The Bible is full of numbers — how many rivers flowed out of the Garden of Eden (4), the length, in cubits, of the walls of Solomon's temple (60), how many souls will be "sealed" in the Second Coming (144,000), etc.
But what are we to make of all of those numbers? Do we take them at face value or invest them with mystical significance?
The Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who lived in the sixth century B.C.E., was the first to teach that numbers themselves had meaning beyond counting and calculating. Numbers were esoteric symbols with divine significance. Both Jewish and later Christian readers of the Bible took inspiration from Pythagoras and attempted to derive mystical meanings from numbers using all manner of creative methods, writes John Davis, author of "Biblical Numerology: A Basic Study of the Use of Numbers in the Bible."
For example, in both the Hebrew and Greek languages, letters and words also have numerical values. Since there were no Arabic numerals back then (1, 2, 3, etc.), numbers were written out with letters. In Greek, alpha is 1, beta is 2 and so on. What this means is that you can take any word from the original Greek New Testament and turn it into a number. Or take any number and turn it into a word.
In Hebrew, the practice of assigning symbolic meaning to the numerical values of words is called gematria and was popular with kabbalists and Jewish mystics. In Greek, it's called isopsephy and was a favorite technique employed by Christian gnostics searching for deeper meaning in the New Testament.
Today, these practices survive as "biblical numerology," the popular belief that God reveals hidden meanings through the numbers written in the Bible. There are countless websites and books devoted to decoding divine mysteries by deploying creative math on Bible verses.
Serious scholars of the Bible are quick to dismiss numerology as a playful lark, but not as a legitimate way of interpreting scripture or grasping spiritual truths. Davis, a believing Christian who wrote the aforementioned book on biblical numerology, concluded that "the whole system must be rejected as a valid form of exegesis [critical interpretation of the Bible]" and that "such interpretations are purely artificial and arbitrary and have no place in Christian theology."
That said, certain biblical numbers are hard to ignore, especially those that recur with frequency (7, 12, 40) and numbers invested with centuries of symbolism (666!). So let's see what we can figure out about the symbolism and significance of the most famous biblical numbers.
7: The Ancient 'Perfection'
Even the naysayer Davis has to admit that of all the numbers mentioned in the Bible, 7 is clearly symbolic and likely the most sacred. And it wasn't only the ancient Israelite authors of the Bible that felt that way. Davis writes that cuneiform texts from the Sumerians and the Babylonians confirm that across the Ancient Near East the number 7 meant totality, completeness and perfection.
The number 7 appears more than 600 times in the Bible, but here are some of the most significant mentions:
- God rested from Creation on the seventh day
- Jacob labored seven years to win the hand of Rachel
- In Joseph's time, Egypt suffered seven years of plenty and seven years of famine
- God commanded the Israelites to eat unleavened bread for seven days in memory of the exodus from Egypt
- Naaman, suffering from leprosy, was told to dip in the Jordan River seven times
- The apocalyptic book of Revelation is loaded with sevens, including: seven churches, seven seals, seven angels, seven trumpets, seven golden bowls, seven stars, seven hills, etc.
As a sign of the spiritual significance of 7, many people cite the poignant exchange in Matthew 18:22, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother. Peter asks, "As many as seven times?" And Jesus responds, "Not seven times, but seventy-seven times" or "seventy times seven" in some translations. Here, the idea is that Jesus uses these large multiples of 7 to show that forgiveness should be as "complete" and "perfect" as the number itself and that there was no limit on how many times someone should be forgiven.
12: The Number of Authority
Like 7, the number 12 seems to be imbued with special meaning by the authors of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Jacob has 12 sons, for example, who go on to become the fathers of the 12 tribes of Israel.
When Jesus chose his disciples from among his early Jewish followers, it seems more than coincidental that he picked 12. Some interpret the number 12 as representing authority and governmental rule. So the 12 sons and the 12 apostles are symbols of authority both in ancient Israel and in the Christian church.
