The Ichthys Fish and What It Meant to Early Christians

Briana Oser
Classics student at the College of the Holy Cross

The fish is a well-known Christian symbol, though its usage has decreased in the present day. We have evidence that it was popular in early Christianity through literature from the Church Fathers and the dozens of Christian fish engravings all over the Mediterranean. But why was it so significant? Was the symbol merely adopted from paganism and Judaism, like Orpheus and peacocks, or does it contain its own significance within the Christian tradition?

Although Christianity is known to adopt pre-Christian symbolism and practices, the Christian fish has its own unique tradition from the biblical canon. References to sea creatures and the “waters” are numerous throughout the Christian scriptures. Most Christians are familiar with the sea symbolism in the Gospels, but they may not be aware of its significance throughout the overall biblical narrative.

In the Old Testament, the waters are imagined as a powerful force, often bearing negative connotations. In Genesis, the waters were present before God began the act of Creation (Lovett, 83). They were a mass which God had to separate and organize: “And God said, ‘Let there be a vault between the waters to separate water from water’” (Genesis 1:6). From the beginning, the waters were a place of chaos. The waters in the Old Testament were also used as an instrument of judgment, such as in the famous story of Noah’s Ark in Genesis and in the annihilation of the Egyptians in Exodus. They were also the habitat of sea monsters. Multiple books refer to the Leviathan, a demonic sea serpent whom God will eventually destroy: “In that day the Lord with his sore and great and strong sword shall punish leviathan the piercing serpent, even leviathan that crooked serpent; and he shall slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1). Finally, in the Old Testament the waters are compared to the nations, specifically those which have disobeyed God. Isaiah laments: “Woe to the multitude of many peoples, like the multitude of the roaring sea! Woe to the tumult of crowds, like the noise of many waters” (Isaiah 17:12). In the Old Testament, God protects his chosen people from the chaos of the waters.

In the New Testament, the waters gain a new master: Christ. He gives them a new meaning. He boldly instructs his followers to go straight to the waters of the nations and become “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). Fishing imagery is also found in one of Jesus’ parables in Matthew: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net cast into the sea, which gathers together all kinds of fish” (Matthew 13:47). This verse is representative of God’s plan for the New Covenant, one that embraces nations as his “chosen people” rather than solely the Israelites. Water is also the element he chooses to baptize his followers with and to bring them new life. Instead of splitting the sea to drown his enemies, he walks upon it and reminds us to love our enemies. The “waters” and water-related imagery are essential for God’s revelation of Christ’s mission.

Though the precise origins of the fish symbol in early Christianity remain uncertain, the deep thematic significance of the waters and sea creatures in the New Testament suggests that the Christian usage of the fish symbol does not stem solely from past traditions such as paganism and Judaism. The fish was used to signal one’s faith to other Christians, to spread Christianity, and to mark burial sites. Early Christian literature evokes fish and fish-related imagery to address fellow Christians.

The earliest reference to the fish in Christian texts is from Book III of Clement of Alexandria’s second century treatise Paedagogus. In a chapter about what is appropriate for a Christian to wear, Clement says, “And let our seals be either a dove, or a fish, or a ship scudding before the wind, or a musical lyre, which Polycrates used, or a ship’s anchor, which Seleucus got engraved as a device; and if there be one fishing, he will remember the apostle, and the children drawn out of the water” (ch.11). His approval of the fish alongside other popular Christian symbols, such as the dove and the anchor, suggests that it was already in circulation as a Christian symbol.

The New Testament does not portray Christ as a fish, although early Christian literature commonly refers to him as such. Tertullian’s On Baptism, written in the early third century, uses the fish as a symbol for Christ: “But we, little fishes, after the example of our ΙΧΘΥΣ Jesus Christ, are born in water, nor have we safety in any other way than by permanently abiding in water; so that most monstrous creature, who had no right to teach even sound doctrine, knew full well how to kill the little fishes, by taking them away from the water!” Here, Tertullian is rebuking the Cainites, a heretical gnostic sect. According to Tertullian, the doctrine of the Cainites criticizes Baptism, the sacrament which signifies one’s entrance into Christian life. The imagery Tertullian uses is a total reversal of the imagery rampant throughout the Old Testament: rather than being a force to avoid, Tertullian suggests that Christians actually belong in water, since it renews them and gives them new life. By referring to Christ as Ichthys, Tertullian implies that the home of Christ himself is in the water.

