“As Jesus 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 said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.”

(Mark 1:16–18)

Long before the crossa became the most prevalent symbol of Christianity, early worshipers used a fish. Evidence from written sources comes as early Clement of Alexandria (150–211), who told the readers of his Paedagogus to have either a fish or a dove engraved on their seals. Visual presentations of fish as a Christian symbol appear in early burial chambers such as the catacombs of St. Callistus (founded in the middle of the second century) and the catacombs of Priscilla (second and third centuries) with its “Greek Chapel,” which has a fresco depicting the Eucharist with a fish and basket of bread as part of the meal (from the late second century).

Several verses from the New Testament involve fish, such as the miracle of feeding the multitude (Mark 6:38–44, Matthew 14:16–21, Luke 9:12–17 and John 6:5–13); the repast of the disciples on the shores of the Galilee after the resurrection (John 21:9); the miracle of Peter catching the fish that had the half-shekel tax for them at Capernaum (Matthew 17:24–27); Jesus telling his disciples that he would make them “fishers of men” (Mark 1:17); and the fish Jesus ate to prove to his disciples he was resurrected (Luke 24:41–42). Another Church father, Tertullian (155–230), made reference to the followers of Jesus as “little fishes” in his treatise On Baptism and said that they “are born in water” just like their “Icqus” or fish: Jesus Christ.

There are many hypotheses about how the fish came to symbolize Jesus, but the most prevalent is that it symbolizes an acrostic for the phrase “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”: Ιησουζ Χρισιοζ Θεου Υιοζ Σωτηρ. Take the first letter of each word—Iota, Chi, Theta, Epsilon, Sigma—and you have the Greek word for fish: ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthys).

Early Christians may have used the fish symbol to identify one another or locate secret meeting places when they worshiped under fear of persecution, before Constantine the Great made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire in the Edict of Milan in 313. Today, Christians are still using the fish symbol to identify themselves as followers of the faith, mostly through fish decals and bumper stickers.—K.E.M.