Fish stories about Pythagoras and Jesus

Pythagoras and the Fishermen, by Salvator Rosa. Public domain image.

Whenever I discuss Jesus’ vegetarianism, one of the most frequent questions I get concerns the “fish stories” in the New Testament—stories where Jesus is depicted calling fishermen as disciples, serving fish to the 5000, miraculously helping the disciples catch fish, or in one case actually eating fish. The problem with these stories, which I’ve explained elsewhere, is that they are all stories fairly obviously added many decades after Jesus’ life by people who never knew Jesus personally. As evidence of an actual historical event in Jesus’ life, they are worthless.

What most people don’t know is that there is also a fish story about Pythagoras, which strongly resembles the “miraculous catch of fish” stories told about Jesus. What is especially interesting is that these stories about Jesus seem to be copied from the story about Pythagoras—but with the ending completely changed.

We find the fish story about Pythagoras in both Porphyry (234-305 CE) and Iamblichus (250-330 CE), and it bears obvious similarities to the “miraculous catch of fish” story about Jesus (John 21:4-11 with parallels in the other gospels). In ancient times, miracle stories about your favorite religious figure from the past were quite common, so we shouldn’t take them as serious historical evidence about specific historical events in the lives of either Pythagoras or Jesus. These stories do, however, give evidence of what the communities that told these stories believed, and therefore of what their followers believed, and that’s where things start to get interesting.

In Iamblichus’ Life of Pythagoras, chapter 8, Pythagoras is walking along the seashore from Sybaris to Crotona (in the “heel” of Italy’s “boot”). There he encounters some fishermen “drawing their nets heavily laden with fishes.” He tells the fishermen that he knows the exact number of fish in their nets. The fishermen respond that if he can tell them that, they will grant him any request. Pythagoras then tells them the exact number of fish that they have in their nets, a number which is verified by an accurate count. Pythagoras then asks the fishermen to return all the fish to the sea. Astonishingly, none of the fish have died, even though they had been out of the water for some time, and all re-enter the sea alive.

This is similar, though not identical, to the “miraculous catch” story in John 21:4-11. Jesus (after his resurrection) instructs the disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and they have a huge haul of fish—153 fish, to be exact.

These two stories about Pythagoras and Jesus are not exactly alike. The common features are that they both involve a teacher of wisdom (or savior), fish, fishermen, nets heavily laden with fish, and an exact count of the fish. The Jesus story provides (at John 21:11) the exact number of fish (153) without any explanation of why the number was that many; for Pythagoras, there is an exact count, though the number is not given.

The main difference in the stories is that they have different endings for the fish. Jesus’ disciples, presumably, are going to eat them or sell them for money. Pythagoras, however, liberates the fish. Pythagoras’ actions are similar to those of Jesus in disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the Temple (John 2:13-17 and parallels). Pythagoras at the seashore, like Jesus in the Temple, disrupts our normal expectations—either of dead fish or slaughtered sheep—for a situation in which humans are preying on animals. Instead, Pythagoras at the seashore, like Jesus in the Temple, liberates the animals.

The “miraculous catch”

There are a variety of types of fish stories in the New Testament. There are feeding stories (Jesus feeds the 5000, or the 4000), there is one story in which Jesus actually eats fish (Luke 24:42-43), and then there are the “miraculous catch” stories. The Pythagoras story resembles most closely the miraculous catch story.

Interestingly, this miraculous catch story—as well as the story about Jesus disrupting the animal sacrifice business in the temple—is one of only a few stories about Jesus that are found in all four gospels. It’s found in Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20, Luke 5:1-11, and John 21:4-11. The miraculous catch story, therefore, deserves our special attention.

The miraculous catch story has clearly undergone quite a transformation in going from Matthew and Mark to Luke and John. In fact, initially we might wonder whether the stories in Matthew and Mark have anything to do with the stories in Luke and John. It’s clearly the same story, just told in a different way. But the transformation is breathtaking.

In Matthew 4:18-22 and Mark 1:16-20, this story has a different theme: it is the calling of the disciples. There’s no miraculous catch, in fact, there’s no direct reference to catching fish at all. Jesus finds his future disciples fishing and says “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” The literal response of the disciples is to leave their nets, abandon their profession, and follow Jesus. The phrase “fishers of men” is obviously a metaphor. Jesus does not imply that hereafter, the disciples are going to literally catch, strangle, and eat humans. He rather means, that just as the disciples had heretofore been gathering up fish, now they will be gathering up other people to the faith. What is miraculous is not the catching of fish, but Jesus’ “catching” of disciples.

In Luke 5:1-11, the story is still about Jesus calling his first disciples, so it’s the same story. But in Luke, there’s a twist. Jesus tells his future disciple Simon (who is fishing at the time) to cast his nets on the other side of the boat. They take in a huge catch, and the nets begin to break; after they get another boat to help out, both boats begin to sink. When they finally get to the shore, Jesus says that hereafter they will be catching men, not fish. The disciples then “left everything and followed him [Jesus]” (emphasis added).