The Ichthys, beyond being a symbol for Christ, was also a popular Greek acronym which stood for “Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter.” St. Augustine explains this in his fifth century work City of God: “But if you join the initial letters of these five Greek words, ᾽Ιησοῦς Χριστος Θεοῦ υἰὸς σωτήρ, which mean, ‘Jesus Christ the Son of God, the Saviour,’ they will make the word ἰχθὺς, that is, ‘fish,’ in which word Christ is mystically understood, because He was able to live, that is, to exist, without sin in the abyss of this mortality as in the depth of waters” (Augustine, 562). Augustine’s interpretation of the waters is more attuned to the Old Testament. The waters represent the fallen world, which Christ was able to navigate and command because of his sinless nature. However, because of Christ, the waters are redeemable.

The source of this acronym may have originated thousands of years before Christ’s life. In City of God, Augustine refers to a prophecy from the Erythraean sibyl, an oracle of Apollo who was said to have lived in the second millennium BC. It explains how the poetry in which she prophesied about Christ formed the acrostic “ΙΧΘΥΣ.” Augustine describes a famous man named Flaccanius approaching him and giving him news about “a certain passage which had the initial letters of the lines so arranged that these words could be read in them: ᾽Ιησοῦς Χριστος Θεοῦ υιὸς σωτηρ’” (Iesus Christos, Theou Yious, Soter) (Augustine, 560). Augustine then includes a Latin translation of the poem, an apocalyptic prophecy whose imagery shares a striking resemblance to the Book of Revelation.

Besides the writings of Church Fathers, evidence of the Ichthys fish’s significance to early Christians can be found in markings all over the Mediterranean. The fish symbol was so important to Christians that they used it to mark their tombs, and many catacombs contain fish engravings. Three such examples are the catacombs of Pope Callixtus, an early third century saint, those of St. Sebastian, a late third century martyr, and the Catacombs of Domitilla, a wealthy Christian family which lived and died in the first century. Ichthys engravings can also be found all over ancient Ephesus, a remarkable fact considering only one tenth of Ephesus has been uncovered by archaeologists (Vroom). The Ichthys symbol in Ephesus is not a fish, but a wheel, the reason for this being that when superimposed on top of each other, the Greek letters of Ichthys form an eight-spoked wheel (Rasimus, 342).

Symbolism was highly valued in early Christianity. It was a tool of hope and solidarity and communicated meaningful messages to the uneducated. At a time of church development, the symbol of the fish was especially relevant. It represented the Apostles’ call to be “fishers of men” and the entrance to the Christian life through Baptism. The fish pointed directly to Christ. Though the fish is not as popular today in Christian circles, its symbolic significance establishes a sure connection between the mission of today’s church and the church of the past: the evangelization and renewal of the nations.

Works Cited

Augustine, City of God. Translated by Marcus Dods, Moscow, Roman Roads Media, 2015. Roman Roads Press, Accessed 15 May 2024.

Carus, Paul. “The Fish in Christianity.” Open Court, vol. 1911, no. 7, 1911, pp. 435-441. Southern Illinois University, Accessed 14 May 2024.

Clement, “Paedagogus.” Edited by Alexander Roberts, et al., translated by W. Wilson. The Ante Nicene Fathers. Vol. 2, Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885. 10 vols. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight, Accessed 14 May 2024.

Lovett, Kenneth William. The Negative Motif of the Sea in the Old Testament. May 2019, Louisville, Kentucky, USA. The Boyce Digital Repository, Accessed 15 May 2024.

Rasimus, Tuomas. “Revisiting the Ichthys: A Suggestion Concerning the Origins of Christological and Fish Symbolism.” Mystery and Secrecy in the Nag Hammadi Collection and Other Ancient Literature: Ideas and Practices: Studies for Einar Thomassen at Sixty, edited by Christian H. Bull, et al., Brill Academic Pub, 2011, pp. 335-347. Google Books, Accessed 18 May 2024.

Tertullian, “On Baptism.” Edited by Alexander Roberts, et al., translated by Sydney Thelwall. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3, T. & T. Clarke, 1867. 10 vols. The Tertullian Project, Accessed 14 May 2024.

Vroom, Joanna, and Austrian Archaeological Institute in Vienna. “Ephesus – Leiden University.” Universiteit Leiden, 2015, Accessed 17 May 2024.

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