|Was the Christian fish symbol pagan in origin?|
Our piece this time is a little unusual. It's not a defense of a Biblical matter, but of a later Christian symbol; and thus also it is not as scholarly in orientation, but is written somewhat tongue in cheek.
A couple of recent inquirers asked me to look into claims made that the famous Christian "fish" symbol found its source in pagan religious symbolism. The following claims are taken froman atheistic site (the link is now defunct), but I have seen them repeated in other places, including a Satanist discussion board. The claims, which usually find their root in Barbara Walker's Women's Dictionary of Symbols and Sacred Objects (a fountain of misinformation if there ever was one, but we'll save that for later) are that the fish predated Christianity as a religious symbol, and that Christians merely copied it. Among the alleged sources:
The article concludes that the church "appropriated the metaphors of earlier pagan religions, grafting them into its own account of the creation and beyond..."
Now after some time now of addressing similar claims, I hardly need to put any scholarly weight on these arguments, even if they are all true (which I will simply assume for the sake of argument, that they are). The standard story on our side is that the fish symbol for Christians found its origins, independently, in the theme of Jesus' disciples as "fishers of men" and that the Greek word for "fish" made an acronym that spelled out a title for Jesus Christ. So what, then, of all of these paganist claims?
"So what?" indeed. That's really all the reply that is deserved. Is any genetic link demonstrated here? In other words, is there any evidence given of the disciples of Jesus going to (say) India, seeing this use of a fish, and copying it or "appropriating the metaphors" for that matter (I.e., where in Christianity is that fish vested with sexual symbolism, for example? Sorry, if you happen to find any syncretism by 3rd-century pagans, that doesn't count.) Is a "fishlike deity," etc. a valid parallel to the use of the fish as a non-deified symbol? Is it shown that the fish depicted was the same essential design; i.e., simply two curved lines intersecting?
In other words, do these claims really mean a thing at all? No, they don't. All the argument does is say, "Here's a fish. There's a fish. The later must be a copy of the earlier." That's not an argument, that's a blatant and baseless assumption without any detailed data-backup. Let's bring the point home with a modern analogy.
In one of our articles I jokingly asked if Exxon or Frosted Flakes ought to be charged with copycatting because both used a tiger. Little did I know that this was an actual issue (of sorts) the past few years. Kellogg's actually did sue Exxon over the use of their cartoon tiger. The gist of what happened is this. Kellogg's tiger debuted in 1952; Exxon's tiger debuted in 1964. Exxon within the last few years had adopted a more cartoony look for their tiger in coordination with selling things in convenience stores.
Kellogg's cried foul, alleging that consumers (yes, they really think you are this dumb) would confuse the trademarks. (Though it is not, as one Exxon rep said, as though people were going into stores asking for Kellogg's gasoline or Exxon cereal.)
Note that the issue here wasn't even that Kellogg's thought that Exxon stole (copycatted) the tiger. No one charged that; their charge was along the lines that Exxon should have checked trademarks more carefully. So now ask this: Would the average ancient consumer of religion been "confused" by the Christian use of the fish? Would they have looked at it and seen an appropriation of a symbol from another religion, and vested it with the wrong meaning?
Now if you are normal, you are sharing with me the conception that Kellogg's has had its head under the milk a little too long. But personally, if I were Kellogg's, I would hire a copycat theorist as my attorney and really get on the case of a few people, notably:
The point of all of this is to say: animal figures are common motifs and are no one's intellectual property in and of themselves, because animals are a part of universal experience. Christians had every right to select a fish as a symbol, and it is irrelevant who used it previously and how; and it is doubtful if anyone but the most stupid (as Kellogg's supposes of you, the consumer!) would have made anything extraordinary, or assumed a "pagan connection," by Christian use of the fish.
Even if the Christians know of these other uses (or cared -- either of which is doubtful), they invested the fish with meaning germane to their own faith. (Interestingly, one complaint from the ACLU argued exactly from the opposite perspective -- that the fish is a uniquely Christian symbol. Maybe the ACLU needs some help from Walker as well.)
The "copycat" claims (like all we have seen) are without genetic foundation, and are meaningless; and it is not as though Christians would have to (or care to) scour the ancient trademark records to make sure they found an original symbol, or that they had to say, "Darn, we can't use the fish, the Great Mother already did." The fish in other places symbolized fertility. For Christians it symbolized salvation and evangelism. Are critics who use these arguments as silly as Kellogg's in not seeing that the difference here is all the difference, and that the similarities mean nothing? A historian 2000 years from now with gaps in the record might claim a theft by Exxon -- but they'd be wrong!
Personally, I'm waiting for Berkley Breathed of Bloom County fame to sue Linux for infringing on Opus.