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Creative Uses of Numbers in Scripture

Here I resume my interrupted thread on the use of letters as numbers in ancient languages.   As I had indicated earlier, Greek and Hebrew did not use a different system for their alphabets and their numerals, but the letters of the alphabet played double duty, so that each letter had a numerical value.  One pay-off of that system was that every word had a numerical value, discovered simply by adding up the letters.   In Greek, for example, the six letters in the name Jesus, Ιησους , add up to 888.

Or another example: in Hebrew, the three letters in the name “David” (ancient Hebrew did not have vowels, only consonants), D-V-D were worth 4-6-4, so that the name added up to 14.   That may have been significant for the genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 1:1-17), since, as Matthew presents it, Jesus, the “son of David” had a genealogical tree that can be organized around the number 14:  between the father of the Jews, Abraham, and the greatest king of the Jews, David, was 14 generations (Matthew tells us); between the greatest king of the Jews and the most significant disaster of the Jews – the Babylonian exile – was 14 generations; and between the most significant disaster of the Jews and the messiah of the Jews, Jesus, was 14 generations.   14-14-14.   This may seem like a miracle.  And for Matthew it probably was.  *Possibly* (this is one theory) he latched on to 14 because it is twice the perfect number, 7 (so doubly perfect).  Or possibly it is because this is the genealogy of the son of David, whose number is 14.  (In either case, the reality is that to get to 14-14-14 Matthew had to drop several names out between Abraham and David;  moreover, unfortunately, in the last set of 14 there are in fact only 13 generations named!)

An even more clever use of numerology is in the ….

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Bethlehem and Nazareth in Matthew
Matthew’s “Filling Full” of Scripture



  1. Avatar
    MikeyS  February 17, 2015

    Bart, wonders never cease and they will say anything to justfy nonsense. Its could be laughable but deadly serious when it affects other peoples ideas about the Jewish nation and anti seminism that has lasted 2000 years and counting. I don’t have much time for the early church ‘fathers’ as they all had an agenda to suit themselves. It woud have been better if Marcion had prevailed and the NT stood alone and would have avoided all the OT references the Gospel Writers tried to align with the Messianic Jesus as being ‘clearly’ prophetic. Its another strange thing that 99% of Rabbi’s can rubbish all these claims like Isaiah 53 and Christian Apologetics were and are saying the same thing that the Jews don’t understand their own bible text. And yet God was supposed to give clear and unambiguous signs to his people.

    The daft part is they are called Christ Killers by people and yet they also believe that Jesus had to shed his blood on the cross for the sins of mankind to get salvation and heaven. Thus shouldn’t they be cheering the Jews for enabling that to happen? ie they were doing what God wanted?

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  February 17, 2015

    If Barnabas is saying that only followers of Jesus can grasp the true meaning of the OT doesn’t that smack of gnosis? Or is this a different sense of “true meaning”? You didn’t say hidden meaning so maybe I’m jumping the gun on that.

  3. Avatar
    toejam  February 17, 2015

    What are your views on the miraculous catch of 153 fish in the Gospel of John? The specific number seems pretty irrelevant in the story. Why didn’t the author just say “a lot” or round it off to “150”? I know Bob Price thinks this is because the story was based on an old Pythagoras tale about 153 fish (if my memory serves me correctly, the ‘miracle’ in the Pythagoras story is that he knows the number of caught fish before they have been counted). What makes this compelling is that 153 is a square number – something that makes sense in a story about Pythagoras, but not so about Jesus.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2015

      My view is that we don’t know. Even the people who know don’t know!

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  February 17, 2015

      153 is not the square of a whole number. Long story short, 153 is a triangular number and the story you are thinking about has to do with the square root of 3 (I’m an engineer with a minor in mathematics and I read a lot about this kind of thing). 153 was used in part of what Pythagoras called the “ratio of the fish” or measure of the fish. I’ll skip the details on that. The story of Pythagoras and 153 and fish is spurious and not known from ancient times (people tend to read too much into known stories). Maybe it was known at one time from ancient sources extant in the Middle Ages that are lost to us now. Just a thought.

