Clericus anglicanus stupor mundi, as they used to say. And certainly, in their sermons at least, the clergy of our own day can be pretty stupifying. Faced with the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C (with its puzzling haul of one hundred and fifty three fishes) a priest of my acquaintance decided to give her congregation the benefit of an explanation.
Why does John report so precise a number? In all probability because the number was significant, though what its significance was is hard now to determine. Speculation has been rife and inventive down the ages. Hoskyns and Davey observe that it is the sum of the first seventeen of the natural numbers – but without explaining why that is significant.
Origen (always quick with an arcane solution to an insoluble problem) sees it as an allusion to the Sacred Trinity: fifty, multiplied by three, plus three. (But he does not explain why fifty.) Jerome (always more down to earth) claims that it is an allusion to the belief that there existed one hundred and fifty three species of fish, and the catch was parabolic of the Church’s universal mission.
Our preacher was spoilt for choice, but selected none of these. She turned from well-trodden pathways to a remoter source: Margaret Starbird. The title of Starbird’s best-known book The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail probably tells you all you need to know about her. But the blurb helpfully spells it out.
Margaret Starbird’s theological beliefs were profoundly shaken when she read Holy Blood and Holy Grail, a book that dared to suggest that Jesus Christ was married to Mary Magdalen, and that their descendents carried on the blood line in Western Europe. Shocked by such heresy, this Roman Catholic scholar set out to refute it, but instead found new and compelling evidence for the existence of the bride of Jesus...
In this provocative book Starbird draws her conclusions from an extensive study of history, heraldry, medieval art, mythology, psychology and the Bible itself. The Woman with the Alabaster Jar is a quest for the forgotten feminine – in the hope that its return will help restore a healthy balance to planet earth.
Yes, you guessed it: 153 is a numerical encryption for feminism’s own star bird! A review of the book explains: ‘Starbird finds the solution through analyzing the gematria value of the full Greek epithet, transliterated in English as h magdalhnh. The numerical value of the name is 153.’
How all this fits with the miraculous draft in John 21 is by no means made clear. But you guessed it again: our preacher explained to her congregation that the New Testament was once littered with references to the women who were most closely connected with Jesus.
A subsequent patriarchal conspiracy has removed all but the most skilfully encoded. That would, no doubt, be the same patriarchal conspiracy which removed all reference to female commanders from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, and the biographies of countless leading ladies from Plutarch’s lives.
Clericus anglicanus stupor mundi. The preacher in question trained at St Stephen’s House.
(Originally published in the July 2010 edition of New Directions.)