THE EARLY CHRISTIAN SYMBOLS OF THE OCTAGON AND THE FISH

Beneath the watchtower of the Megiddo Prison in modern Israel an archaeological excavation has revealed the site of the headquarters of the Roman army of the Sixth (Ferrata) and Second (Traiana) Legions who occupied the Holy Land, assuring Roman domination of the provinces of Judea and Samaria.  Excavators have discovered courtyards, large ritual baths, a bakery, alleyways, living quarters and most important, a Christian meeting hall that may be the earliest Christian church discovered in the Holy Land.  Archaeologists date the site to circa 230AD.  It is one of very few Christian churches which dates to before the Edict of Milan in 313AD when the Roman Empire officially recognized Christianity as an approved religion protected by the Roman state.  What makes this site especially unique is that it was established as a place of Christian worship by Roman soldiers and their families who lived in the local community.

The church building is a modest 16 feet by 32 feet, but within its walls several significant finds have cast light upon the rituals of Christians in the earliest centuries of the Universal Church.  At the end of the hall two monolithic pilasters protrude several from the back wall.  These structures were the bases for a central arch framing the focal point of the Sanctuary, and just under the missing arch two rectangular stone supports were discovered firmly anchored into the stone floor of the hall.  These supports were undoubtedly the base for the Eucharistic table, the tapeza, where the offering of the bread and the wine were miraculously transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. 

Archaeologists have a good idea that they are correct in their interpretation of these structures which formed the altar area from the earlier discoveries of several liturgical tables found in the excavations of early Christian churches in North African.  The most impressive find, however, at Megiddo was a beautiful mosaic floor, a story in stone which reveals the purpose of the sacred space.  At each of the four sides of the mosaic, which at one time framed what was the altar, there are mosaic panels.   Two sides the panels consist of geometric designs but on the front and back, which are the north and south sides, there are inscriptions written in Greek.  On what would have been the back side of the altar (south side) the rectangle contains two inscriptions which face each other.  The first inscription is a memorial inscription naming four women, an indication of the importance of women in the early Church.  The second inscription identifies the donor of the mosaic as a Roman officer, a centurion named Gaianus identified as "our brother" indication he was a Christian member of the congregation.  The inscription also includes the name of the artisan who carried out the work. The third inscription, in front of where the altar stood, clearly identifies that the empty space was the Eucharistic table of the Lord Jesus.  The inscription reads: The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to God Jesus Christ as a memorial, identifying the altar as a gift of a woman named Akeptous'another indication of the influential role women played in the early years of the Church.  The mosaic on the north side contains not only the dedication inscription but also an elegant rectangle which encloses 8 smaller rectangles and rhombuses forming an intricate internal 8 sided, octagon-shaped design.

For Jews 8 was the number which symbolized salvation, rebirth and regeneration: 8 members of Noah's family were saved in the time of the Great Flood and it was on the 8th day of his life that a boy child was circumcised, signifying his entrance into the covenant family of Israel, the chosen people of God.  But for early Christians 8 was the number which symbolized the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the formation of the New Covenant.  Jesus was raised on the day after the 7th day, which was the Sabbath, making Jesus Resurrection on the 8th day, Sunday, which was the first day of the week and the day of the New Creation just as the old Creation also began on what is the first day of the week.  It is for this reason that Christian churches built during the Byzantine period were 8-sided structures.  The rediscovery of the ruins of St. Peter's house in Capernaum was verified by the identification of a central room used for Christian worship which was reconfigured as an 8-sided room. The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the significance of the number 8 for Christians in article # 349: The eighth day.  But for us a new day has dawned: the day of Christ's Resurrection.  The seventh day completes the first creation.  The eight day begins the new creation.  Thus, the work of creation culminates in the greater work of redemption.  The first creation finds its meaning and its summit in the new creation in Christ, the splendor of which surpasses that of the first creation.

However, there is more symbolic imagery in addition to the elaborate octagon shaped decoration in the mosaic in front of the space where the Roman Christian altar stood.  Within the center of the octagon design there is a circular medallion and in the center of the medallion are two fish facing in opposite directions.  The location of the mosaic with the two fish directly in front of the altar, which for Christians represents the empty tomb, the altar of sacrifice and the table of the Last Supper, probably means the figures of the fish symbolized the two fish in the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 [see John 6:1-13], an event which prefigured the Eucharistic banquet.

Christians saw the sign of the fish as a symbol associated with Jesus Christ.  The Greek word for "fish" is formed from 5 Greek letters: I, Ch, Th, Y, and S. For Christians the letters of this Greek word formed an acrostic using the words Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, expressing the core of the Christian faith: "Jesus Christ God's Son Savior, and yielding, through the use of each first letter of the words in the phrase, the Greek word for "fish".  Fish and fishing appears like a reoccurring melody in the symphony of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry.  The Apostles Peter, Andrew, James and John Zebedee were all fisherman.  There are also frequent references to either catching or eating fish in the four Gospels, for example the miracle of the huge catch of fish which preceded St. Peter's call to apostleship in Luke 5:4-7, Jesus' miracle in which the coin to pay Peter and Jesus' Temple tax was found inside a fish in Matthew 17:24-27, and there was the miraculous feeding of the 5 thousand (and later the four thousand) in Matthew 14:16-21, Mark 6:38-44, Luke 9:12-17, and John 6:5-13.  Jesus even used fish and fishing as a metaphor for the Church's universal evangelical outreach when He announced to His disciples that He would make them "fishers of men" in Mark 1:17.     There were also the after the Resurrection events in which fish placed a role including the fish Jesus ate to prove to His disciples that He was a fully resurrected man and not a ghost in Luke 24:41-42, the miraculous catch of 153 fish on the shores of the Galilee and the meal of the fish He grilled and ate with His Apostles afterward.  But it is also significant that the Greek word "ichthys" contains 5 Greek letters.  The number 5 in Hebrew tradition symbolized God's infinite grace. It was the perfect "secret" symbol of early Christians, not as obvious and dangerous as the use of the cross, a symbol which began to appear in the 5th century AD, and the fish symbol was useful in identifying other Christians or in locating a secret site for the celebration of the Eucharist. 

Evidence of the use of the fish as an early Christian symbol is still found in the catacombs beneath the streets of the modern city of Rome.  Wall decorations in the mid second century catacomb of St. Callistus and the catacombs of Priscilla from the second and third centuries, depict the Eucharistic celebration with fish and a basket of bread.  Evidence is also found in the writings of the Fathers of the Church that the fish symbol was used by early Christians.  St. Clement of Alexandria (150-211AD) advised Christians to have either a dove or a fish engraved on their seals [Clement, Paedagogus].  Another Church Father, the Roman lawyer turned priest and Catholic apologist, Tertullian (155-230AD) referred to Jesus' followers as "little fishes."  In his treatise On Baptism, Tertullian referred to those who pass through the waters of Christian baptism as "little fishes" who are "born in water", just like their "fish" Jesus Christ [On Baptism 1,1].

Today, along with other of our important Christian symbols, many modern Catholics have forgotten the symbolism of the fish and the significance of the octagon.  These were Christian symbols born in a period of Christian persecution and faithful perseverance, but these symbols remain for us today, just as they were for our brothers and sisters in Christ who completed their salvation journeys centuries ago, symbols of faith and hope in the promised resurrection, faith in the mercy of God, and faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, God's Son (and our) Savior!

Michal Hunt, The Feast of the Lord's Ascension

May 17, 2007

For more information of the discovery at Megiddo see "Early Christian Prayer Hall found in Megiddo Prison", Biblical Archaeology Review, March /April,  2007, pages 38-49.

 

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