The ichthys or ichthus (/ˈɪkθəs/[1]), from the Greek ikhthū́s (ἰχθύς, 1st cent. AD Koine Greek pronunciation: [ikʰˈtʰys], "fish") is (in its modern rendition) a symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs, the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point so as to resemble the profile of a fish. It has been speculated that the symbol was adopted by early Christians as a secret symbol; a shibboleth to determine if another was indeed Christian.[2][3] It is now known colloquially as the "Jesus fish".[4]

Ichthys was adopted as a Christian symbol.

Origin edit

An early circular ichthys symbol, created by combining the Greek letters ΙΧΘΥΣ, Ephesus.

The first appearances of the ichthys in Christian art and literature dates to the 2nd century. The symbol's use among Christians had become popular by the late 2nd century, and its use spread widely in the 3rd and 4th centuries.[3] In early Christian history, the ichthys symbol held "the most sacred significance." It has been claimed that Christians used it to recognize churches and other believers during a time when they faced persecution in the Roman Empire,[5] although this interpretation has more recently been doubted[citation needed]. The ichthys symbol is also a reference to "the Holy Eucharist, with which the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes had such intimate connection both in point of time and significance."[6] Depicted in the Catacombs of Saint Sebastian[7] and of the Catacomb of Priscilla,[8] the symbol is also mentioned in the Latin text titled Oracula Sibillina which dates back to the 1st-2nd century.[9]

Symbolic meaning edit

Ichthys-like fish

ἸΧΘΥΣ (IKhThUS), or also ἸΧΘΥϹ with a lunate sigma, is an acronym or acrostic[10] for "ησοῦς Χρῑστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ", Iēsoûs Khrīstós, Theoû Huiós, Sōtḗr; contemporary Koine, which translates into English as 'Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior'.

Augustine quotes an ancient text from the Sibylline oracles[12] whose verses are an acrostic of the generating sentence.[13]

A fourth century adaptation of ichthys superimposes the Greek letters ἸΧΘΥϹ on top of each other to render a shape akin to an eight-spoked wheel.[14][15] Though this shape has often been interpreted as such, it has also been proposed that the round symbol represents a loaf of bread.[16][17]

In the Gospels edit

Fish are mentioned and given symbolic meaning several times in the Gospels.[18] Several of Jesus' 12 Apostles were fishermen. He commissions them with the words "I will make you fishers of men". (Mark 1: 16–18)

Having been resurrected, Jesus was given grilled fish in Luke 24:41–43.[19]

At the feeding of the five thousand, a boy is brought to Jesus with "five small loaves and two fish". The question is asked, "But what are they, among so many?" Jesus multiplies the loaves and fish to feed the multitude.

In Matthew 13:47–50, the Parable of Drawing in the Net, Jesus compares the angels separating the righteous from the wicked at the end of this world to fishers sorting out their catch, keeping the good fish and throwing the bad fish away.[20]

In John 21:11, it is related that the disciples fished all night but caught nothing.[21] Jesus instructed them to cast the nets on the other side of the boat, and they drew in 153 fish. When they return to shore with their catch, Jesus is waiting for them and has cooked some fish for them to eat.

In Matthew 17:24–27, upon being asked if his Teacher pays the temple (or two-drachma) tax, Simon Peter answers yes. Christ tells Peter to go to the water and cast a line, saying that a coin sufficient for both of them will be found in the fish's mouth. Peter does this and finds the coin.[22]

The fish is also used by Jesus to describe "the Sign of Jonah". (Matthew 12:38–45) This is symbolic of Jesus's resurrection, upon which the entire Christian faith is based. (1 Corinthians 15:1–58)

Funerary stele with the inscription ΙΧΘΥϹ ΖΩΝΤΩΝ ("fish of the living"), early 3rd century, National Roman Museum

Early church edit

According to tradition, ancient Christians, during their persecution by the Roman Empire in the first few centuries after Christ, used the fish symbol to mark meeting places and tombs, or to distinguish friends from foes:

According to one ancient story, when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company. Current bumper-sticker and business-card uses of the fish hearken back to this practice.

