We’ve probably all seen it at one point or another, whether it be on the bumper of a car, a business card, or religious artworks. The ichthys, also known colloquially as the “Jesus fish,” has been a symbol representing Jesus Christ for nearly the entire history of the Church. What does this symbol actually mean, and how did it come to represent our Lord?
The ichthys consists of two intersecting arcs that extend pass their intersection to resemble a fish.
The ichthys first started appearing in Catholic art and literature around the second century A.D. By the end of the second century it was popular among followers of the Church and became widespread across the globe by the fourth century. According to tradition, the fish symbol is rooted during the early years of the Church when those who followed the Lord faced intense religious persecution. The symbol would allow them to quickly identify if they were in safe company, and it was also used to discretely mark gathering places and tombs. Some say that when a Catholic was faced with a stranger in a road, they would draw one half of the arc in the dirt. If the stranger completed the symbol by drawing the other arc, they both knew they were safe in each others company.
Why a fish? Historians most likely think it is a reference to Feeding the Multitude, where Jesus performs a miracle feeding thousands with only a few fish. Another probable explanation is stems from when Jesus recruits Peter and Andrew, saying he will make them fishers of men.
“As he passed by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea; they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.'” – Mark 1:16-17
The term ichthys, is actually a Greek acronym translating into English to mean Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
• Iota (i) is the first letter of Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), Greek for “Jesus”
• Chi (ch) is the first letter of Christos (Χριστός), Greek for “anointed”
• Theta (th) is the first letter of Theou (Θεοῦ), Greek for “God”
• Upsilon (y) is the first letter of hyios (Υἱός), Greek for “Son”
• Sigma (s) is the first letter of sōtēr (Σωτήρ), Greek for “Savior”