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How Did the 'Jesus Fish' Become a Symbol of Christianity?

Discover the origin and meaning of the Jesus Fish, otherwise known as the Ichthys symbol.

Updated Apr 21, 2022
How Did the 'Jesus Fish' Become a Symbol of Christianity?

"And [Jesus] said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Matthew 4:19)

You have likely seen the "Jesus Fish" on vehicles as a decal or bumper sticker, maybe even with the Greek letters "ΙΧΘΥΣ" meaning Ichthys. 

We usually recognize this symbol as a Christian emblem but where did it come from? What is the true meaning of the "Jesus Fish" symbol? Let's look into the origin of the Ichthys, a 2nd-century symbol of the Christian faith that has continued to the modern-day.

Origin of the 'Jesus Fish'

The first appearances of the Ichthys (Christian fish symbol) date to the 2nd century in Christian art and literature. The symbol's use among Christians had become prevalent by the late 2nd century and spread widely in the 3rd and 4th centuries. In early Christian history, the Ichthys symbol held "the most sacred significance," and Christians utilized it to identify churches and other believers during a period of persecution in the Roman Empire. 

According to Garth S. Jowett and Victoria O'Donnell in their book Propaganda & Persuasion,

"Initially used as a secret sign during the time when Christians were persecuted by the Roman authorities, the fish symbolized the mission of the group it represented and did so simply and effectively."

J Healy wrote in "The Holy Wells of Ireland" of The Irish Monthly from 1884: 89. "It must, however, be born in mind that the "fish," especially in those early days, was a Christian symbol of the most sacred significance. The name Ichthus, which is the Greek word for fish, and the fish itself, recur frequently amongst the sacred symbols of the early Christians in the Catacombs. The letters of the Greek word formed the initial letters of the phrase "Jesus Christ, of God the Son, our Saviour" The heavenly Ichthus, then, was Jesus Christ, and we are the smaller fishes, born in the waters of baptism, as Tertullian says, caught in the net of salvation, and thus made members of the heavenly kingdom. There is a reference to the same symbol to the Holy Eucharist, with which the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes had such intimate connection both in point of time and significance."

The Ichthys' Symbolic Meaning

ἸΧΘΥΣ (IKhThUS) is an acronym or acrostic for the Greek phrase "Ἰησοῦς Χρῑστός Θεοῦ Υἱός Σωτήρ", which translates into English as 'Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior'.

  • Iota (i), Iēsoûs (Ἰησοῦς), "Jesus"
  • Chi (ch), Khrīstós (Χρῑστός), "anointed"
  • Theta (th), Theoû (Θεοῦ), "of God"
  • Upsilon (y or u), (h)uiós (Yἱός), "Son"
  • Sigma (s), sōtḗr (Σωτήρ), "Savior"

The statement "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior" affirmed the belief of early Christians in the twofold nature of Jesus Christ being both fully human and fully divine.

Significance of Fish in the Bible

The fish is also used by Jesus to explain "the Sign of Jonah". This is symbolic of Jesus's resurrection, upon which the whole Christian faith is established.

"Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." (Matthew 12:38-40)

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind." (Matthew 13:47)

“Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the Lord, and they shall catch them. And afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks." (Jeremiah 16:16)

"And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

Use and Importance Today

In the 1970s the "Jesus Fish" began to be used as a symbol of contemporary Christianity. In 1973 the symbol and message were taken to the Aquarius Rock Festival in Nimbin, Australia. Today, it can be seen as a decal or emblem on the rear of automobiles or as jewelry as an indication that the owner is Christian. Versions of this include an Ichthys with "Jesus" or "ΙΧΘΥΣ" in the center, or simply the Ichthys outline by itself.

According to Christopher Garbowski in his book Religious Life in Poland: History, Diversity and Modern Issues, while many Christians hang a cross necklace or rosary inside their vehicles, "the fish sticker on the car is a more conscious symbol of a witnessing Christian—significantly, unlike the former, it is on the outside of the car for everyone to see."

The Jesus Fish, or Ichthys, is a symbol of Christianity that dates back nearly two full millennia and is still used today to express faith in Jesus Christ and His salvific work for mankind.

Photo credit: Getty/BMPix; "An ancient symbol of Christianity carved on the wall of the cave used as a chapel by the seventh century St. Fillan in Pittenweem, Fife, Scotland"

Christianity.com's editorial staff is a team of writers with a background in the Christian faith and writing experience. We work to create relevant, inspiring content for our audience and update timely articles as necessary.

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