— Christianity Today, Elesha Coffman, "Ask The Expert"[23]

There are several other hypotheses as to why the fish was chosen. Some sources indicate that the earliest literary references came from the recommendation of Clement of Alexandria to his readers (Paedagogus, III, xi) to engrave their seals with the dove or fish. However, it can be inferred from Roman monumental sources such as the Cappella Greca and the Sacrament Chapels of the catacomb of St. Callistus that the fish symbol was known to Christians much earlier.[citation needed]

In popular culture edit

An ΙΧΘΥΣ ("ichthys") fish symbol on a car

In the 1970s the "Jesus Fish" started to be used as an icon of modern Christianity. In 1973 the symbol and message was taken to the Aquarius Rock Festival in Nimbin, Australia. Today, it can be seen as a decal or emblem on the rear of automobiles or as pendants or necklaces as a sign that the owner is a Christian. Versions of this include an Ichthys with "Jesus" or "ΙΧΘΥΣ" in the centre, or simply the Ichthys outline by itself.[24] According to one writer, while many Christians hang a cross necklace or rosary inside their vehicles, "the fish sticker on the car is a more conscious symbol of a witnessing Christian—significantly, unlike the former, it is on the outside of the car for everyone to see."[25]

The Ichthus Music Festival is an annual large outdoor Christian music festival held in mid-June in Wilmore, Kentucky. It is the oldest Christian music festival in the United States, starting in 1970.[26]

As a secret symbol edit

The idea that the Ichthys was used as a secret symbol is based on an argument from silence brought forward by Robert Mowat.[2] Both the Licinia Amia Epitaph and the Abercius inscription show the Ichthys without mention of Jesus Christ, while featuring clear attestations to Christian beliefs and themes. From this Mowat speculates, they were purposely avoiding outing themselves as Christians. As none of the early Christian sources link the Ichthys to Christian persecution, this connection has now mostly fallen out of favor (Rasimus compiles a list of early Christian references to the Ichthys, none of which point towards the persecution hypothesis and instead link it to baptism, the Eucharist, and the story of the feeding of the multitude).[3] The idea is prominently featured and likely popularized by the 1951 movie Quo Vadis.

