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Where Did the Sign of the Fish Come From?


This week’s question comes from Shawn in California who writes, “I am a new Christian and I can’t figure out what the sign of the fish derives from. Is it Jesus? And if so, what does a fish have to do with anything? Where can I read about this in the Bible?”

Shawn’s question has a rather interesting answer that can be traced back to the early days of the church when it was unadvisable, if not illegal, to be a Christian. It seems that back then, being a Christian in the Roman Empire was as dangerous as a cat attending a guard dog convention. The rise of the persecutions forced Christianity to become rather creative to stay alive.

The persecution of Christians began with Nero who blamed the Christians and the Jews for the burning of Rome. This particular outbreak of persecutions was confined almost solely to the city of Rome itself and many Christians were martyred for their faith. Tradition suggests that both Peter and Paul were killed in Rome under this particular round of persecutions.

Things got progressively worse for Christians during the next couple of emperors. Domitian expanded the arrests and trials to include Christians in Asia Minor and again, there were many martyrs. It was during Domitian’s reign that John wrote his apocalyptic letter called the Revelation to the seven churches in Asia Minor, a letter that painted an evil and dismal picture of Rome.

By the time Emperor Trajan came to power, Christianity had been declared illegal and gatherings in the name of Christ were forbidden. During Trajan’s reign the government took a non-aggressive role in dealing with the sect. The state would not waste its time and resources tracking down the Christians, but if they were betrayed, they were questioned and killed if they did not recant.

And so, Christianity headed underground. During the time of the persecutions, Christians continued to meet, but they did so secretly. Often they would meet in the mass tombs or catacombs where they felt they would be undetected. Where there were no such structures to meet or hide in, the Christians would meet in the homes of fellow adherents to the faith. 

But all of this was risky, at best, so Christianity developed its own cloak-and-dagger network. Because the Christians and their practices were out-of-sight to the general public, rumors of cannibalism and other blood rites circulated freely. Because they were known to meet in tombs and catacombs, they carried the reputation of being obsessed with the dead. None of these rumors, of course, were true—but who could refute them? Only those who were arrested and questioned—and nobody believed them anyway, since they were on trial for their lives.

Which brings us to one way Christians kept their anonymity. In Asia Minor, there were literally thousands and thousands of Christians. And with these numbers, it is clear that most Christians did not know each other, so some sort of recognition was needed when there was a gathering or a meeting of some sort. There were several ways to do this, but two methods have come down through the years and are with us today: crossing yourself and the symbol of the fish.

Crossing yourself, as practiced in many churches including the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church (who cross themselves opposite to each other), was a sign of recognition between Christians. The cross, as a symbol, was already well established in the Christian faith, and so forming the sign of the cross was a natural progression. Instead of being used when one entered a church building, of which there were none, crossing was used like a secret agent’s password. One crossed themselves, and if the other person reciprocated, then it was assumed safe to share in fellowship and in discussions of the faith and the work of the church.

The second method of recognition was the sign of the fish, as seen on the back bumper of hundreds of cars. In this case, tradition tells us, one would draw the top half of a fish on the ground, and if the person being met drew the bottom half, then it was clear they were “one of us.”

So, now to Shawn’s question: Why a fish?

It would be great if there was some awesome theological and biblical reason for the use of the fish, but the reality is much more mundane—which makes it all the more fascinating. The Greek word for fish is ixthus and the creative, cloak-and-dagger, world of Christianity discovered that the letters of ixthus formed an accrostic of the Greek phrase “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” Therefore, the sign of the fish became a symbol of faithful belief and a test of personal safety in a world where being a Christian was a test of faith in itself.

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