Math was not my best subject or academic favorite while I was in high school, but when I began studying theology in earnest many years ago, I began to appreciate the beauty and meaning of numbers. 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 algebraic equations or geometric sequences, they provide a wealth of historical, literary and theological meaning.
That is why St. Augustine, in his treatise, “On Christian Doctrine” (De doctrina christiana), wrote, “Ignorance of numbers, too, prevents us from understanding things that are set down in Scripture in a figurative and mystical way.” He then offered an example: “A candid mind, if I may so speak, cannot but be anxious, for example, to ascertain what is meant by the fact that Moses and Elijah, and our Lord Himself, all fasted for 40 days” (see sidebar, “Church Fathers and mystical numbers”).
Truths about God
St. Augustine, like most of the early Church Fathers, believed that numbers — especially the first and smallest numbers — have meanings that reveal or point to truths about God, Christ, the Church, the sacraments and the plan of salvation.
Belief in the symbolic and mystical value of numbers was not, of course, unique to Christians or Jews; religions of nearly every sort hold that certain numbers have a special significance beyond merely keeping count of mundane things. Many ancient cultures believed that certain numbers had specific sacred or magical properties. The numbers three, five and seven had a significant place in the beliefs and mythologies of the ancient Egyptians. And the Romans were interested in the number 10, believing it represented the number of historical ages prior to a great eschatological catastrophe.
It is no surprise that Catholicism, with a rich heritage and ancient tradition when it comes to the use of words, images and numbers, should offer such a rich and varied numerical banquet. And, like any good meal, it is both nutritious and fun. So, get your fingers ready (or calculator app, if you prefer) as we count and sample a dozen — OK, a baker’s dozen — Catholic numbers!
This is foundational, and it refers, first and foremost, to the Creator and Source of everything — including all numbers — that follow: God. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD...” (Dt 6:4), is an emphatic declaration of monotheism, over against the myriad of gods worshipped throughout the ancient Middle East. He is “one and only God” and he “is unique; there is only one God: ‘The Christian faith confesses that God is one in nature, substance, and essence’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 200 and 201). Yes, this is basic stuff for Catholics, but we shouldn’t underestimate how the divine unity forms and guides a number of other unities.
As good fortune has it, Pope Francis emphasized this very point in his recently released first encyclical, Lumen Fidei (“The Light of Faith”), writing, “The unity of the Church in time and space is linked to the unity of the faith: ‘there is one body and one Spirit… one faith’ (Eph 4:4-5). … Faith is also one because it is directed to the one Lord, to the life of Jesus, to the concrete history which he shares with us. … Finally, faith is one because it is shared by the whole Church, which is one body and one Spirit” (No. 47). He refers here, of course, to St. Paul, who exhorted the Ephesians to preserve their unity by recognizing that they share in one body (the Church) and one Spirit, called to one hope, worshipping one Lord and God, practicing one faith, and being made children of God through one baptism (Eph 4:1-6).
God, as One, “is truly and absolutely simple,” as St. Augustine wrote. As Trinity, as we’ll see, he is also perfect communion and eternal love.
Jesus, when asked by a scribe, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” replied, “The first is this: ‘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.” But he also added that there is a second and closely related commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:28-31). In addition to these two great commandments, there are two testaments, or covenants: the Old and the New. Man consists of two (male and female), and Jesus, who is one Person, possesses two natures (human and divine).
The number two does not possess the same symbolic weight as does one, three or seven, but there are many “twos” worth noting, many of them found in Genesis: heaven and earth, night and day, good and evil, the brothers Cain and Abel (who chose and represent, respectively, sin and holiness).
Jesus often used the number two in his parables and teachings, usually to convey conflict or divergent choices, as when he spoke of men not being able to serve two masters (Mt 6:24), the two sons of the vineyard owner (Mt 21:28ff), two men in the field and two women grinding at the mill (Mt 24:40-41), and when he sent out his disciples two by two to proclaim the Kingdom (Mk 6:7).
And we shouldn’t overlook that the Mass consists of two main parts — the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist — and that two of the sacraments are for healing: confession and the anointing of the sick. Oh, and there are just two final destinations after death: heaven or hell (see Mt 25:31ff).
Yes, this one is obvious: the Trinity! And is obviously connected closely to the number one, because the Trinity is One. As the Catechism explains, “We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the ‘consubstantial Trinity’” (No. 253). The divine persons do not share divinity like you share a piece of pie with two friends, “but each of them is God whole and entire.” If “one” signifies unity, “three” signifies union, or communion. It is a number that usually represents fullness and completion, without need for anything else. Along those lines, think of the Holy Father — Joseph, Mary and Jesus — and the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, given by the Holy Spirit at baptism. Or how the one Church consists of the Church suffering, militant and triumphant.
Jesus spent three years in public ministry and, after his crucifixion, he spent three day in the tomb, indicating that, yes, he truly had died (foreshadowed by Jonah’s three days in the sea creature’s belly). Before that, Peter denied Christ three times and the cock crowed thrice, indicating that Peter’s lamentable action was not an accident or coincidence, but was freely chosen. Later, after the Resurrection, Jesus asked Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” three times, absolving him of his sin. Speaking of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Apostle John wrote, “So there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are of one accord” (1 Jn 5:7-8). The Catechism points out that “Christian Tradition has retained three major expressions of prayer: vocal, meditative and contemplative.” The three have “one basic trait in common: composure of heart” (No. 2699). Finally, there are three main parts to a church: the narthex (the back), the nave (the middle), and the altar, or sanctuary. I’m sure you can think of at least three more “threes”!