      Right before I posted this I googled the topic and find that there are accusations on wiki that overzealous Christian editors have removed all mentions tying together “153”, “Pythagoras” and the NT. I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, but interesting nonetheless.

  4. Aleph82
    Aleph82  February 17, 2015

    “Aren’t numbers wonderful?”

    This must be another reason historians are loathe to trust them. I’ve seen numbers used this way even today by the more, uh, “idiosyncratic” exegetes. Do you know of any ancient satirist that went after numerology? It seems like a ripe target.

  5. Avatar
    moose  February 17, 2015

    Great post.
    It is easy to see that the numbers 4, 7 and 12 were of great importance for the early Christians. But the number 14 has always made me wonder. It is not only Matthew that emphasizes this number, but also Paul. Paul mention this number twice. Once in the Galatians in connection with a revelation, and once in 2 Corinthians again in connection with a revelation – this time of a man who was caught up to the third heaven. This your understanding of the number 14 as a symbol for David provides the text with a new meaning – at least for me.

    In this connection I shall shed light on the parable of the 153 fishes. We like to think of the Mosaic law as the 10 commandments, but the law actually consists of 613 laws – The 613 Mitzvah.

    If we divide 613 on the sacred number 4 then we get 153 !

    The meaning of the parable of the 153 fishes is that Jesus gives new laws for 7 selected apostles, and Peter as a new Moses is the first to meet with Jesus.

    • Avatar
      bobnaumann  February 19, 2015

      613/4 does not yield 153.

      • Avatar
        moose  February 20, 2015

        It would have been a rather strange sight if the disciples caught 153 and a quarter fish – don’t you think?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 20, 2015

          A strange sight and possibly an even bigger miracle….

  6. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  February 17, 2015

    Question bart,
    what is the GOLDEN RACE?
    Greek mythology
    Bart this is an amazing blog by the way
    Jason gray – remind who I am
    A good song for someone to be conducting in the temple of zeus with a rose before sunset with Sundays on him making a beautiful picture wearing what cardinals at the vatican

    • Bart
      Bart  February 17, 2015

      I think the Golden Race (someone can correct me) is the race of humans living in the Golden Age — the pristine first period of human history when humans had regular interactions with the gods.

  7. Avatar
    Slydog1227  February 17, 2015

    I’m a little dense some times, but did I miss something here? You said: “moreover, unfortunately, in the last set of 14 there are in fact only 13 generations named!’ So that rather than the 14-14-14 generations Matthew was listing, as you stated, it was actually 14-14-13. That being the case…how on earth would one draw the conclusion that Matthew was skipping generations in order to make the numbers equal 14? That seems like a reach to me to come to that conclusion when a third of your theory is incorrect from the start.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      Yup, sorry, I wasn’t clear. The names that were dropped were in the *first* set of 14 (between Abraham and David), not the final set of 14 (between the Babylonian exile and Jesus — for which there are only 13 generations)

  8. Avatar
    Curtis7777  February 17, 2015

    How are we to account for the numbers in Revelation 13:18 (666) in Aleph/ 01? Is it not strange that they are spelled out and not symbolic letters?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      Yes, when describingg a number they would typically write it out in words rather than give the number, since the number would make you think that *that* was the person’s name.

  9. Avatar
    dragonfly  February 18, 2015

    Of course! Shame on those Hebrew-speaking, mostly illiterate Jews for not realising that their own scripture was actually in code in a written language they’d never heard before! I’d like to see the author of Barnabas get together with Richard Carrier. Wouldn’t that would be a meeting of the minds…

  10. Avatar
    ajhuff  March 4, 2015

    Wow. I need to read this book by Barnabas. He sure sounds like a born again Southern Baptist from Georgia.

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