See also edit

References edit

  1. ^ "ichthus". Oxford English Dictionary (third ed.). 2007.
  2. ^ a b Robert Mowat, “ΙΧΘΥΣ,” in Atti del II° congresso internazionale di archeologica cristi-ana tenuto in Roma nell’ aprile 1900 (Rome: Spithöver, 1902), 1–8
  3. ^ a b c Rasimus, T. ,2011. Revisiting the Ichthys: A Suggestion Concerning the Origins of Christological Fish Symbolism. Pp 327-348 in Mystery and Secrecy in the Nag Hammadi Collection and Other Ancient Literature: Ideas and Practices. Biblical Studies, Ancient Near East and Early Christianity E-Books Online. "Such solutions, once popular, include the fish as a secret symbol for persecuted Christians or as a symbol for Christ mystically sacrificed in the Eucharist."
  4. ^ Los Angeles Times (1 April 2008). "Evolution of religious bigotry". Los Angeles Times.
  5. ^ Jowett, Garth S.; O'Donnell, Victoria (11 March 2014). Propaganda & Persuasion. SAGE Publications. p. 86. ISBN 9781483323527. Initially used as a secret sign during the time when Christians were persecuted by the Roman authorities, the fish symbolized the mission of the group it represented and did so simply and effectively.
  6. ^ Healy, J (Feb 1884). "The Holy Wells of Ireland". The Irish Monthly. 12 (128): 89. JSTOR 20497097. It must, however, be born in mind that the "fish," specially in those early days, was a Christian symbol of the most sacred significance. The name ichthus, which is the Greek word for fish, and the fish itself, recur frequently amongst the sacred symbols of the early Christians in the Catacombs. The letters of the Greek word formed the initial letters of the phrase "Jesus Christ, of God the Son, our Saviour" The heavenly Ichthus, then, was Jesus Christ, and we are the smaller fishes, born in the waters of baptism, as Tertullian says, caught in the net of salvation, and thus made members of the heavenly kingdom. There is a reference to the same symbol to the Holy Eucharist, with which the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes had such intimate connection both in point of time and significance.
  7. ^ "The Christian symbols: the language of faith" (in Italian).
  8. ^ "The Galleries of the Cemetery".
  9. ^ Carletti, Carlo (November 20, 2009). "Il segno del vincitore". L'Osservatore Romano (in Italian). Retrieved April 3, 2021.
  10. ^ Christian H. Bull, Liv Ingeborg Lied, John D. Turner (2012). Mystery and Secrecy in the Nag Hammadi Collection and Other Ancient Literature: Ideas and Practices. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV. p. 327. ISBN 978-90-04-21207-7.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. ^ The initial "h" was sometimes pronounced, depending on dialect and period, but in Ionic orthography the "h" sound was written with the rough breathing diacritical mark attached to the upsilon, not with a full letter (Ὺιός), and so would not be used to form a backronym. By the Early Christian period, the aspirate was probably lost in most popular varieties of Greek.
  12. ^ Sibylline oracles, Book viii, 284-330 (Greek text, 217-250)
  13. ^ Terry, Milton (1899). The Sibylline Oracles. Eaton & Mains. p. 181. ISBN 9783849672232.
  14. ^ Christian H. Bull, Liv Ingeborg Lied, John D. Turner (2012). Mystery and Secrecy in the Nag Hammadi Collection and Other Ancient Literature: Ideas and Practices. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV. pp. 340, 343. ISBN 978-90-04-21207-7.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ "The Symbol of the Cross". BJU Seminary. Retrieved 2023-11-04.
  16. ^ Goodenough, Erwin Ramsdell (1953). Jewish symbols in the Greco-Roman period. New York: Pantheon Books. pp. 57, 63. OCLC 123261511.
  17. ^ "Eureka! Student discoveries and a continuing mystery in the heart of ancient Rome". Ideas and Creations Blog. Retrieved 2021-11-04.
  18. ^ Suprianto, Bibi; Alfian, Andi; Kristanto, David (2022-12-25). "Fish in Faith: Exploring Symbol as Survival Strategies in Christianity". Religious: Jurnal Studi Agama-Agama dan Lintas Budaya. 6 (3): 293–304. doi:10.15575/rjsalb.v6i3.15610. ISSN 2528-7249. S2CID 255216683.
  19. ^ Luke 24:41–43
  20. ^ Matthew 13:47–50
  21. ^ John 21:11
  22. ^ Matthew 17:24–27
  23. ^ Elesha Coffman (August 8, 2008). "What is the origin of the Christian fish symbol?".
  24. ^ "Christian symbols: Fish (Ichthus), cross and crucifix". Archived from the original on 6 January 2012. Retrieved 22 April 2014. The body of the symbol may be empty, or may contain a name ('Jesus' or 'ICTUS').
  25. ^ Garbowski, Christopher (27 January 2014). Religious Life in Poland: History, Diversity and Modern Issues. McFarland. p. 222. ISBN 9780786475896. If folk religion is demonstrated by drivers with rosaries hanging from rearview mirrors or St. Christopher figures on the dashboard, still common enough in Poland, the fish sticker on the car is a more conscious symbol of a witnessing Christian--significantly, unlike the former, it is on the outside of the car for everyone to see. This stops some interested Catholics from placing the symbol on their cars. Since they feel might not live up to the good driving practices that should accompany its presence.
  26. ^ See, Robison, Greg, Christian Rock Festivals, (New York: The Rosen Publishing Co., 2009), p.7

External links edit