Sages and Fishes

Sages and Fishes

Pythagoras’ miracle of the fish

I have been re-reading ancient accounts of the life of Pythagoras and was struck by a story about a miracle he performed regarding fish. Porphyry, a Neo-Platonic philosopher, recounts this story in the context of others which speak of the sage’s ability to commune with animals (e.g. petting a bear and convincing it not to be violent anymore §23, convincing an Ox not to eat beans §24, and stroking an Eagle at the Olympic games after it lands on him §25). The tale goes as follows:

“Meeting with some fishermen who were drawing in their nets heavily laden with fishes from the deep, he predicted the exact number of fish they had caught. The fishermen said that if his estimate was accurate they would do whatever he commanded. They counted them accurately, and found the number correct. He then bade them to return the fish alive into the sea and, what is more wonderful, not one of them died, although they had been out of the water a considerable time §25.”[1]

Similarly, Iamblichus recounts:

“At that time also, when he was journeying from Sybaris to Crotona, he met near the shore with some fishermen, who were then drawing their nets heavily laden with fishes from the deep and told them he knew the exact number of the fish they had caught. But the fishermen promising they would perform whatever he should order them to do, if the event corresponded with his prediction, he ordered them, after they had accurately numbered the fish, to return them alive to the sea: and what is yet more wonderful, not one of the fish died while he stood on the shore, though they had been detained from the water a considerable time. Having therefore paid the fishermen the price of their fish, he departed for Crotona.”[2]

This story of Pythagoras and the fish reminded me of similar stories about another famous religious teacher. Jesus is said to have performed many miracles related to fish, but two in particular run parallel to the story of Pythagoras.

Jesus’ Miracles of the Fish

The first legend that runs parallel to that of Pythagoras concerns the calling of the fisherman Simon Peter recounted in Luke 5:1-11. It goes as follows:

One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him. (NIV).

The second tale of fish again concerns Peter, only this time it recounts his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the sea shore in John 21: 1-14.

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee. It happened this way: Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus.He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered.He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread.10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead (NIV).


It is has become a common trope in debates between fundamentalist Christians and atheists in the US to note that legends of Jesus’ life and miracles parallel those of other sages in important ways. Atheists argue that this is proof that early Christianity merely adopted the myths popular in its day, and that, if fundamentalists are to reject these other pagan myths, they must also reject those of the Bible. Fundamentalists respond by trying to argue that the stories of Jesus are unique in important aspects or that pagan legends somehow actually stole their stories from early Christianity. I will not try to enter into this familiar debate here. Instead, I want to examine an overlooked question: what is the ideal of sagehood presented in these legends?

In the case of Pythagoras, the story emphasizes his keen, almost mystical, intellect by which he can accurately assess the number of a great haul of fish just by looking at them. And, more importantly, it tells us that the sage is concerned with the well being of other living creatures. Instead of asking for honors, food, or money, Pythagoras requests as his reward that the fish should be returned to the ocean. And the major miracle that he works is that the fish remain alive throughout this ordeal and can return to their home in the waters. In Iamblichus’ story, Pythagoras is even concerned with the well being of the fishers, since he pays them for the catch they have lost.

Things stand differently in the stories of Jesus. On the model of sagehood that Christ embodies, the sage’s chief concern appears to be that one devote oneself entirely to the sage and work tirelessly to bring him more followers. Note first that the substance of Jesus’ miracles is not to save the fish, but to shock and awe his audience at the quantities killed. In Luke’s story, the fishermen have not been able to catch anything all night, but, upon following Jesus’ command, they make such a monstrous haul that the nets begin to break and the boats begin to sink. One might argue that Jesus’ concern was perhaps not with the fish, but with feeding the hungry with those fish. Yet this does not seem to be the case. The result of the tale is that Peter comes to declare that he is a sinful man (5:8), that Jesus pronounces Peter will from now on be a fisher of men (5:9), and that Peter, James, and John leave everything (including the fish they just caught) to follow Jesus (5:11). The same holds for the story in John. Peter had previously been unable to catch fish, but in following the command of Jesus he catches a great number of them, a number so massive that the nets would have torn if not for a miracle. The purpose of the catch is for the disciples to recognize Christ and see that he is not a ghost, since he can eat flesh with them. Again, the miracle concerns the great number of fish killed at Jesus command and the disciples’ recognition of Jesus’ greatness. Furthermore, this recognition entails a demand to leave all to follow Jesus absolutely. After this story of  the fish, Jesus gives Peter a strange interrogation when he asks Peter three times whether he loves him, and concludes by saying “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me! (John 21:18-19 NIV).” These diverging legends of sages and fishes thus present us with two contrasting models of sagehood. On the first, the sage has compassion for the living creatures of the world and does his best to help them. On the other, the sage is concerned with his own glory and that his disciples follow him absolutely, even unto death. Fundamentalist Christians should, I presume, accept this characterization, since, for them, Jesus is the incarnation of the creator God recounted in the stories of the Old Testament. Jesus, like that tribal deity, is a jealous God demanding complete obedience. Nonetheless, it is worth asking which model of sagehood we should aspire to? Which, for example, is more compassionate? Which wiser? Which more divine? To quote the character of Jesus himself “Ye shall know them by their fruits (Matt. 7:16).”

[1] Porphyry, The Life of Pythagoras, trans. Guthrie.

[2] Iamblichus, Pythagoric Life, chapter 8, trans. Taylor.

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