Ichthys: History and Symbolismby Jennie Murphy
Not a day goes by without my seeing a “Jesus” fish on the back of a vehicle. And while my husband and I have one on our own car, how many Christians really know the history or the statement they are making with this symbol?
Deep in the catacombs of Rome, the symbol of the fish adorns the tombs of the buried Christians. These catacombs date back to the time of the first few decades in the second century. One of the earliest writings that the Church possesses regarding the use of the fish as a Christian symbol comes from Clement of Alexandria. It was in this document that he requested to his readers that they make their seals in the image of a fish or dove.[i]
It was also during this time period that the Christians underwent great persecution from the Roman Empire. In order to distinguish friend from foe, meeting places were often marked with the symbol of the fish so that other Christians knew that it was a safe place for them to meet. Tradition also tells us that when a Christian met someone in a public place they would often draw the top arch of the fish in the dirt and wait for the other person to draw the second arch, showing themselves to also be a Christian. One of the modern depictions of this is found in the 1951 film, Quo Vadis. In the movie, the beautiful Ligia, daughter of the deceased king of Ligians, falls for Marcus Vinicius, who is a Roman patrician. On an occasion of meeting Marcus in the garden, Ligia, a Christian, draws the symbol of the fish in the sand. She becomes deeply sadden as Marcus has no reaction to her drawing this symbol.
Now, the question that remains: why use a fish as a Christian symbol?
There are different beliefs as to the origin of the fish as a Christian symbol. Some obvious examples would be that of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes or Christ calling Apostles the fishers of men, which we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel. A lesser-known explanation may be a result of the Emperor Domitian. During his reign, Domitian had a coin produced with the words Theou Yios inscribed on it. In Greek, Theou Yios means Son of God, a title Domitian was claiming for himself. As a form of protest, the Greek Christians formed a phrase in response to Domitian’s blasphemous claim. The phrase that was created was Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, which means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” The beginning letters of each word in this phrase created an acrostic in the form of ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys) which was the Greek word meaning fish.
In knowing the history and true symbolism we must ask ourselves if we are truly professing the symbol we so readily plaster on everything we own from our cars, shirts, etc. This symbol is not simply a cute little sticker or something “cool” to do if you’re a Christian. Rather, it is a profession of our faith that we believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God the Savior of mankind.
[i] New Advent: Catholic Encyclopedia (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06083a.htm)