What Does "Ichthys" Mean?

"Those who ling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You. What I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!"

- Jonah 2:8-9

Greek: (ἸΧΘΥΣ / Fish)

Pronounced in English: -Ich·​thys | \ ˈIkthə̇s \

History and the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ came into the world claiming to be the Son of God (meaning God Himself, as the Deity) with the ability to forgive the sins of mankind and to reconcile our relationship with Himself, the living God of the universe. He had predicted that He would suffer a wrongful death at the hands of the political (Roman) and religious (Jewish) authorities. He also stated that He would rise from the dead after such an execution.

He subsequently suffered death wrongly as He predicted in approximately AD 30. Three days later, He was raised from the dead as He had said and was seen alive by hundreds of witnesses.  His coming back to life after His death validated both His prediction and His claim of being God incarnate (the living Deity).

As stated previously, His purpose was to restore the relationship between Himself (God) and mankind. This was accomplished by Him receiving the penalty of our sins and offering us the gift of forgiveness, if we receive that gift. When His death and resurrection from the dead was completed, He instructed those that were following Him at the time to tell others about this gift of reconciliation with God. Those that followed Him were called Christians, or “little Christs” and term was insulting and used in a pejorative manner.

So what does all of that have to do with “Ichthys”?

Though some of the history for the meaning of the word Ichthys and its symbol is incomplete, there are several things that we do know. The word “Ichthys” has its root in Greek and means “Fish”. (For example, we have the science of Ichthyology which is the study of fish.)  However, the common usage of the word today stems from the early followers of Jesus.

Both the Roman and Jewish authorities persecuted the early Christians for claiming that Jesus was God. Until the fourth century, Christianity was illegal throughout the vast Roman empire. If the Romans discovered that someone would not worship the emperor as the deity, but rather they were found to be worshiping Someone else, it was considered a capital crime that was punishable by death. Normally the death sentence was carried out in a variety of brutal and torturous means – sometimes fed to the lions, sometimes bait for the gladiators, sometimes even being lit on fire and used as a torch in the emperor’s garden. Of course, the most brutal and torturous death was that of crucifixion, and that was sometimes completed upside down. The Jewish authorities also found it deeply offensive for anyone to claim that Jesus was the Messiah (the Jewish word for “the Anointed One”) and, likewise, treated it as a capital offense.

Given these threatening circumstances, the early Christians needed to devise a means of identifying each other without exposing themselves to the authorities.  If a person was a Christian and met someone that they suspected might also be a believer in Jesus Christ as Lord, they would draw the first arc of the “fish” in the sand or dirt.  If the other person was also a believer in Jesus, they would then complete the “fish” by drawing the opposing arc. If the other person was not a believer, then nothing else would happen and no suspicion would be raised.

There was also a need to identify secret meeting places where the Christians could safely gather and worship Jesus Christ, the Savior of sinful men. This symbol was often used to mark special meeting places for the Christian community to gather, sometimes in people’s homes, or at a secret location in a forest or cave, but frequently in the very catacombs (burial caves) under the city.  In fact, many of the ancient catacombs in Rome still bear the Christian fish mark.

Thus, the invention of the “Christian Fish” or the “Ichthys” was born.

In the Greek alphabet, the word “Ichthys” is spelled ΙΧΘΥΣ (Iota, Chi, Theta, Upsilon, Sigma). It is believed that the early Christian community saw a Greek acronym in the very word “Ichthys” and ascribed meaning to each letter as follows:

Greek Letter Greek Work in Acroym English Translation
I - Iota Iesous Jesus
X - Chi Christos Christ
Ø - Theta Theou God
Y - Upsilon Yidos/Huios Son
Σ - Sigma Soter Savior

It would have been interpreted as “Jesus Christ, of God, Son, Savior” or as we would say it, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior”.

In 312 AD, amid an interfamily dispute and various competing factions in the Roman authority, Constantine returned to Italy, invaded Rome, and ascended to the Emperor’s throne. Following his successful campaign, he subsequently legalized Christianity. Though Christianity was not officially the state religion, since the new emperor permitted it (and some historical records indicate that he may possibly have even been a believer in Jesus Christ’s claims as well), many people followed their new leader and Christianity became an openly practiced faith.

Even though the Christian community no longer needed to keep their identity a secret under this new government, the “Fish” symbol remained a part of the Christian community ever since.  It is often used in Christian art and is found in churches, schools, businesses, automobiles, and elsewhere as a symbol of the Christian faith.