Although the cross has been the core symbol of Christianity for centuries, the symbol of the Ichthys fish also has an important place in Christianity and a history that stretches back beyond the time of Christianity.
For many people, the Christian fish symbol is somewhat elusive, and there’s debate over what it means. Yet, there was a time when the Ichthys fish was the symbol of early Christians, much more so than the cross.
Let’s go over what the Christian fish means, how it came to be, and whether its use has changed over the years.
What is Ichthys, the Christian Fish Symbol?
The name of the Ichthys, Ichthus, or Ichtus Christian fish symbol comes from the ancient Greek word ichthys, meaning fish. This can feel like a strange symbol for a religion to use, but it’s actually more than that – it’s the symbol early Christians used for Jesus Christ himself.
Drawn as two simple arcs forming a fish-like shape and a tail, the Ichthys fish also often has the Greek letters ΙΧΘΥΣ (ICTYS) written inside it.
Why a Fish?
We can’t be a hundred percent certain why the early Christians gravitated toward the fish, but there are quite a few factors that made it a surprisingly fitting choice. Even just the similar pronunciation of ichthys and Iesous Christos might have been a factor.
What we do know, however, is that:
- The early Christians turned ichthys into an acrostic for Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter or Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior – Ictys.
- There is also symbolism surrounding Jesus Christ and fish in the New Testament such as the story of him feeding 5,000 people with just two fishes and four loaves of bread.
- Christ also frequently calls his disciples “the fishers of men”, in regards to their task of “fishing out” more followers of Christ out of the Jewish people.
- Water baptism was standard practice for the early Christians and was mostly done in rivers, which created another parallel between the followers of Christ and fishes.
A Hidden Symbol for A Hidden Religion
There were also practical reasons for the early Christians to adopt such a symbol for their religion. For the first few centuries after Christ’s crucifixion, Christians were persecuted all across the Roman Empire.
This forced the followers of Christ’s teachings to hide their beliefs and to gather in secret. So, as a fish symbol was something quite common for most other pagan religions at the time, the early Christians could use such a symbol relatively freely without arousing suspicion.
It’s known, for example, that Christians would mark the entrances of their gathering spaces with the fish symbol so that newcomers would know where to go.
Christians on the road would also have a simple “greetings” ritual to confirm their religion to each other – one of the two strangers would draw the first arc of the Ichthys fish nonchalantly as if just doodling in the sand. If the second stranger finished the symbol by drawing the other line, then the two would know that they are in safe company. Should the second stranger not finish the drawing, however, the first would pretend the arc didn’t mean anything and continue to hide his Christian faith to avoid persecution.
The Fish and The Cross Through the Ages
Once the persecution of Christians ceased and Christianity instead turned into the main religion of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, Christians adopted the cross as their new religious symbol. This was during the 4th century AD as Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity in 312 AD.
The acceptance of the cross meant a few things for the Ichthys fish.
First, the symbol no longer needed to be used in secrecy as Christians didn’t need to hide anymore. Secondly, the presence of a new symbol that was much more directly associated with Jesus Christ meant that the fish became a secondary symbol for the religion.
The pagan “feel” of the fish also likely didn’t help, whereas the cross was an entirely new symbol for Christianity. Granted, there were other cross-like pagan symbols before the Christian cross too, such as the Egyptian Ankh symbol. Yet, the fact that Jesus Christ was crucified on a Roman cross made it much more potent as Christianity’s main symbol.
The Ichthys fish remained an important symbol for the religion with many Christians still associating it with Jesus Christ even if some don’t know exactly what it means.
The Ichthys Fish Christian Symbol in Today’s Culture
Not only did the Jesus fish not fade away from history but it actually had a resurgence as a symbol of modern Christianity during the 1970s. The fish – both with the ΙΧΘΥΣ letters within it and without – became especially popular among Christians who wanted to be “witnessed”.
Whereas the cross chain or the rosary are things most Christian carry around their necks, the Ichthys fish is usually displayed as a car sticker or an emblem to be as visible as possible. Some Christians frown at this use of the symbol and at its overall commercialization but others view it as a sort of “stamp” of “true Christians”.
Neither side sees such disagreements as something that’d tarnish the symbol’s meaning. Instead, people today just disagree about its use.
The Ichthys fish is one of the oldest symbols of Christianity – centuries older than the cross. As such, it is deeply important for many Christians today. Arguably, its historical significance is even greater than the cross, as the symbol was crucial for the very survival of early Christianity.