There’s something ‘fishy’ about the Gospels

Ever since COVID reached our shores, I have been taking morning strolls at a casuarina-lined seafront promenade a couple of miles away from our home in Penang.

May 08, 2021


By Anil Netto

Ever since COVID reached our shores, I  have been taking morning strolls at a casuarina-lined seafront promenade a couple  of miles away from our home in Penang. 

The stillness of the seawater makes it look like  a vast lake. On the horizon, the pale blue morning skies blend into the grey-blue waters. 

From the promenade, I see fishermen in boats  casting their nets to catch ikan senangin (threadfins). Further south, garupa (grouper) and siakap (barramundi) are also found. Sometimes, others wade in to look for siput  mentarang (angelwing clams) and siput remis (mussels). 

From here, it is not too difficult to imagine  what it must have been like from the shoreline of  the Sea of Galilee.

Most of the Gospel episodes took place by  the sea or close to the sea. And fish was highly  symbolic.

Imagine Jesus helping his prospective disciples land a huge catch by the shore. The multiplication of the fish and the loaves  was highly symbolic and is closely associated  with the Eucharist – the community sharing and  fellowship – highlighting a common table of distributive justice. 

The fish caught at the real freshwater lake of  Galilee, in the present day at least, are musht  (which includes Galilean tilapia, also known as  St Peter’s fish, the redbelly tilapia and the blue  tilapia), biny or barbels (species in the carp family) and the Kinneret sardine (pickles were used  to preserve these sardines, especially at Magdala,  a major fish processing centre). 

Those of Jesus’ disciples who were fishermen  lived along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. 

This northern shore is also close to the site traditionally believed to be the Mount of the Beatitudes and the site of the multiplication of the fish  and loaves for 5,000 people near Bethsaida.

Bethsaida was a small fishing village that  was the hometown of apostles like Simon Peter,  Andrew and Philip, though the precise location  has been contested. Still, it not far east of Capernaum, both along the northern shore.  

The fishermen may have moved from Bethsaida to Capernaum, and perhaps carried out  their fishing 1.5 miles to the west along the shore  at a place called Tabgha, known as the “fishermen’s suburb of Capernaum”. Tabgha is also the  site of the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves  and Fish.

The site traditionally believed to be “Mount  Beatitude’ lies a short distance inland, midway  between Capernaum and Tabgha.

So, this northern coastline seems to have been  a ‘happening place’ for fishing and the symbolism of the fish (though some have recently argued  that Hippos, along the southwestern shoreline,  was another possible site for the multiplication.)

Wherever it took place, the earliest disciples  often used the symbol of the fish as a secret code  or symbol to indicate their allegiance to Jesus. As  the fish symbol had already been used by pagans,  there was less danger in using it.

The Christian symbolism of the fish emerged  from a word puzzle or acrostic in Greek. The  Greek word for fish was ichthys, and this was  used as a code for “Iesous Christos Theou Yios  Soter”, which means Jesus Christ, Son of God,  Saviour. Sometimes, the Greek letters for ichthys  are spelt out within twin arcs that outlined the  fish. 

The fish symbolised the multiplication of the  fish and loaves and the calling of the disciples to  become “fishers of men (and women)”.

It also symbolised the waters of baptism. Tertullian, a second century historian, described  Christians as “we, little fishes, after the image of  our Ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water."

Even in science, we learn that life emerged  from the sea. 

The fish symbolism was seen even in a postResurrection scene, when Jesus grilled fish for  his disciples. 

Today, the fish remind us of what is at stake, as  new challenges and threats emerge: pollution of  the seas and oceans, overfishing, the takeover of  the commons through massive land reclamation,  eroding food security, super-hurricanes originating in the sea, and rising sea levels. 

Fish and bread meant a lot more to the ordinary people of the Gospels than they do for most  middle-class or upper-class people, even today.  The distributive justice inherent in the multiplication of the fish and loaves stands in stark contrast to the growing income inequalities in our  world, where wealth is hoarded and concentrated  in the hands of a few. 

Consider how far we have strayed from the  vision of the kingdom where there should be  enough from the bounty of the earth to feed the  multitude, where no one should go hungry. It all  began with a small boy sharing the small fish  (perhaps sardines) and loaves that he had with  Jesus, perhaps prompting others to share what  they had brought along as well. 

In our pandemic-ridden world today, many  have been thrown out of work or are living on  reduced incomes, adding to the poverty that had  already existed. The distributive justice symbolised by the fish and loaves reminds us that we  too must reach out to share what we have with  those in need.

We should be doing this not only individually  at the grassroots level but also as a community  and at the highest policymaking levels as well  — through pro-people reforms in our taxation  system, universal healthcare, education and food  security.

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