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10843Musings on isopsephy and gematria

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  • Rick Hubbard
    Mar 18, 2014

      I came across an article by T. C. Skeat titled, _A Table of Isopsephisms (P. Oxy. XLV. 3239)_ inZeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik Bd. 31, (1978), pp. 45-54 where he provides a somewhat granular definition of isopsephy. Here is a quote from the article:


      “It is evident from the examples quoted by Dornseiff and those printed below that there are certain canons governing isopsephisms, or at least better specimens of the type. The word which stands first, and which I shall call the lemma, is normally a noun (either a common noun or a proper noun) in the nominative singular, and is not preceded by the definite article. The word or phrase having the same numerical value, which I shall call the isopsephon [plural isopsepha], may be either a single word, or a combination of words e.g., noun + adjective, or a complete clause or sentence of which of which the lemma is necessarily the subject. Furthermore the isopsephon should be an opposite qualification of the lemma, or should in some way comment upon or extend its significance.” Op cit Page 1


      (The reference to Dornseiff is the book Das Alphabet in Mystik und Magie. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner (1922). I found a copy of this on-line and I am trying to work my way through it but my German skills are incredibly rusty. Here is the link if anyone wishes to investigate: http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/005776897 )


      A classic illustration of isopsephism cited by Skeat (and also by Dornseiff  p. 98) is from Suetonius’ _Lives of the Caesars_ VI 1. In English translation the isopsephism reads:


      “A calculation new. Nero his mother slew.”


      The Greek transliteration of the above is:



      Here, using Skeat’s terminology NERWN is the “lemma”; IDIAN MHTERA APEKTEINE is the isopsephon

      The numeric value of the letters in the lemma NERWN:

      (50+5+100+800+50)= 1005.

      The numeric value of the “isopsephon” IDIAN MHTERA APEKTEINE:

      IDIAN (10+4+10+1+50)=75

      MHTERA (40+8+300+5+100+1)=454

      APEKTEINE (1+80+5+20+300+5+10+50+5)=476



      What is important to note here is that this bit of text has the appearance of being intentionally constructed so that the numeric value of the lemma was equal to the numeric value of the isopsephon. There are numerous other examples from late antiquity that scholars have identified as “isopsephy” some involving quite lengthy bits of text.


      It seems to me that for the purposes of establishing a working definition it should be stipulated that isopsephy always involves 2 terms, the first of which should be a noun in the nominative case, juxtaposed in such a way that the numeric value of the letters in each term are equal.


      A second feature of isopsephy is that it should be demonstrably connected to the process of composition (pre-scriptum) rather than an exercise designed to ascertain the numerical value of words post-scriptum.


      This comes to the question of whether a distinction should be made between gematria and isopsephy. At this juncture I am inclined to think there IS a technical difference. The process known as gematria, as it seems to have been practiced since the beginning of the Common Era, seems to be post-scriptum in character. In other words, gematria is the post-compositional investigation of the numerical value of words without regard to a limited context.


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