Ichthys: What Does the Christian Fish Mean?
What Does the Fish Signify?
The Christian fish symbol is known as the ICHTHYS, which is simply a transliteration of the Koine Greek word ixθús*, which means “fish”. It was not the symbol, but the word itself that first gained significance in the early church. Ixθús was used as an acronym for Iesous Xristos Theou Uios Soter – Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior1.
Exactly when Christians began to use the Ichthys as an identifier of their faith is uncertain, but its use is attested as early as the mid second century, and doubtless has its origins sometime earlier.
It should be noted that no truly early source directly spells out this phrase in relationship to the Ichthys. It is Augustine, writing in the early 5th century, who provides our earliest overt explanation2. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence to support this interpretation.
First Christian Uses of Ichthys
Although Christian art likely began sometime earlier, our first unambiguous examples of Christian art do not appear until the beginning of the third century3. However, the word Ichthys appears in epitaphs from the mid-second century in which it is used with undeniable significance.
For instance, the Epitaph of Abercius** states that Faith fed Abercius with “A freshwater fish, very large and pure, fished by an immaculate virgin.1” This would seem to hold a double meaning. The first recalls one’s mind to Jesus’ miracles in which he fed the many with a few loaves and fishes, the second depicts a pure Ichthys provided by a virgin, i.e. Jesus Christ born of Mary.
Other inscriptions make similar and still-more compelling use of the word, using such terminology as “Peace of the Fish.” This would seem an odd reference if not intended as an acronym to refer to the Lord of Peace4 himself!
The Ichthys in Christian Art
With this use of Ichthys already in use, it should be no surprise that the fish is one of the earliest identifiable symbols in Christian art1. The Stele of Licinia Amias is a Christian funerary inscription in Rome dated to the beginning of the third century in which two fish are engraved beneath the heading “Fish of the Living^”. Of particular interest is the fact that the rest of the Stele is inscribed in Latin, not in Greek (see picture below). This demonstrates that even after regional languages asserted themselves over universal Greek, the term Ichthys still maintained some significance. Likely, this is because the church in Rome still recognized its acronymic meaning.
The Ichthys as Christian “Code”
Some have asserted that the Ichthys symbol was used as a form of code by persecuted Christians struggling to find one another without arousing the suspicion of their oppressors. When one saw a fish scrawled on a wall, they knew their brothers in Christ had been there. There may be some truth to this, just as there may be some truth to the notion that Christians gathered in Catacombs because they were hiding from the Romans. At times this was doubtless true, but not as a matter of course.
Christians gathered in the catacombs of Roman cities because they were considered a “New Religion” by the Roman Authorities. New religions were not permitted, but funerary societies were. Christians in many cities formed such societies in order to be permitted to gather in peace, whereon they worshiped, prayed, and fellowshipped together outside of the public view1.
The Ichthys appears often in the catacombs and other funerary settings because this was the setting for many (though not all) Christian worship gatherings. It was a symbol to express, rather than hide, their faith. When the church was finally allowed full recognition as a permissible religion in the 5th century, Christian funerary art, including the Ichthys exploded in both quantity and quality. Even outside the setting of persecution, the Christian Ichthys still presented itself as a meaningful symbol of the object of Christian worship – Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Savior.
* IXθÚS: when capitalized, the upsilon (u) looks like a Y. Accordingly, some often pronounce upsilon as a hard “EE”.
** Presumed Abercius, Bishop of Hierapolis, who died in the second half of the second century.
^ IXθYS ZONTON, see picture of Amias Stele.
1. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol 1. Page 117
2. Agustine, City of God, Book 18, chapter 23
3. Hurtado, Earliest Christian Artifacts, p. 3
4. c.f. 2 Thessalonians 3:16