Excerpted from Our Sunday Visitor Newsweekly, August 4, 2013,”In Focus: Go Figure! Sacred Numbers play a large role in the Bible” by Carl Olson
–“While the Bible contains little, if anything, that can be described as ‘mathematical,’ it is filled with numbers. Lots of them. Why, it even has a book titled ‘Numbers”! While the countless-pun intended-numbers in Scripture aren’t used in math equations, they provide a wealth of historical, literary and theological meaning. Many ancient cultures believed that certain numbers had specific sacred properties…
Which is the greatest of all the Commandments? Matt 12:28-31: “Hear O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. & You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
So there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water and the blood, and the three are of one accord.” 1 John 5:7-8.“That is what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor. 6:11
In Scripture, the number four often indicates universality and creation, as in the four directions- north, south, east, west, the four winds (Jeremiah 49:36). The 4 Gospels- Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Catechism consists of four parts: the Profession of Faith, the Celebration of the Christian Mystery, Life in Christ, and Christian Prayer, especially the “Our Father.”
There are the famous five loaves (Matt 14:17, which in turn miraculously fed 5,000. The parable of the five foolish and five wise virgins (Matt 25:1-13) and St Paul’s statement that “in the church I would rather speak five words with my mind, so as to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue,” (1 Cor 14:18-19).
Six is the number of man, for creation took six days, and man- male and female-was created on the final day (Gen 1:24-31). There are six principal attributes of God (power, majesty, wisdom, love, mercy and justice). Jesus suffered on the Cross for 6 hours.
Of particular apocalyptic intrigue is, “Wisdom is needed here; one who understands can calculate the number of the beast, for it is a number that stands for a person. His number is six hundred and sixty six” (Rev 13:18). The Navarre Commentary states, “The author of the Apocalypse here uses a method (called gematria in Greek) to reveal the name of the beast in a numerical form. In both Hebrew and Latin, letters of the alphabet were also used as numbers. The figure 666 fits with the name Caesar Nero in Hebrew. Some manuscripts gave the number as 616, which fits Ceasar Nero in Greek. However, Tradition does not provide an exact interpretation and various other names have in fact been suggested.”
Of all numbers in Scripture, seven has a consistent and clear meaning, representing completeness, fullness and perfection. In the Gospels, the most famous reference to seven relates to forgiveness. Peter asks how many times he should forgive a brother who has sinned against him-As many as seven times?-and Jesus responds: “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” (Matt 18:21-22). There are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2). The gospel of John contains seven signs (Jn 2:11, 2:18-19, 4:54, 6:2, 6:14,26; 9:16,12:18, which are just some of the “many other signs” Jesus performed (Jn 20:30). The creation story is in Gen 2:1-3.
The number eight has no symbolic or mystical meaning in Scripture, but in the early Church it began to take on a deeper meaning in light of the Resurrection. The Scripture and patristic scholar, Cardinal jean Danielou, S.J., in his book “The Bible and Liturgy” (University of Notre Dame), examined the origin and meaning of the ‘the eighth day’ in great detail. He notes that since the Jewish Sabbath, on Saturday, was considered the seventh day, it followed that when the Christians began to worship on Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, it would gain such a title. The symbolism of this day developed over time, at first it was meant primarily to distinguish Christianity from Judaism, but it eventually took on a deeper theological foc
Much like the number seven, the number 10 symbolizes perfection, especially within the divine order. After sending 10 plagues upon Egypt (Ex 7:14-11:10), and liberating the Hebrews from 400 years of slavery, God gave Moses the Law and the ’10 words,’ or Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17).
Twelve and multiples of 12 (24 and 144,000) have special reference to the people of God, as in the 12 tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles, who represent the Church (Matt 19:28, Jas 1:1). The Book of Revelation depicts 24 elders sitting on ‘twenty-four other thrones’ in the heavenly throne room (Rv 4), and describes the city of the New Jerusalem as having 12 gates (made of 12 pearls flanked by 12 angels) and 12 foundations, with each wall being 12,000 stadia in length (Rv 21:12-21). And how can we forget that the young Jesus was 12 years old when he stayed in the Temple for three days conversing with the teachers of the Law (Lk 2:41-52)?
Forty is associated with testing, trial and judgment. Noah spent 40 days in the ark during the Flood (Gn 7:12, 8:6), and the Israelites, having been freed from slavery, ‘ate the manna forty years’ (Ex 16:35). Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai (Ex 24:18). The Israelites spent 40 years in the desert after worshipping a golden calf (Ps 95:10). After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles and disciples during a 40 day period before the Ascension (Acts 1:1-9).
The feast of Pentecost (from the Greek word for ‘fiftieth’), which the Israelites called the ‘feast of weeks,’ a reference to the seven weeks from the Passover to the celebration of Pentecost (Lv 23:9-21). For Christians, Pentecost marks the fruits and harvest of another sort. It is a celebration of a formative event in the history of the early Church-the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the newly birthed Church and the first bold proclamation of the Gospel by Peter among the Jews (Acts 2).
One thousand, as in the millenium (Rv 20:1-7), indicates both fullness and quantity, not an exact number of years. For example, ‘the cattle on a thousand hills’ (Ps 50:10) refers to all cattle, not just a limited amount. In sum, in Scripture, a ‘thousand’ means a big, big number! “
Not an exhaustive treatment by any means, for more insights read Augustine’s “On Christian Doctrine,” in which he said, “Ignorance of numbers, too, prevents us from understanding things that are set down in Scripture in a figurative and mystical way.” For example, “A candid mind, if I may so speak, cannot but be anxious, to ascertain what is meant by the fact that Moses and Elijah, and our Lord Himself, all fasted for 40 days.” It can be found online.