we see the number 153 as a key to unlock the door to a deeper meaning? Many have followed this path, which leads to a variety of different interpretations. The highly symbolic nature of John’s Gospel itself, which presents signs pointing to another reality, encourages the reader to take that direction.

Let us briefly consider a few of the theories that have been proposed:

Some have suggested that 153 represents the number of members belonging to the early Christian community of the Beloved Disciple, the community from which originated John’s Gospel. After all, Jesus had assured the disciples that instead of catching fish, they would now catch souls. In the case of the beloved disciple, the count had reached 153.

Other scholars have looked at the number 153 and imagined more intricate theories. Perhaps the number 153 resulted from the combination of other numbers, themselves possessing mystical significance. One scholar pointed out that 3 x 50 + 3 = 153. Surely, that could mean something! St. Augustine of Hippo proposed another equation: 1+2+3 . . . +17=153. According to St. Augustine, “10” would stand for the Ten Commandments, “7” would stand for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

There is another factor that complicates the picture even more. In both the Hebrew and Greek languages, the letters of the alphabet double as numerals. Consequently, the number 153 can stand for a word. Equations of numbers leading to the number 153 can stand for a series of words — a whole sentence. The possibilities are countless. This is such an opportunity for Dan Brown.

I could go on, but you get the picture. For now, the meaning of this little detail, the number 153, will remain a mystery, until the coming of the kingdom of God, which will make all things clear.

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Fr. Mike Stubbs

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