Today, the cross is the most popular symbol of the Christian faith. But the fish was probably the earliest of all Christian symbols.
Christian tradition holds that under persecution (mostly during Nero’s reign over the Roman Empire, but intermittently throughout the first and second centuries), a sort of “secret handshake” developed between Christians as a way of identifying one another—with reduced risk—in a hostile social environment. This was a time in which it was extremely detrimental to “go public” about believing in Jesus.
Supposedly, upon meeting a person suspected of belonging to the same “subversive sect,” a Christian might confirm their suspicion by taking a stick and drawing a curved line (half of a fish) in the sand. If the other person drew a corresponding curved line (which would complete the sign of the fish), then the action confirmed the identity of both as Christians.
Some scholars suggest that the reason the sign of the fish was chosen by early Christians to emblematize their membership in a common faith community is that it served as a reference to Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the masses with fish and bread, or that it derives from Jesus’ call of his disciples to become “fishers of men.”
(Dave Beine and Kevin Pittle, Hooked on The Fish: The Christian Sign of The Fish (and Co-Option Thereof) as Symbolic Capital [SIL International: 2009], 4.)
There was another reason why Christians chose the fish to represent the Christian faith. The Greek word for fish, “ichthus”, became an acronym for some basic truths of the Christian faith:
In the early church sometime near the end of the first century, the word was made into an acronym or a word formed from the first letter of several words. As such, ichthus compiles to “Jesus Christ, God’s son, Savior,” based on this configuration:
– Iota (i) is the first letter of Iesous (Greek for Jesus)
– Chi (kh) is the first letter of Khristos (Greek for Christ)
– Theta (th) is the first letter of Theou (Greek for God, or “God’s” [sic])
– Upsilon (u) is the first letter of Huios (Greek for Son)
– Sigma (s) is the first letter of Soter (Greek for Savior)
Perhaps it is time to revive this symbol.
The Christian symbol of the fish reminds us that followers of Jesus must expect to be a persecuted community. In the first century, the church was attacked by non-believing Jews and by the Roman Empire. Both were powerful enemies and it is perhaps one testimony of the reality of God that the early church, having little of the world’s resources, was able to survive persecution by both Judaism and Rome. Today, the church is threatened by an increasingly hostile secularism, and hostile expressions of older religions, like Islam and Hinduism. We have been here before, and worse.
Sometime in the year 303, Emperor Galerius of Rome issued an edict that:
. . . banned all Christian gatherings, ordered the seizure or destruction of all churches, required that all Christian Scriptures be burned, barred Christians from public office or from appearing in court, and prohibited anyone from freeing a Christian slave . . . In the case of a member of the imperial household named Peter, who was discovered to be Christian, Diocletian had him “stripped, raised high and scourged all over.” Then salt and vinegar were poured on his wounds and he was “slowly roasted” alive. (Rodney Stark, The Triumph of Christianity [New York, NY: Harper One, 2011], 146.)
Most readers of this column would not have had to resist to the point of shedding their blood (Hebrews 12:4), at least not yet.
How did the early church survive persecution? Perhaps the “fish” suggests some reasons. First, the early church had a non-compromising commitment to the truth of the Gospel. It may have to be hidden in an acronym, but the church held fast to the truth of the Gospel message and to the person of Christ. Next, the church understood the importance of Christian community. Christians reached out to each other even if they had to connect through the simple symbol of a fish.
Christian persecution is on the rise in many parts of the world. Are we ready? Do we know the fundamental truths of the faith? Are we willing to hold on to the truth at all costs? Or are we dumbing down the faith, focusing primarily on experiences and programmes as the main driving forces for church life? And how precious do we hold Christian fellowship? What sacrifices are we willing to make to be in close authentic relationships with our brothers and sisters? Or is the church a community of lonely individuals who don’t really connect? More than ever, we need to relearn the lessons of the fish.