That the disciples have abandoned their profession is confirmed by Luke 14:33, “whoever does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Later, Jesus advises the rich young man to sell everything and follow him (Luke 18:18-30). The rich man can’t manage to do this, but Peter immediately tells Jesus, “we have left our homes and followed you.” Peter gets the point, even if the rich man doesn’t.

How would an intelligent fish respond to these stories? In Matthew and Mark, it’s looking pretty good for the fish; the fishermen promptly abandon their profession. In Luke, the disciples still abandon their profession, but the fate of the unfortunate fish who were caught in this particular episode is less clear. We could imagine a “happy ending” for the fish in which the disciples abandon not only their profession, but release the fish they have caught; but that is certainly not made explicit. At least any future fish are spared from their nets.

The evolution of the “miraculous catch” story

In John 21:4-11 this story is transformed once again. As in Luke, Jesus tells the disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and they have a huge haul of fish. But unlike Luke (and also unlike Matthew and Mark), it takes place after the resurrection when Jesus finds the disciples fishing. Even though it’s after the resurrection, in this story the disciples are also “called”; the disciples don’t recognize Jesus at first, until they pull in the miraculous catch. Then, suddenly, they realize that “it is the Lord!” (John 21:7)

It is likely that the Pythagoras story did come first and that the story about Jesus is derivative. Theoretically, you could make a case either way; Porphyry and Iamblichus were 200 to 300 years after Jesus. But Pythagoras himself lived 500 years before Jesus and traditions about Pythagoras were well-established before the rise of Christianity. The story about Pythagoras and the fish may be mythical, but it fits in perfectly with Pythagoras’ teachings about vegetarianism and reincarnation. Pythagoras on another occasion stops someone from beating a dog, because Pythagoras says he recognizes in the dogs’ cries the voice of a friend. As with the dog, so with the fish; this story naturally flows from the ideas of reincarnation and compassion for animals.

But what teachings of early Christianity, does the “miraculous catch” story about Jesus relate to? Does it have anything to do with fishing?  Well, yes, but with two completely different meanings. In the earlier stories (in Matthew and Mark, and perhaps even in the original version of Luke) “the miraculous catch” story isn’t about catching fish at all. It’s about the calling of the disciples, in which they abandon fishing, precisely at the moment they decide to follow Jesus. In John, however, we have transformed a story about the rejection of fishing into a story about the glorification of fishing. (Luke, confusingly, has both elements; the disciples experience a stellar day for fishing and abandon their profession.)

There’s another interesting feature of the journey of this story. In Luke and John, Jesus asks his disciples to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and then suddenly their nets are full to bursting.  What’s behind this “casting your net on the other side”? There was a lot of heavy “fish” symbolism in early Christianity. The Greek word for fish (“ichthus”) is an acronym which means (in Greek), “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” This symbolism is well attested in early Christianity outside of the New Testament (The Lost Religion of Jesus, p. 129). “Fish” often stands for Jesus or for early Christians.

Seen in this light, the story is likely symbolic. The fish in the nets stand for the early converts to Christianity. The one side of the boat is the “Jewish” side, and the other side of the boat is the “Gentile” side. The implication of the story is that as long as the disciples were only looking for Jewish converts, they were not making many disciples; but as soon as they went to the gentiles (as Paul advocated), their converts were numerous; their “nets” were filled to bursting.  This is a gentle (or perhaps not-so-gentle) slap at the Jewish Christian Ebionites.

There is another feature of the story in John that is anti-Ebionite. The Ebionites claimed close association with the family of Jesus and the first disciples, who (starting with James, the brother of Jesus) were often the leaders of the primitive church. In John 21, the disciples are described in condescending terms. When Jesus appears to them, they don’t even recognize him, until he performs another miracle by asking them to cast their nets on the other side. It’s as if the resurrection and turning water into wine, etc., were not enough! Then, the disciples finally recognize him.

There is another way in which the disciples are described as “slow to understand”: they’ve evidently forgotten all about Jesus and have gone back to their old professions.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we are left with the impression that the disciples had abandoned fishing—but here they are, back at their professions, as if Jesus’ message and his resurrection suddenly meant nothing to them and they had given up, instead of spreading the message of Jesus far and wide.

This is not the only place in the New Testament where the disciples seem to be dense. They don’t understand Jesus, they need to have simple parables explained, they fight among themselves, and so forth (Mark 6:4, Mark 7:17-19, Luke 9:43-46, etc.—see Disciples, p. 122). This is John’s way of saying, “the Jewish Christians were always a little slow at understanding the message, but look how our numbers are growing among the gentiles.”

