What is the meaning of the Christian fish symbol (ixthus / icthus)?
The Christian fish symbol, called the ichthys or ichthus, or sometimes ixthus, has two parts: the double line which forms the profile of a fish, and an acrostic made up of the first letters of five Greek words. Both the fish symbol and the acrostic had meaning to the early church, and still hold meaning for Christians today.
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The fish was meaningful to Christians because of the numerous accounts from Jesus' life involving fish. Several of Jesus' disciples were fishermen—notably the brothers Peter and Andrew, to whom Jesus said "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19; Mark 1:17). Jesus also fed five thousand people with five small loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:17). He compared the kingdom of heaven to a net that is thrown into the sea and gathers fish of many kinds (Matthew 13:47). After His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples in bodily form, and made them breakfast—bread and pieces of grilled fish (John 21:9–14). It is clear why these men would associate the fish symbol with the Lord.
The early church was hotly persecuted, and so, in an effort to minimize casualties, they covertly communicated via this fish symbol. If a house was friendly to Christians, for example, it might have a fish on the doorframe. Another way to have covertly identified oneself as a believer when meeting someone new was to draw a half circle or arc in the dirt or sand. If the other person was not a believer, then the person was observed to be drawing in the dirt. If the other person happened to be a believer, they would complete the fish symbol in the dirt (with a stick, one person draws the arc, then the other person uses the same starting point, but draws an upside down arc, thus making a complete IXTHUS symbol). Thus two believers would then have the fellowship of knowing each believed in IXTHUS.
The fish symbol is often accompanied by an acrostic of Greek letters—the first five letters of five Greek words: Iesous, Greek for "Jesus"; Christos, Greek for "anointed"; Theou, Greek for "God's"; uios, Greek for "Son"; and sōtēr, Greek for "Savior". Together, this spells ICTHUS, which as an acrostic means "Jesus Christ, God's Son, the Savior."
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