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Fish-A Religious symbol

Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after – H.D. Thoreau

By Joe Zias
Jerusalem, Israel
April 2012

The origin of the fish as a religious symbol, appearing in many differing religions in the Old and New World, suggests that its origin, like fishing itself, goes back to antiquity. Whereas archaeological evidence for fishing is found in the settlements of early man, going back as far as 750,000 BP in modern day Israel, the aim of this paper is not to explore the many differing religious and cultural explanations for the fish as a religious symbol but to suggest, based upon personal experience, why the fish is an almost universal religious symbol among mankind.

Lately, there has been a considerable amount of activity on the web challenging what Tabor and Jacobovici have attempted to depict as a fish, (graffiti of Jonah and the “big fish”) allegedly discovered on a Jewish ossuary discovered in Jerusalem. Aside from the two authors, it would appear than no one has accepted their interpretations and in fact, there now appears clear evidence of probable photo shopping the graffiti, raising many ethical questions within the academic community. It’s precisely their ideas which have prompted this short article on fish as a nearly universal religious symbol.

As a young man, living in somewhat rural and extremely cold temperatures, ice fishing was a way to pass the long winters. As I grew older and wiser, I realized that it was not something that I wanted to do ever again, and I forgot those long lonely hours sitting over a ice hole waiting for the fish to bite.

In the world of licensed sport fishing, one is obligated to catch and release those immature fish which do not meet a certain minimum length so as not to deplete their ranks. While most fishermen comply, ice fishing meant one was constantly forced to remove and re-bait the hook (without gloves) in freezing weather, over a small hole in the ice which meant that instead of “catch and release,” one removed the hook and tossed the small fish (perch and blue gills) on the ice so as not to deal with them again. Within a few minutes, depending on the temperature, the small, thin, fish, lying on the ice were frozen solid. Hours later when we had caught our limit, bored, or the weather had changed for the worse we would then dip the empty bucket in the cold and freezing water, add the small seemingly dead , snow covered fish deprived of oxygenated water and stir for a minute or two. Suddenly, the apparently “dead,” pan fish would slowly begin to revive as if nothing had happened despite their being outside their aquatic environment for hours. Seeing this for the first time as a young man, unable to fully understand the metabolic process taking place was visually, almost miraculously and immediately brought back memories of biblical stories of Lazarus and others being resurrected. In the world of ice fishing, everyone knew that the frozen fish could be revived, (if they were frozen in fresh air) but not why, it was just a matter of putting them into a bucket of ice water, stirring and then releasing them back into the lake for another day. Metabolically, they reduced (anabiosis) their physiological needs by entering into a suspended animation as they appeared to be frozen through and through. Fish, however, have the ability to prevent ice crystals forming within the body itself which prevents irreversible damage to their vital organs. The amount of time they could remain in this frozen state was difficult to tell as we always departed the lake before nightfall. However, there is evidence on the web that this can be done for longer periods of time.

In the human diet, I know of no other animal other than the fresh water fish and frog which have this ability to suddenly “come alive” after apparently being expired/frozen for an extended period of time. The fact that the fish can be revived from this death-like state, simply by being re-immersed in water, which in and of itself, is universally regarded as holy, an expression of forgiveness, spiritual cleanliness, spiritual transformation, would seem to strengthen our argument. Therefore, for the world of religion to culturally adopt the fresh water fish as a symbol of resurrection, spiritual regeneration, and hope for an eternal life would appear, anthropologically speaking, not all that unfathomable.

Thanks to Dr. Irit Zohar for the references on fishing, dating back to 750,000 BP in Israel.

Special thanks are due to ‘Jonah and the Wail’ regarding her description on the work at the Talpiot tombs, without her detailed information, colleagues in the field of biblical archaeology would still be ‘floundering.’