And again, the book of Revelation doubles down on the symbolism of 12, mentioning it 22 times in relation to the New Jerusalem that will descend to Earth after the Second Coming of Christ. In Revelation 7, the infamous 144,000 are "sealed" for salvation with 12,000 chosen from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. New Jerusalem will have 12 gates each manned by 12 angels, and the new city will be 12,000 furlongs squared.
40: Trials and Transformation
The number 40 is another recurring figure in the Bible and seems to be closely associated with times of trial and testing that lead to transformation.
When God commands Noah to build the ark, the rains flood the Earth for 40 days and 40 nights. When the Israelites are punished for lacking faith, they are forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 years before reaching the promised land. Moses went on a 40-day fast before he received the 10 commandments from God. And before Jesus was tempted by Satan, he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.
Some scholars note that 40 days in the Bible doesn't always mean 40 days literally, but may be a symbolic way of saying "a long time."
666: The Number of 'The Beast'
In Revelation 13:18, it reads: "Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is 666."
Of all of the numbers in the Bible, this one is just begging for mathematical speculation. And over the centuries, there have been endless attempts to use gematria and isopsephy (Hebrew and Greek number values) to calculate the true name of the "beast," also known as the "Antichrist."
The standard explanation is that the authors of Revelation were throwing shade on Nero, a ruthless Roman emperor who liked to martyr Christians. If you add up the values of "Caesar Nero" in Greek, you'll get 666. The same thing happens if you translate Caesar Nero to Hebrew as "Neron Kesar," where it also adds up to 666.
Since there are a lot of candidates for the antichrist, modern preachers have concocted mathematical equations identifying Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, even Pope Paul VI as the "beastly" 666.
The number 6 usually has a negative connotation in the Bible. For instance, Christ suffered on the cross for six hours and men were commanded to work six days a week in Exodus. In the Greek alphabet the number 6 is represented by a symbol called the "stigma."
Why 153 Fish?
In the Bible, there are numbers that are repeated often. But there are also numbers that only show up once. One of those is 153. In the New Testament, Jesus returns and visits his disciples after his death and resurrection. He tells his disciple Peter to cast his net into the water. When he drags it ashore, the bulging net contains 153 fish.
Why such a specific number? The number 153 has puzzled and intrigued Christian thinkers for centuries. St. Jerome, who lived in the fifth century C.E., said that a zoologist told him that there were exactly 153 species of fish in the world, so the meaning of the 153 fish was that there was room in the Church (the "net") for all of the races of mankind.
St. Augustine, a fan of Pythagoras, took a more mathematical approach. Augustine, writes Davis, believed that the number 17 represented "grace supervening upon the law," or the power of God's grace to save even the worst sinner. If you add up all of the numbers between 1 and 17 (1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13+14+15+16+17) it equals 153.
318 and Circumcision
Davis dismisses numerology as fooling around with numbers until they fit your theological worldview. The number 318 in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible is a great example of the mental gymnastics some religious thinkers have employed to back up their arguments.
New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman points to the Epistle of Barnabas, an early Christian text that wasn't ultimately included in the biblical canon. Erhman calls Barnabas a "virulently anti-Jewish book" that attacks, among other things, the Jewish practice of circumcision.
To make his point that circumcision was supplanted by Jesus Christ, the author of Barnabas focuses on Genesis 14 and the story of Abraham (then known as Abram) rescuing his nephew Lot from captivity. Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram. To defeat the enemy, the Bible tells us, Abraham brought an army of 318 trained (and circumcised) servants. Why 318?
Barnabas explains that 318 in Greek is written using letters tau-iota-eta, which is Τ-Ι-Η. The T-shaped letter tau, to Barnabas, is obviously a symbol of the cross. And I-H are the first two letters in the Greek spelling of Jesus, which is ΙΗΣΟΥΣ.
Barnabas uses this creative logic to conclude that Abraham, the father of circumcision, didn't save Lot through a "barbaric" practice of the Jews, but through Jesus Christ. The numbers don't lie!
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