TODAY, numbers have become little more than the tools of trade of statisticians, accountants, and technocrats. Their meaning is quantitative, and we have lost their qualitative value — with just a few exceptions. Some gamblers say that they have personal “lucky” numbers, and 13 is widely regarded as a number of misfortune. There were 13 people sitting at table at the Last Supper, it is said, before Judas left to betray Christ.
Yet the Bible is full of numbers of symbolic as well as arithmetic significance: Lent lasts for 40 days and 40 nights; and Moses led the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness. In Noah’s time, rain fell for 40 days to flood the earth. Goliath was defeated by David after he had challenged the Israelites for 40 days. Ascension Day comes 40 days after Easter. Such consistency can hardly be chance, and must hold some meaning.
In Christian doctrine, three is a pivotal number; seven, ten, and 12 are important; and the book of Revelation is packed with specific references to the mathematics of the apocalypse: 666 is the number of the Beast.
AT THE time of Jesus’s ministry, there were established traditions of both Jewish and classical Greek numerology. In Judaism, the ancient art of gematria links each letter of the Hebrew alphabet to a numerical value. In this way, whole words and names can be examined for their divine meaning.
The equivalent to this in Classical Greek practice was known as isopsephy. Indeed, until the widespread adoption of Arabic numbers, letters from the Greek alphabet were often used to express quantities. The Classical world observed how mathematics could express concepts of beauty, perfection, and harmony in, for instance, music, or if employed in architecture.
When the New Testament was written, the early Christians — from both Jewish and Classical cultural backgrounds — found nothing strange in involving numerology in their expressions of faith.
There is one passage in the Gospels which may best be understood in this context: the story of the miraculous draught of fish, when 153 were caught. The meaning of this was immediately apparent to Pythagoreans, members of a religio-philosophic movement based on the teaching of Pythagoras that was undergoing a revival in the first century AD.
The fish were caught on the occasion of Christ’s third appearance to the disciples, known traditionally as the Twelve. If three and 12 are two sides of a right-angled triangle, Pythagoras’s theorem teaches that the hypotenuse is three squared plus twelve squared, which is 153.
Furthermore, it was pointed out by the late Church of Scotland minister and theologian the Revd Dr Gordon Strachan that the square root of 153 — the length of the hypotenuse — was thus 12.37. This is the number of lunar months in a solar year, which would have been known by Pythagoreans, and would have helped to convince them that the Jesus who had performed the miracle was one and the same as the God who created the universe.
SACRED numbers continue to pervade Western culture, although they are often unrecognised as such. The Jewish time-cycle of seven — based on the story of the creation — determines the length of the week. The number of harmony — six — determines our calculations of time: there are 60 seconds in a minute, and 60 minutes in the hour.
Peter J. Hatcher/AlamyRoof bosses from the church of All Saints’, Pavement, York, arranged in a Fibonacci spiral
One legacy of the Greek theories of perfect shape is found in the dimensions of the ubiquitous modern plastic bank card. The ratio of the long side to the short side conforms with the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, from which the Golden Ratio of classical architectural perfection was derived, and which has been studied by ancient mathematicians since the days of Euclid.
In some strands of New Age thinking, numerology is undergoing a revival. Combined with the tradition of guardian angels, there has developed an idea called Angel Numbers. It is said that seeing “angel numbers” is one of the most commonly experienced signs from the angelic realm. If someone prays for guidance, an angel may bring them an answer. The angel does not appear in person, but leaves a message in the form of a number which can be interpreted by the petitioner.
MATHEMATICIANS have long been fascinated by the patterns of numbers, from the Fibonacci series (which describes the patterns in nature) to the obsession of some with such phenomena as prime numbers.
Galileo called mathematics “the language of God”. It is a long, unresolved debate within the discipline whether it is a human, mental construct, or one that exists innately within the created universe. Some modern mathematicians prefer to think of it as an entirely humanly constructed method of describing what can be seen or measured around them. They argue that maths is continually developing, evolving, and honing its techniques as a result of human intellectual endeavour. Others argue that this intellectual endeavour does not lead to invention, but to new revelations of God’s astonishing blueprint.
I expect that most Christians prefer to think of maths as being built into the fabric of the universe, and thus forming part of God’s extraordinary creation. That being so, perhaps we should more often ponder the significance of the numbers that crop up so often in Christian teaching. There were 40 days during which the risen Christ appeared between his resurrection and ascension. The 40 days of Lent start with Jesus being tempted three times. He was crucified on one of three crosses. He rose on the third day. A coincidence — or a Trinity?
Ted Harrison is a writer and artist.