The fish was a symbol of Christianity used by the early church. It consisted of two arcs, one inverted, the two then brought together to form the symbolic outline of a fish. Inside the fish image are often inscribed in Greek, the letters ΙΧΘΥΣ (all caps). This is icthus, the Greek word for fish. It is also an acronym for Ιησους Χριστος Θεου Υιος Σωτηρ, which is transliterated Iesous Kristos Theou Huios Soter, and in English it means Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.
An oft quoted source for this information comes from the second and third century Christian apologist, Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, simply known today as Tertullian: “But we, little fishes, after the example of our ΙΧΘΥΣ, Jesus Christ, are born in water [through baptism]…” 1
An apologist, of course, is not someone who goes around apologizing to others about something. An apologist is a person who argues to defend or justify some policy or institution. An apologist may defend a faith, doctrine, idea, or action in speech or writing. A Christian apologist is a person who argues to defend or justify Christianity in speech or writing.
The fish symbol may have been adopted for one or more of several reasons. Jesus told Peter and Andrew to follow Him and He would make them “fishers of men.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated that as Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and nights, so would He be in the grave for three days and nights. Jesus fed the multitude with loaves and fishes. Any of these occurrences could have inspired this symbol. Or, perhaps it was simply the acrostic ΙΧΘΥΣ (fish) that inspired the symbol. During the persecutions of the early church, Christians used this symbol to covertly identify themselves to other Christians. Thus they could determine if others were enemies of friends. A Roman official might not associate the symbol with Christianity.
According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the use of the symbol gradually died out. It was revived in the 1970s and has grown in popularity since. Today it is a prevalent symbol of Christians in books, in magazines, on clothing, bumper stickers, in business ads, and logos.
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- On Baptism, Tertullian, Chapter 1, circa AD 193, translated by the Rev. S. Thelwall, 1885, Westleigh, Devon, UK ↩