I have recently received this question about a very interesting and little known phenomenon in the New Testament.
What is the use of the concept of Gematria? And was it used in the NT?
Ah, the question is a bit tricky but pretty fascinating. Gematria was an ancient Jewish way of interpreting texts that relied on the fact that in ancient writing systems (Greek, Hebrew, etc.) the letters of the alphabet also designated numbers. It doesn’t work that way for us, since we use the Latin alphabet (A B C D E….) but Arabic numerals (1 2 3 4 5….). But in ancient languages, the letters were also the numerals. So, in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the first letter alpha was 1; beta was 2; gamma was 3; etc. Once you hit iota it was 10, and after that it went by tens, so that the next letter kappa was 20, lambda was 30, and so on. Once you hit a hundred it went by hundreds.
Greek in the NT period didn’t have enough letters to get to what was needed – 900. So there were three out-of-date (no longer used) letters that were inserted into the numerical code, making all the numbers up to 999 possible. If you want to write 32, for example, you would just write lambda-beta, like this λβ’ with a little tick by it, to indicate it was a number (λ = 30; β = 2 and so together they are 32). After 900 you start with alpha again but provide an indication that it is a number – 1000 – and the next one is 2000 etc.
It May sound complicated, but in fact, it’s not bad if you know how to do it.
But the point is this: because the letters could also serve as numerals, necessarily every word could have a numerical value. Just add up the numerical equivalence of each letter. That allowed interpreters to play with words; for example, if two words happened by chance to have the same numerical value they could be linked and interpreted in light of each other, even if they occurred in completely different books of Scripture, for example. Moreover, you could interpret a number that was written by playing with the letters that made up the number. Or you could write a number and use it as a code for a word whose letters added up to those numbers. Hey, lots of options here.
So did it ever get used in the New Testament? Yes indeed. In fact, in the first book Matthew and in the final book Revelation! I’ll talk about those in later posts. For now, I want to talk about one of my favorite uses of Gematria in early Christianity, in the non-canonical epistle (written by an Apostolic Father) called The Letter of Barnabas.
First: a bit of background to this letter.
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