Bold and clichéd, profound and kitschy, the Christian fish symbol has achieved international celebrity one bumper at a time. Its detractors have ridiculed the message by adorning their own bumpers with walking Darwin fish and "No god but Allah" sharks. Yet for many Christians, the rudimentary design remains one of the faith's most enduring and treasured symbols, second only to the cross.

Watery wordplay

Long before the fish swam the streams of metropolitan traffic jams, Greek and Roman pagans used the design to symbolize feminine fertility and deity. They created the fish symbol by interweaving two crescent moons, which is the heavenly body often associated with goddesses.

The fish's spawning as a Christian symbol during the first century is similarly esoteric. Using the Greek word for fish, Ichthys, the compilers of a collection of religious teachings called the Sibylline Oracles created an acrostic: Iesous Christos theou huios soter, or "Jesus Christ Son of God Savior." This acrostic is now commonly embedded in modern fish symbols.

The fish gained increased prominence when early church leaders, with eyes and ears tuned to allegory, promoted other creative usages. Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225) taught that just as water sustains fish, "We, little fishes, after the image of our Ichthys, Jesus Christ, are born in the water." This aquatic birth is baptism, God's promise of new life and sustaining power.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) believed the symbol suited Jesus well because "he was able to live … without sin in the abyss of this mortality as in the depth of waters."

Mark of the subversives

As persecution of Christians became more frequent and intense in the Roman Empire, the fish symbol became a password shared among underground ...

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