As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”
At once they left their nets and followed him. Mark 1:16-18 (NIV)
The Jesus Fish (also known as Christian Fish) is a common sight on bumper stickers, t-shirts, jewelry, and other Christian themed merchandise across the globe. But what is its significance? When was it first used?
Many people would be surprised to learn that the Jesus Fish symbol’s origins actually predate Christianity. In fact, the symbol, which the Romans called the vesica piscis, has more ancient roots. It’s various uses by pagan sects can be traced as far back as 5000 BCE.
So when did the Jesus Fish first appear?
The symbol is believed to have first appeared amongst Christian sects in Alexandria, Egypt around the first century of the Common Era. There is no certain answer as to why early Christians adopted the vesica piscis as a symbol of their faith, but a popular theory is that choosing a well-known symbol allowed their activities to pass unnoticed during times of increased persecution.
Regardless of why they chose this symbol, an extraordinary aspect of Jesus Fish symbol lies in the fact that is the subject of a clever acrostic, or word game, first documented in a set of religious texts called Sibylline Oracles, sometime around the 6th Century.
If you take the first letters, syllables, or words of a common, but specific Christian declaration, and place them together, they spell out an entirely different message. For example:
The phrase: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, in the original Greek was:
Ιησούς Χριστός, Θεού Υιός, Σωτήρ;
Or when Latinised:
Iesous CHristos, THeou Yios, Soter
When you take the first letters of the original Greek phrase, or the Latinized version of the letters, you get:
ΙΧΘΥΣ or ICTHUS , the Greek word for fish.
How was the Jesus Fish used?
As early Christians faced increased persecution, they needed a silent way to communicate to others that they were Christian. To communicate, one person would draw the top part of the Jesus Fish in the earth:
If the intended recipient of the message was able to draw the second part of the fish, both parties knew they were safe.
The symbol was used to mark secret meeting places, as well graves of Christians buried in Roman catacombs. It could often be seen marking houses of believers, a sign of sanctuary to other Christians.
The next time you happen upon the symbol of a Jesus Fish, think fondly on the brilliant early Christians, who found their way to God, regardless of the perils involved.