Christians have a long history of persecution. They lost their jobs and their homes and were forced to flee. Can you imagine escaping to a new city in a new country and not knowing who to trust? One of the earliest symbols of Christianity was the fish. It was a simple design: two arcs intersecting.
It served as a sign and a countersign. If you encountered a stranger but suspected he might be a Christian, you could take your walking stick and casually scribe an arc in the dust. If the stranger smiled and drew another arc over yours – making the fish – you breathed a sigh of relief and rejoiced to have found the family. The symbol was also put-on buildings that served a secret purpose as a meeting place for Christians and marking Christian graves.
But why a fish? Like doves and lambs, fish have long served as a Christian symbol. Do you remember when Jesus called his disciples to become “fishers of men” (Mark 1:16 – 18)? Likewise, the Lord multiplied loaves and fish to feed the hungry (twice!) He told parables about catching fish (Matthew 13:47 – 50) and performed two miracles of miraculous catches of fish. In Matthew 17, Jesus tells Peter to catch a fish, and the apostle found a coin in its mouth to pay their taxes.
The best explanation of the symbol is found in the Greek word for fish: ichthus. (ἸΧΘΥϹ See the Third Century Funerary stele below.) Like news (north – east – west – south), radar (RAdio Detection And Ranging), or NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), ichthus is an acrostic (in Greek):
- Iota (i), Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), “Jesus”
- Chi (ch), Christos (Χριστός), “anointed”
- Theta (th), Theou (Θεοῦ), “God’s,” the genitive singular of Θεóς, Theos, “God”
- Upsilon (y or u), (h)yios (Yἱός), “Son”
- Sigma (s), sōtēr (Σωτήρ), “Savior”
In the early 1970s, the fish symbol became popular for Christians once more. Sadly, you see it most often on the bumpers of cars blasting by you on the freeway.