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#41 - Explanation of the Christian fish symbol
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Question/insight #41: "Everywhere I go I see cars with that little fish symbol on them. I see this symbol on religious sites also. I know it has something to do with saying you believe in God, but where did this practice originate and what does it mean when you display this emblem."
The fish's first known use as a Christian and/or Jewish religious symbol was sometime within the first three centuries AD. Possibly around the 15th century, Christians began using the Greek word for "fish" as an anagram/acronym for "Jesus Christ God's Son, Savior." The Greek word for fish is ichthus, spelled in Greek as i-ch-th-u-s (iota-chi-theta-upsilon-sigma), as shown below.
Please note: H in the representation of Greek words indicates that the Greek word actually begins with a vowel that is breathed. Such a vowel is pronounced as if it were preceded by the English letter H.
In The Riddle of the 'Labarum' and the Origin of Christian Symbols, (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1966, pages 28, 37-39), George Pitt-Rivers writes:
The use of the fish as a symbol occurs in the Catacombs at Rome, and is found on some hundred epitaphs. The first dated one belongs to the year AD 234. Many undated ones are ascribed to the first three centuries. At this early period can be ascribed a graffito roughly scratched on a bond lamina, probably of a casket said to come from the Catacombs. It shows the Chi-Rho hanging from the belly of a fish. The Fish as an Early Christian Symbol is usually associated with the gospel narratives in Matthew, Mark and Luke; 'Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men' and 'Fear not, from henceforth thou shalt catch men';... (page 37)
The Chi-Rho monogram was in pagan and Greek use long before the Constantinian era and during his reign, because it was an ancient Greek symbol also used as an abbreviation for chreston indicating an especially important passage marked with X or with points ... or else marked with the monogram Chi-Rho in a 'chrestomathies'... Furthermore Constantine was not a Christian in spite of his alleged 'dreams and apparitions', when he adopted this ancient pagan symbol. In this sense, as Constantine used the symbol, chreston would carry the meaning 'auspicious' or 'of good omen'... (page 28)
Another example of the Chi-Rho monogram, occuring on an inscribed tomb-stone in the Catacombs, belongs to the year AD 331 and in conjunction with the Alpha and Omega it is not found until AD 362. In the sixth century the two Greek letters X [chi] and P [rho] became, in Christian use, a cross withhin a circle. (page 30)
During the reign of Constantine there exists no reason to believe the Chi-Rho was adopted as a Christian symbol, nor is there any evidence that Constantine was 'converted' to Christianity either on the eve of his victory over Maxentius in AD 312, when he is alleged to have placed the monogram on his standard, or 'Labarum' as it was called, nor because the Licinius he issued the Edict of Toleration at Milan in AD 313, 'granting both to the cult of the Christians as well as to all others, full authority to follow whatever worship each man has desired; whereby whatsoever Divinity dwells in heaven may be propitious to us, and to all who are placed under our authority...' nor that, according to his biographer Eusebius of Nicomedia, Constantine received baptism from Eusebius and was received that day into heaaven on Whit Sunday AD 337... It is true that the baptism of Constantine by Eusebius is attested by Jerome. But Constantine the Great (circa 274-337), Emperor from 306, and sole Emperor from 324, was like other Roman Emperors, Pontifex Maximus, who determined the relations between all the cults of Rome -- including Christianity. The inscription on the Arch of Constantine at Rome (erected at Rome by the Senate in 315) contained no 'Christian' symbols on the sculptures nor on the shields of the soldiers. The Gods of Constantine are the Sun-God and Victory. The official religion of the Romans was still Caesar worship. (pages 30-31)
The fish is often used as a symbol or emblem of the Christian Church or as a symbol of Christ, though it is still used as a symbol on Hebrew tombstones, as seen in the ancient Jewish cemetery in Prague. Previously it appeared as a symbol of Poseidon -- god of the sea... It is probable, as often recognized, that the fish-god's head evolved into the Christian bishops' and abbots' mitres. (page 38)
The fish was once a symbol of fertility and it appears on Cycladic 'frying-pan' vases. The so-called sacred anagram was formed of the five Greek letters spelling the word 'fish' ichthus;... The anagram in the word Ichthus seems to have been a late discovery, perhaps not before the fiftheen century. (page 39)
Most of Pitt-River's above skeptical assertions and extensive details are neither corroborated, denied, or even cited by any other resources readily available to me. Typical of other sources, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985) simply states:
Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer