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The Fish Symbol, aka "Ichthus"

Not many people need an explanation as to why Christians use a cross as a symbol. But have you ever considered the fish symbol? Why do so many Christians display the fish as a sign of their faith? Was fish Jesus’ favorite food? As you have guessed, there is a reason for the fish as an indication of followers of Jesus. It developed at a time of fear, torture, and secrecy and it was probably used more frequently than the cross. Why?

First, we have to revisit the Christians of the late first century and the second century. The first large persecution of Christians by the Romans did not occur until the late first century. Nero had persecuted Christians in AD 64, but that was mainly in Rome and was connected to a fire which destroyed part of Rome. It wasn’t until the end of Domitian’s reign (emperor from 81-96) that Christians everywhere experienced persecution. We can see this illustrated in the New Testament in the book of Revelation. At the beginning of that book, John tells us that he is on the island of Patmos. Why was he there? Because Domitian had placed him there under house arrest of sorts. (Why didn’t Domitian just kill John? Because if you kill a leader of a movement you make him/her into a martyr.)

The method of execution that the Romans frequently (but not always) used was a cross. But consider this: why did the Romans chose the more costly and time-consuming practice of crucifixion when there were cheaper and quicker ways of death? To make a statement. Put a few people up on crosses around a city, and the message of control is plainly understood. So everyone feared crosses. See why the cross wasn’t used as a symbol of Christianity early on? Wearing or having a cross as decoration to people of that time period would not have meant the same thing it means today; instead of a symbol for Christ’s sacrifice, it would have been, well, I don’t know what people would have thought of someone walking around with a cross around their neck in those days.

So you can see why the cross did not catch on as a symbol of the first Christians. But that doesn’t make it easier to understand they chose a fish. Looking at the Bible, we see that Jesus made two references to fish. First, he told some of his disciples that he would make them "fishers of men." Second, he fed 5000 people with fishes and loaves of bread. But those weren’t the reason. Now we get back to the persecution and secrecy aspect.

During a time of persecution, you couldn’t just go around telling everyone you were a Christian because you might be killed. Therefore, someone developed a code using a fish. But why a fish? Because of what the letters stand for: "Fish" in Greek is "ichthus" (although not using Greek letters) and someone realized that an acronym describing Jesus could be made using the letters of "ichthus." So look for the individual letters in "ichthus" below:

in English these words mean:

So, the letters i-ch-th-u-s in Greek are the first letters in the Greek words iasous-christus-theos-uios-sotar, or in English Jesus-Christ-God's-son-Savior. This code word was used by Christians in conversation as well as in homes and hiding places. After all, if the Romans came in your house and saw fishes used as decoration, they would not think that you were a Christian, just that you liked fish.

In addition, it is easy to see that if you wanted to know if someone else was a Christian, you would make a mark in the sand like half of the fish. If the other person made the other mark, then you both knew the other was a Christian.

And that is why the fish, also called the ichthus, came to represent the Christian faith: it was originally a secret code.

©2008-2011 Mark Nickens