The miraculous catch story seems to be cobbled together from contradictory elements. One element emphasizes the loyalty of the disciples, that they have left everything (including their profession) to follow Jesus.  The other element emphasizes that the disciples were simple-minded and unable to understand Jesus’ message, and that the message was better received by the gentiles. The whole story is likely a later development, because this tension between Jewish Christianity and gentile Christianity didn’t even exist until many  decades after Jesus, at the earliest. The evolution of the story strongly suggests an anti-Ebionite polemic. The myth about Pythagoras and fish likely came first, and then the Christians gradually adopted the story but changed it to suit their needs.

John, 153 fish, and the “Vesica Piscis”

There’s another odd thing about John’s version which suggest that it is derivative from the Pythagorean story. John mentions the exact number of fish they catch, which is 153. What’s with 153?

The “Vesica Piscis” and the dyad, depicted as the overlapping of two identically-sized circles.

This is likely a Pythagorean influence. The Pythagoreans attached mystical significance to numbers and felt that numbers were at the basis of all reality. The number 1 was depicted as a simple circle or the “monad”—graphically represented as a circle. The number two was the “dyad,” depicted graphically represented as the intersection of two circles. From the monad and the dyad, all other numbers, and all other things in our universe, sprang.

The intersection of the two circles, with the outer radius of one circle exactly intersecting with the center of the other circle, creates something that looks like a Venn diagram, and is called the “Vesica Piscis.” “Vesica Piscis” literally means (in Latin) “fish’s bladder.” The Vesica Piscis was widely discussed in the ancient world by the many people prior to Jesus’ life, including at least the Pythagoreans, Archimedes, and Euclid. The Vesica Piscis has an interesting property: the ratio of the height of the Vesica Piscis (from one end to the other) to its width (at the widest point). That turns out to be the square root of 3.

The square root of 3 is an irrational number, approximately equal to 1.732. The closest ratio to the square root of 3, using no more than 3 digits per number, is 265 / 153. (265 / 153 squared = 2.9999 . . . .) “153” is the denominator in this number, and Archimedes (who provides this ratio, and clearly predates Jesus) is said to have referred to 153 as the “measure of the fish.” 153 has some other odd mathematical properties; it is the sum of the cubes of its digits (1 cubed + 5 cubed + 3 cubed = 1+ 125 + 27 = 153).

The “Vesica Picis” turned into the Christian “fish symbol.”

There’s more. If you turn the shape of the “Vesica Piscis” on its side, and add fins, the Vesica Piscis becomes something that looks like the well-known “fish symbol” used by both early and modern Christians to stand for Christ or for Christians.

Pythagoras and early Christianity

The number “153” is not an isolated scrap of information about the influence of Pythagoras on the early Christians. In fact, it is not even the strongest evidence. We can trace a strong connection between the Pythagoreans and the Jewish Christian Ebionites, who of all the early Christian groups seem to understand the teachings of Jesus the best. The Pythagoreans were vegetarian and against animal sacrifice; the Jewish Christian Ebionites were also vegetarian and opposed to animal sacrifice. Indeed, for the Ebionites vegetarianism was part of the gospel message: all Christians should be vegetarian.

Other Pythagorean ideas also found a voice within early Christianity: communalism, voluntary poverty, abstinence from alcohol, and rejection of making oaths, were all found in the Ebionites. (See Charles Vaclavik’s The Vegetarianism of Jesus Christ throughout; The Lost Religion of Jesus, p. 39-40, 166, 214; and Disciples, chapters 6 and 7.) Sometimes, these ideas even made it into the New Testament, for example the rejection of oaths (Matthew 5:33-37) and communalism (Acts 4:32-35). But the later church either toned down or completely rejected these Pythagorean ideas.

The development of the “miraculous catch” story illustrates this pattern. In its original form, it is a tale of fishermen being called away from their profession. In the end, it is turned into a tale of fishermen being miraculously rewarded in their murderous profession with an abundance of dead fish. The ethical implications of the original story have been exactly reversed. It is all about catching literal fish rather than about catching disciples.


2 Replies to “Fish stories about Pythagoras and Jesus”

  1. Greetings from Albany, NY, Keith. I hope you and Kate are having a blessed Lent and wish you and your readers all the best this Easter.

    Your writing encouraged me to continue meditating on Jesus through a dark time. Now, with the help of an excellent clinical team and some good psychiatric medications, I am studying the Bible regularly and researching the relationship between the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and the teaching on inerrancy in Dei Verbum from Vatican II. Thank you for your contribution to this path.

    These days, I don’t have a specific conviction about whether Jesus ate fish or not, but I trust in the salvation of generous and hard-working parents who teach their children how to eat fish after grace, including as a sacrifice during Lent.

    B-12 and plant-based nutrition are good contemporary news for those to whom God gives this particular charism of compassion. As we live and share this good news, we can promote a balanced faith in Scripture, in Tradition, and in all the charisms of compassion that comprise the body of Christ.

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