What’s That? A Jesus Fish?

Short Answer

The ichthys or ichthus, from the Greek ikhthū́s is a symbol consisting of two intersecting arcs, the ends of the right side extending beyond the meeting point so as to resemble the profile of a fish. 

The ichthys symbol (or “Jesus fish”) is a sign typically used to proclaim an affiliation with or affinity for Christianity. The fish was originally adopted by early Christians as a secret symbol. It looks like this:

A Cool Acronym

The fish is based on the first letters of the Greek words for Jesus Christ. The Greek word for fish is “Ichthys”, which is also an acronym for “Jesus”. 

The use of the Ichthys symbol (ΙΧΘΥΣ) by early Christians appears to date from the end of the first century C.E. Ichthys is an acronym, a word formed from the first letters of several words. It stands for “Jesus Christ God’s Son Saviour,” in ancient Greek “Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ”.

Iota is the first letter of Iesous (Ἰησοῦς), Greek for Jesus.

Chi is the first letter of Christos (Χριστóς), Greek for “anointed”.

Theta is the first letter of Theou (Θεοῦ), that means “of God,” genitive case of Θεóς “God.”

Upsilon is the first letter of Huios (Υἱός), Greek for Son. “upsilon”, which in centuries past was sometimes transliterated as an English “u”, but is better done as a “y”. This is because upsilon really is the letter “Y”.

Sigma is the first letter of “Soter” (Σωτήρ), Greek for Saviour.

Historically, twentieth century use of the ichthys motif    is an adaptation based on an early Christian symbol which included a small cross for the eye or the Greek letters “ΙΧΘΥΣ”. 

“I’m One of You”

The early church was hotly persecuted, and so, in an effort to minimise casualties, they covertly communicated via this fish symbol. If a house was friendly to Christians, for example, it might have a fish on the doorframe. 

According to tradition, ancient Christians, during their persecution by the Roman Empire in the first few centuries after Jesus (as), used the fish symbol to mark meeting places and tombs, or to distinguish friends from foes: 

According to one ancient story, when a Christian met a stranger in the road, the Christian sometimes drew one arc of the simple fish outline in the dirt. If the stranger drew the other arc, both believers knew they were in good company. 

Fish Keep Popping Up in the New Testament

The fish was meaningful to Christians because of the numerous accounts from the life of Jesus (as) involving fish:

According to Mark 1:16 – As Jesus (as) 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 (as) said, “and I will make you fishers of men.”

Again, according to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus (as) is in a boat belonging to Simon and he tells him to go into deep water and let his nets down. When they did so, according to Luke 5:6 “they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break,” Jesus (as) later told them “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will catch men.” 

Also in John 21:5-11 where it mentions that they drew in 153 fish. When they return to shore with their catch, Jesus (as) is waiting for them and has cooked some fish for them to eat.

Jesus’s (as) disciples were so worried about how they were going to feed the huge assembly of people that had come to hear his message and said to Jesus (as), “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish.” (Matthew 14:17). Jesus (as) prayed to God and then broke the bread and fish and the whole assembly ate until they were satisfied and there were still baskets of pieces of bread to spare. (also Mark 6:38 & Luke 9:13, John 6:9) 

In Matthew 13:47-50, the Parable of Drawing in the Net, Jesus (as) compares the angels separating the righteous from the wicked at the end of this world to fishers sorting out their catch, keeping the good fish and throwing the bad fish away.

In Matthew 17:24-27, upon being asked if his Teacher pays the temple (or two-drachma) tax, Simon Peter answers ‘Yes’. Jesus (as) tells Peter to go to the water and cast a line, saying that a coin sufficient for both of them will be found in the fish’s mouth. Peter does this and finds the coin.

There’s Something Fishy About the Resurrection . . .

The fish is used by Jesus (as) to describe “the Sign of Jonah”. (Matthew 12:38-45) This is symbolic of Jesus’s (as) resurrection, upon which the entire Christian faith is based. (1 Corinthians 15:1-58)

Jonah 1:17 “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.”  From inside the fish, Jonah (as) prayed fervently to God to save him and according to Jonah 2:1 “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited him onto dry land.”

The Holy Bible  bears witness that Jonah (as), by the grace of God, remained in the belly of the fish alive, came out alive and his people ultimately accepted him.

Jesus prophesied that his fate would be like that of prophet Jonah (as).

When asked for a sign, Jesus (as) said:

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:39,40)

Just as Jonah (as) remained alive in the belly of the fish for three days, Jesus (as) stayed alive in the tomb for three days and Jesus (as) compared his three days stay in the tomb to the three days that Jonah (as) spent in the belly of the fish.

Jesus (as) prayed and knew that God would save him from an accursed death on the cross Therefore, based on divine revelation, he prophesied that he would not die on the cross, rather, like the prophet Jonah (as), he would only be in a state of coma. In the prophecy, told as a parable, he hinted that he would come out of the bowels of the earth and join his people and would be honoured like Jonah (as). It was a case of Survival, not Revival.

After his survival, Jesus (as) later appeared to His disciples in bodily form, and asked them, “Do you have anything to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” (Luke 24:41-43).

The question must be asked: If Jesus (as) had been resurrected after death, how was it that his spiritual body could still have borne the wounds inflicted upon him on the cross and what need did he have to eat?

If Jesus (as) did not enter the heart of the earth (sepulchre) alive, and come out alive, where is the resemblance of the two signs?  Jesus (as) promised to show only one sign to the

generation of his time, but even if that sign was not proven to be true, is there anything to prove his truthfulness? 

In that question lies a very profound and faith inspiring answer.

NB: Biblical references taken from The New International Version of the Bible 1986 – Hodder and Stoughton Ltd.

About the author: Bilal Atkinson is Editor of the Christianity Section of The Review of Religions. He is a retired police officer having served in forensics of scenes of crime for over two decades. He is also serving as President of the Hartlepool Chapter of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community UK.