Biblical Studies/Christianity/Christian art/Primitive

Symbols in primitive Christianity

Fish Symbol − the most elemental Christian art in the form of a doctrinal statement.

The acrostic in Greek, Ichthys, is "Jesus-Christ-Of God-Son-Savior. Jesus: The Hebrew "Joshua" or Aramaic
"Yeshua," means "God is Salvation." Christ: Being equal to the Hebrew/Aramaic word "Messiah," means the
Sent One, the Anointed of God. The word points to redemption and reconciliation between God and man. Of God:
Reminds Christians of the deity of Christ. Christ is triune with God and the Holy Spirit. Together
the 3 are 1 God with 3 differing roles. "Of God" signifies that God is the Head of Christ. God is
Father, Christ is Son. Son: As heir, Jesus is not inferior to the Father, but has a different role in
the redemption of humanity. The Son is the heir of the Father, and God has given all power and authority to Jesus.
As Son and heir, Jesus was obedient to God the Father. Savior: Jesus' death on the cross for the redemption of
all heaven and earth represents the culmination of the obedience of Jesus towards God the Father. Jesus provides
salvation based on His sacrificial broken body and blood at the cross to everyone who trusts in His righteous life.
Jesus lays claim as rightful God of the New Covenant who can die for sin, judge sin, yet be blameless from sin.



The fish was well known in ancient times as a symbol of fertility. The interlocking arcs have become a modern day Christian amulet, even the subject of various parodies. The exact date or reason for the Christian church assimilating the simple art form and the soteriological formula behind it, is not known. There is no clear evidence for the use of the IXTHYS acrostic in early Christianity much before the late second century C.E. The New Testament contains many details about fish and fishermen, much more than in the Old Testament. The origin of ichthys is thus closely related to the idea of “fishers of men,” baptism of water, dividing the fish and loaves, or the last meal on the shore which enumerated the catch of 153 fish. Usage is described as a pointer to secret meetings during the period of persecution, a primitive password or handshake in the sand where when two meet each one supplies an arc, or simply a theological statement inscribed under trying circumstances and signifying a certain perseverance above all else. The earliest known reference in Christian literature (ca. 193 C.E.) quotes Tertullian, De Baptismo 1.3, "we, little fishes, after the image of our ΙΧΘΥΣ, Jesus Christ, are born in the water," where only the word for fish is written in Greek instead of Latin and so most assuredly alludes to the acronym for fish, IXTHYS.

A grave-yard remains something of a broken record of the church to which it belongs. The catacombs exhibit many such monumental inscriptions, Greek and Latin, or oddly mixed (Latin words in Greek uncial characters), often rudely written, of bad spelling, mutilated, and almost illegible, with and without symbolical figures. Christianity appealed to the poor and illiterate of the time. Fish imagery was very popular in early Christianity, and is mentioned in patristic literature. Clement of Alexandria (ca. 202 C.E.) sanctions the use of the image as art in the form of a seal for a signet ring in Paedogogus 3.11. The popular motif found on Christian gems of the later third century contains a pair of fish flanking an anchor or a cross-like object, also, fish and anchors are drawn beside funerary inscriptions datable at the earliest to the late second or early third centuries. The acrostic and fish symbols are found in tombs beneath the church of San Sebastiano, Rome, but, while highly probable, it's not universally accepted that these tombs are Christian. They date from the late second/early third century as well. Fish imagery from this period also occurs in the catacombs, the best known example being a crude painting commonly called the "Eucharist fish" showing a basket of five loaves of bread on the fish's side in the Lucina crypt in the Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome.

The acronym for fish is in wide use by the fourth and fifth century C.E., for Augustine relates that “these five greek words” mean "Christ" (Jesus Christ, of God the son, saviour) because, in Augustine’s words, "He was able to remain alive − that is, without sin − in the abyss of our mortal condition, in the depths, as it were, of the sea" (City of God 18.23, part of a discussion of Sibylline Oracle 8.217). Many early references to the fish mention baptism and may have foundation in the period use of the term "piscina" when referring to the baptismal font.

The acronym for fish obviously influences a passage in the epitaph of Abercius, an enigmatic Phrygian inscription, now in the Vatican, which probably dates from the late second century. The inscription is in Greek:

My name is Abercius, the disciple of the Holy Shepherd... I followed Paul and everywhere Faith was my leader and she gave me food in every place − the Fish from the fountain, a mighty Fish and pure which a holy maiden took in her hands and gave to her friends to eat for ever, having goodly wine and giving it mixed with water and also bread...

Similar language is used in the inscription of one Pectorius, which was found near Autun, France and kept in the museum there. It has not been accurately dated − probably third to fourth century. The inscription has some gaps which must be filled out by conjecture. The first portion seems to be older. Schultze conjectures that it is an old Christian hymn. This inscription is also in Greek, but it's written in a form resembling verse and the first letters of the first five lines spell out the acrostic IXTHUS:

1 Thou, the divine child of the heavenly Fish
2 Keep pure thy heart among the mortals
3 Once thou hast been washed in the fountain of divine waters.
   Refresh thy soul, friend,
4 With the ever flowing waters of wealth-giving wisdom.
5 Take from the Saviour of saints the honey-sweet food;
6 Eat with joy and desire, holding the Fish in thy hands.
7 I pray thee, Lord Saviour, satisfy his hunger with the Fish.
8 May my mother rest peacefully, I beseech thee, Light of the dead.
9 Aschandius, father, my heart's beloved
10 With my dearest mother and my brothers
11 In the peace of the Fish remember thy Pectorius.

Summary (in Modernity)
Divine race of the heavenly Fish preserve a reverent mind when you partake of the immortal fountain of wondrous waters that springs up among us here. Friend, let your soul be comforted with the ever-flowing waters of treasure-bestowing wisdom. Take the honey-sweet food of the Redeemer of the saints and eat it eagerly, holding the Fish in your hands. Satisfy me thus with the Fish I pray you, My Lord and Savior... be mindful of all those abiding in the peace of the Fish.
Yours, Pectorius.

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