Last week I read a fascinating article by Mike Parsons of Baylor University on ‘Exegesis “By the Numbers”: Numerology and the New Testament.’ It gives an overview of some of the ways that numbers features in the composition of the text. Some are well-known, but a good number were new to me. For example, apart from the large number of occurrences of the number seven (88 times), seven also serves as a structuring principle:
- John’s gospel begins and ends with a series of seven days (which you have to count).
- John 2.13–11 is organised around seven events which demonstrate that Jesus both fulfils and supersedes Jewish worship.
- There are seven ‘I am’ sayings in John.
- The genealogy in Matt 1 is structured around 14 = 7 x 2 generations.
- The opening narrative of Matt 1-4 contains seven fulfillments of Scripture by Jesus (1:22-23; 2:5-6, 15, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14).
- Matthew 13 is a collection of seven parables about the kingdom of heaven.
- Matthew 23 is a collection of seven woes.
- In Rom 3: 10–18, Paul quotes seven Old Testament passages that have been collected together to prove the charge that both Jews and Gentiles are under sin.
It is worth noting that these observations are quite different from two other ways of including numerology in exegesis. The third century Saint Methodius of Olympus wrote a treatise on virginity, in which he comments on Revelation, and interprets the 1260 days of Rev 12 as a sign of the Trinity (1000 = the Father, 100 + 100 = the two natures of the Son, and 60 = the Spirit). This is imposing a numerological scheme on the text rather than observing what the author might have been thinking of. Another way of using numerology is to demonstrate the ‘divine authorship’ of the scriptures by finding numerical patterns across difference books, often including reference to chapter and verse numbers. One of the most popular here the often-repeated assertion that Ps 118.8 is the middle verse of the Bible—which it isn’t. All these kinds of theories fail to recognise that the chapter and verse numbering was not part of the original composition of the text, but a much later addition.
By contrast, Parsons recognises that numerical composition reflects the importance of numerological symbolism to the ancient writers. He quotes Francois Bovon of Harvard and Adela Collins of Yale:
It is my hypothesis that the early Christians used the categories of ‘name’ and ‘number’ as theological tools. Often they consciously interpreted names and numbers in a symbolic way. (Bovon)
Numerical symbolism is part of the activity of discovering order in environment and experience . . . . First, [numerical symbolism] is used to order the experience of time . . . . Numerical symbolism also expresses order in the experience of space. The perception of such order is expressed in the Greek idea of the cosmos. (Collins).
This is expressed even in the composition of the NT canon. Have you ever noticed that we have Pauline letters to seven churches (Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians) and four letters to individuals (Titus, 1 and 2 Timothy, Philemon)? (It looks as though part of the reason for the inclusion of Hebrews in early text collections was to make up the total number of these ‘Pauline’ letters to 14.) And that there are seven ‘catholic’ epistles (1 and 2 Peter; 1, 2, and 3 John; James; Jude)?
Numbers in the text are also connected with gematria or isopsephism, the numerical evaluation of words (in a world without a separate number system). Parsons notes the unusual occurrence of the number 18, only three times in the NT, all three times in Luke, and two of them in a unique repetition of a period of illness (Luke 13.11, 16; the third occurrence is Luke 13.4, the number who died when the tower of Siloam fell). The odd thing about this repetition is that the second time the number is spelt out differently. In 13.11 we have the word dekaokto, but in 13.16 it is expressed as deka kai onto. Parsons cites other early texts to demonstrate that Luke is connecting the healing of the crippled woman with the name of Jesus. The common manuscript abbreviation (the nomen sacrum) consists of the first two letters of Jesus’ name, whose numerical values add up to 18.
Parsons’ study includes an interpretation of the 153 fish in John 21 and the 276 people in the ship in Acts 27—but I will leave you to read about these for yourself. Although these kinds of observations seem very strange to the modern reader—since we would not treat words and numbers in this way or with this significance—this is all part of disciplined, critical reading of the text. All we are doing here is reading the texts in the ways in which the author and his (her) first readers themselves would have done.
On the subject of word frequencies, Richard Bauckham has long been an advocate of the importance of word frequencies and patterns in reading Revelation. (Steve Moyise offered a critique of his approach in a 2005 paper, but I haven’t found Moyise’ objections persuasive). Apart from contributing to the meaning of Revelation and shaping our interpretation of it, these word frequencies can also in passing shed light on the vexed question of whether Revelation is a unity or a collection of originally disparate texts.
Some years ago, I mapped words with special frequencies against the compositional units proposed by David Aune in his Word commentary—and found there was no correlation whatever. (Click on the chart to see a larger version).
This tells us that, if Revelation was originally composite, it has been so thoroughly edited that all trace of the original components has now been lost to us.
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