Simon Peter went up and drew the net to land, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not torn. (John 21:11)
After the resurrected Master appeared to the disciples and told Simon Peter to cast his net on the other side of the boat, Peter retrieved the cast-net and found that he had snagged 153 large fish.
What do the 153 fish signify? Scholars have long suspected a hidden gematria or other numerical significance. Whatever cryptic meaning the number might have communicated to John and his readers has been long lost and forgotten, but that does not stop teachers and interpreters from speculating.
In his commentary on Ezekiel 47, Jerome linked the miracle of the 153 fish with the prophet’s vision of a river of life flowing out from the Temple in the Messianic Era. According to Ezekiel’s prophecy, the river will flow into the Dead Sea, turning the salt water fresh:
It will come about that fishermen will stand beside it; from Engedi to Eneglaim there will be a place for the spreading of nets. Their fish will be according to their kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea, very many. (Ezekiel 47:10)
Writers on the nature and properties of animals, who have learned “fishing” in either Latin or Greek (one of whom is the most learned poet Oppianus Cilix), say that there are one hundred and fifty-three species of fish.
If popular, first-century ichthyology really did believe in the existence of only 153 species of fish, the miraculous catch could have represented the apostles bringing all nations into the kingdom. After all, the disciples were to be fishers of men. “The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet cast into the sea, and gathering fish of every kind” (Matthew 13:47). In that day, “Their fish will be according to their kinds … very many” (Ezekiel 47:10).
Augustine noted that the number 153 is a triangular number, the triangle of seventeen. (In fact, 153 is the seventeenth triangular number in the series of triangular numbers.) A triangular number is the sum of dots in an equilateral triangle formed from and filled by equally spaced dots.
A triangular number is also the sum of all the natural numbers from 1 to the triangle of the number:
One scholar perceived a coded gematria relationship between the numbers 17 and 153 and the Dead Sea locations mentioned in Ezekiel 47:10, where fishermen will cast nets during the Messianic Age. The numerical value for the word “Engedi” adds up to seventeen. The numerical value for the word “Eneglaim” adds up to 153. Coincidentally, the Hebrew word gedi is the one-hundred-fifty-third word of Ezekiel 47.
These relationships might be coincidental, but the Ezekiel 47 imagery of the river of life flowing from within the Temple informs other important passages in John:
From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water. (John 7:38)
One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:34)
Jewish scribes responsible for copying sacred texts routinely searched for numerical patterns in the scrolls they copied. They counted the words and letters of a scroll to verify the consistency of new copies. The numerical relationship the scribes had with the written text resulted in a whole field of mathematical exegesis, and scribes, or even authors, may have considered triangular numbers as especially significant.