Number Symbolism in Matthew
- Mt.1:17 comments on what is already apparent from the preceding structuredlist of generations of "Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham":"Therefore all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations;and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations; and fromthe deportation to Babylon to Christ fourteen generations."Larry Hurtado remarks (The Earliest Christian Artifacts, p.114) that "... it iswidely accepted by scholars that the number fourteen emphasized in Matthew'sgenealogy of Jesus ... alludes to the numerical value of the name 'David' inHebrew characters ..."The Hebrew number system, like the Greek, was a three-tiered system usingthe letters of the alphabet to represent the numbers 1-9 (tier 1), 10-90 (tier 2),and 100-900 (tier 3). There were ways of representing higher numbers, butthe basic system required 27 characters. Since the Greek alphabet had 24letters and the Hebrew 22, additional characters had to be used. In Greek,it was the special characters episemon, koppa, and sanpi. In Hebrew, it wasthe "final" form of five letters (similar to "final sigma" in Greek, i.e., the formof a letter when it was the final letter of a word.)This is not esoteric information; these number systems weren't some secretcode; they were in common everyday use, and any scholar or would-bescholar in this field who isn't aware of them had better turn in their credentials.More than that, however, it follows that every word in Greek and Hebrew hada numeric value. That is not to say, of course, that every word was a number.Far from it. What it is to say is that one could add up the letters of a wordand come up with a numeric value for that word. There would be many words,of course, with the same numeric value - which led some to speculate aboutpossible connections between such words (gematria). Now we know that itwould be almost entirely random for two different words to have the samenumeric value, but for many an educated but mystical-minded ancient, bothChristian and not, words were thought to have been given to humans by God,hence that their numeric values (especially those of words or names associatedwith divinity, such as Yahweh, David, Jesus, et al.) could reveal the mind of God.Well, anyway, back to 'David'. It was represented in Hebrew as the lettersDVD. The Hebrew letter daleth, like the Greek letter delta, was used for thenumber 4. The 'V' is the Hebrew letter vau, which was used for the number6 (episemon in Greek). So we have 4+6+4 = 14. The significance of thatnumber probably lies in the fact that it is twice seven, a number widelyregarded in antiquity as signifying completion or fulfillment (hence the sabbath,when all is/was complete.) So for Matthew, Jesus was not only the completionof an age, but also the completion of all (42=6x7) ages under the Law.(Note the connection with Coptic Thomas: saying 42 - the shortest sayingof them all - contains the 42nd occurrence of 'Jesus' in the ms.)What's the point of today's homily? That the use of number symbolismdoesn't just occur in weird non-canonical writings. It also occurs in weirdcanonical writings (e.g., the Apocalypse of John (AKA Revelation)) andeven in (gasp!) the 4 gospels themselves.Mike Grondin
On: Number Symbolism
MIKE: So for Matthew, Jesus was not only the completion of an age, but also the completion of all (42=6x7) ages under the Law.
BRUCE: Probably Matthew could have squeezed any empirically given number into a multiple of 7, so the “6” in this formula might not mean much. Or it might; there seems to be a certain preference in ancient cultures for numbers of the form (n)(n-1), such as 3x4 =12, and 8x9 = 72.
(n)(n-1) has a certain power in number theory. I haven’t seen an exposition of its use in what I would call literary symbolism, and perhaps it is chiefly confined to multiples of 12, which are easy to explain otherwise than by that formula. But Matthew’s number does raise the question. Can anyone comment?
E Bruce Brooks
University of Massachusetts at Amherst
into> Probably Matthew could have squeezed any empirically given number
much.> a multiple of 7, so the 6 in this formula might not meanUnless the god of randomness was smiling on Matthew, there was probablya fudge-factor involved in counting the generations from Abraham on. Mostlikely, it came close enough to 42 generations that Matt was able to use thatnumber by adding or dropping a few. The '6' would surely have suggested tohim and his readers the first six days of creation, as well as fitting nicely to divideup the 42 generations into three sharply-defined segments. In the Harper's BibleDictionary (1985) entry for numbers, under Symbolism and Significance, it's firstnoted that "Seven probably represented completeness and perfection ... ", then later:"Three also indicated completeness. The created order has three parts: heaven,earth, and underworld. ... Three major feasts appear in the [Jewish] religiouscalendar (Exod. 23:14-19). Also prayer was urged three times daily (Dan. 6:10;Ps. 55:17). The sanctuary was divided into three parts: vestibule, nave, andinner sanctuary (1 Kings 6:2-22). ... Jesus said that the Son of man would bein the grave for three days and nights (Matt. 12:40)."Bruce:
for numbers of> ... there seems to be a certain preference in ancient cultures
exposition> the form (n)(n-1), such as 3x4 =12, and 8x9 = 72.> (n)(n-1) has a certain power in number theory. I havent seen an
it is chiefly> of its use in what I would call literary symbolism, and perhaps
than by that formula.> confined to multiples of 12, which are easy to explain otherwiseWell, it isn't chiefly confined to multiples of 12. The series does contain 12 and 72,yes, but most of its numbers aren't divisible by 12, and it's missing a lot that are.What you may be thinking of is the following, also from the above HBD article:"Not all number usage in the Bible was symbolic. The pattern x, x+1 appearsfrequently as a device of emphasis in parallelism. A good example may be seenin Prov. 30:18-19 with three and four:Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand ..."Mike