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The ichthys or ichthus (//), from the Greek ikhthýs (ἰχθύς 1st cent. AD Koine Greek [ikʰˈtʰys], "fish") is 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. The symbol was adopted by early Christians as a secret symbol. It is now known colloquially as the "sign of the fish" or the "Jesus fish".
The first appearances of the ichthys symbol in Christian art and literature date to the 2nd century AD. 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. The symbolism of the fish itself may have its origins in pre-Christian religious imagery. For example, Orpheus was described as a "fisher of men" as early as the 3rd or fourth century BC. The fish was used as a symbol in a number of other near-eastern religions as well, often as a sacred (or taboo) food. The fish was sacred to the goddess Atargatis, for example, who was said to cause tumors in those who ate them. Fish were only allowed to be eaten by priests during rituals devoted to Atargatis, in the belief that they represented her body. Despite the thematic similarities of these various sacred fish, some scholars have argued that there is no direct link between them and the Christian symbol or practice of the Eucharist; instead, the Christian usage was probably simply part of a larger, popular religious motif of the time. In the early Church, the Ichthys symbol held "the most sacred significance", and Christians used it to recognize churches and other believers through this symbol because they were persecuted by the Roman Empire. The Ichtus 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." 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".
ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthys), or also ΙΧΘΥϹ with a lunate sigma, is an acronym/acrostic for "Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ" (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr; contemporary Koine [ie̝ˈsus kʰrisˈtos tʰeˈu (h)yˈjos soˈte̝r]), which translates into English as "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour".
- Iota (i) is the first letter of Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), Greek for "Jesus".
- Chi (ch) is the first letter of Christos (Χριστός), Greek for "anointed".
- Theta (th) is the first letter of Theou (Θεοῦ), Greek for "God's", the genitive case of Θεóς, Theos", Greek for "God".
- Upsilon (y) is the first letter of (h)yios (Ὑἱός), Greek for "Son".
- Sigma (s) is the first letter of sōtēr (Σωτήρ), Greek for "Saviour".
This explanation is given among others by Augustine in his Civitate Dei, where he notes that the generating sentence " Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς [sic] Θεοῦ Υἱὸς Σωτήρ" has 27 letters, i.e. 3 x 3 x 3, which in that age indicated power. (This suggestion is obviously spurious, resulting from Augustine's ignorance of Greek.) Augustine quotes also an ancient text from the Sibylline oracles whose verses are an acrostic of the generating sentence.
A fourth century A.D. adaptation of ichthys as a wheel contains the letters ΙΧΘΥΣ superimposed such that the result resembles an eight-spoked wheel.
In the GospelsEdit
Fish are mentioned and given symbolic meaning several times in the Gospels. Several of Jesus' twelve Apostles were fishermen. He commissions them with the words "I will make you fishers of men". (St. Mark 1: 16-18)
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 God's decision on who will go to heaven or to hell ("the fiery furnace") at the end of this world to fishers sorting out their catch, keeping the good fish and throwing the bad fish away. In John 21:11, it is related that the disciples fished all night but caught nothing. Jesus instructed them to cast the nets on the other side of the boat, and they drew in 153 fish. 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.
The fish is also used by Jesus to describe "the Sign of Jonah". (Matthew 12:38-45) This is symbolic of the resurrection of Christ upon which the entire Christian faith is based. (1 Corinthians 15:1-58)
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"
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.
In popular cultureEdit
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.
Ichthus Music Festival is an annual large outdoor Christian music Festival held in mid-June in Wilmore, Kentucky. Ichthus Festival is the oldest Christian music festival in the United States starting in 1970.
- "ichthus". Oxford English Dictionary (third ed.). 2007.
- Los Angeles Times (1 April 2008). "Evolution of religious bigotry". latimes.com.
- 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, Collection 2012, 76.
- Le Roux, M. (2007). The survival of the Greek gods in early Christianity. Journal for Semitics, 16(2): 483-497.
- Hyde, W. W. (2008). Paganism to Christianity in the Roman empire. Wipf and Stock Publishers.
- 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 symolized the mission of the group it represented and did so simply and effectively.
- The Irish Monthly, Volume 12. 1884. p. 89.
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 are of constant recurrence amongst the sacred symbols of the early Christians in the Catacombs. The letters of the Greek word formed the initial letters of this sentence: "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.
- 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.
- Christian H. Bull, Liv Ingeborg Lied, John D. Turner, editors (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.
- The initial "h" was sometimes pronounced, depending on dialect and period, but in Ionic orthography the sound was written with the rough breathing diacritical mark instead of a full letter, and so would not be used to form an acronym.) By the Early Christian period, the aspirate was probably lost in most popular varieties of Greek.
- Augustine. The City of God. Wikisource. XVIII, 23.
- Bagatti, Bellarmino (1984). The church from the circumcision: history and archaeology of the Judaeo-Christians. Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, Collectio Minor, n.2. Jerusalem. p. 215.
- Sibylline oracles, Book viii, 284-330 (Greek text, 217-250)
- Christian H. Bull, Liv Ingeborg Lied, John D. Turner, editors (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.
- Luke 24:41-43
- Matthew 13:47-50
- John 21:11
- Matthew 17:24-27
- Elesha Coffman (August 8, 2008). "What is the origin of the Christian fish symbol?". christianitytoday.com.
- "Christian symbols: Fish (Ichthus), cross and crucifix". religioustolerance.org. Retrieved 22 April 2014.
The body of the symbol may be empty, or may contain a name ('Jesus' or 'ICTUS').
- See, Robison, Greg, Christian Rock Festivals, (New York: The Rosen Publishing Co., 2009), p.7
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- Coins of the Emperor Augustus
- Coins of the Emperor Domitian
- earlychristians.org on early Christians in general including martyrdom
- Ichthus Christian Fellowship A large Christian organisation in the UK led by Roger Forster
- Ichthus Music Festival The longest running Christian music festival in the nation having been started in 1970 as a Christian response to Woodstock.
- Principal Christian Symbols: The Fish (Ichthus), Cross & Crucifix Extensive explanations on several popular Christian symbols, including the ichthys
- Symbolism of the Fish - Catholic Encyclopedia article
- The Harvard Ichthus, Journal of Christian Thought