In Scripture, the number four often indicates universality and creation, as in the four directions (north, south, east, west), the four winds (Jer 49:36), the “four corners” of the earth (Is 11:12), the four rivers flowing from Eden (Gn 2:10-14), and the four types of living creatures: man, domestic animals, wild animals, and creatures of the sea and sky (Gn 1:20-27; cf. Ez 1:10). Zechariah described four chariots circling the earth (Zec 6:1-8), while St. John wrote of the dreaded four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rv 6:2-8), which bring judgment upon the earth.
There are four Gospels and four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), in his book on eschatology, wrote, “It is as a choir of four that the Gospel comes before the understanding of faith, as fresh today as ever.” Each time we recite the Creed, we state the four marks of the Church: one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Each of these “indicate essential features of the Church and her mission” (Catechism, No. 811), the first pointing to her origin, the second pointing to her call, the third to her reach, and the fourth to her authority. Since the Catechism has been so helpful in our counting, I should note that it consists of four parts: the Profession of Faith (the Apostle’s Creed), the Celebration of the Christian Mystery (liturgy and sacraments), Life in Christ (commandments and morality), and Christian Prayer (especially the “Our Father”). The third part discusses the four natural, or cardinal, virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance (No. 1805ff).
This is a modest, tidy number that often refers in Scripture to a small sum, usually in relation to a larger amount or group. The opening section of the Bible, the Pentateuch, consists of five books, as its name indicates. There are the famous five loaves (Mt 14:17ff), which in turn miraculously fed 5,000. There is the parable of the five foolish and five wise virgins (Mt 25:1-13), and St. Paul’s statement, regarding speaking in tongues, 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 (Gn 1:24-31). With that in mind, and realizing that seven is a number of completion and divine fulfillment, we can make some sense of this famous verse from the final book of the Bible: “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” (Rv 13:18). The Beast, or the Antichrist, desires to be perfect and even divine, but without any recognition of God or acknowledgement of man’s limitations. 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 Caesar Nero in Greek. However, Tradition does not provide an exact interpretation and various other names have in fact been suggested.”
On an entirely different note, there are six principal attributes of God (power, majesty, wisdom, love, mercy and justice) and Jesus suffered on the Cross for six hours (from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
Of all numbers in Scripture, seven has a consistent and clear meaning, representing completeness, fullness and perfection, especially rendered by God. It appears, in one way or another, in nearly 600 passages in Scripture, beginning with the story of creation (Gn 2:1-3) and ending with a cacophony of sevens throughout the Book of Revelation: seven churches, bowls, cities, hills, lamps, plagues, seals, stars and thunders, to name just a few. As the sum of three and four, seven represents the completion of all creation, both heaven and earth, brought about by the Creator. It is used in several well-known stories, including the fall of Jericho, which came about after the Israelites marched around the city for seven days, led by seven priests (Jos 6). 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” (Mt 18:21-22). Man’s forgiveness should, like the mercy and love of God, have no measure.
|There are seven sacraments recognized from ancient times. CNS photo
This limitless love and the number seven have roots in the Judeo-Christian understanding of covenant and creation. Many scholars have noted that the Hebrew word for “oath” is shevah, which means “to seven oneself,” or to swear a sacred, covenantal oath, or even by seven oaths. This is evident in the story of Abraham making a treaty with Abimelech (Gn 21:25-32), where a covenant is established with seven ewes at Beer-sheba, which means “the place of the oath” or “the well of the sevens.” This goes back to the account of creation found in Genesis 2. The seventh day of creation represents not only a day of rest, but God’s love for his creation. The seven-day week of the Israelites was unique among the ancient peoples; it marked them as a people of the covenant who had a unique and loving relationship with the one true God. Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 apostolic letter Dies Domini (“The Lord’s Day”), reflected upon this:
“In order to grasp fully what the first of the biblical creation accounts means by keeping the Sabbath ‘holy,’ we need to consider the whole story, which shows clearly how every reality, without exception, must be referred back to God. Time and space belong to him. He is not the God of one day alone, but the God of all the days of humanity. Therefore, if God ‘sanctifies’ the seventh day with a special blessing and makes it ‘his day’ par excellence, this must be understood within the deep dynamic of the dialogue of the Covenant, indeed the dialogue of ‘marriage’” (No. 14).
There are seven sacraments, recognized from ancient times and declared in the first canon of Session VII of the Council of Trent. There are seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The “Our Father” contains seven petitions, there are seven deadly sins, and there are seven joys and sorrows of Mary.
Also, 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). Finally, the Fourth Gospel also contains seven “I am” declarations by Jesus, two of which are simply, “I am” (e.g., 4:26; 6:20, 8:24, etc), and the remaining five with predicates: “I am the bread of life” (6:35), “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7, 9), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6), and “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5).
Much like the number seven, the number 10 symbolizes perfection, especially within the divine order. This is probably due, in part, to being the sum of three and seven. It is hardly coincidental that in the creation account (Gn 1:1-2:3), the phrase “God said” occurs 10 times, while “God saw” appears seven times and “God blessed” is used three times. 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). The New Testament refers to 10 maidens (or virgins), 10 servants, and the beast with 10 horns. But the number 10 is just as significant, for Christians, in its multiple form, as in 40, 50 and 1,000 (see Page 12).
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 (Mt 19:28; Jas 1:1). Some scholar believe it emphasizes governmental perfection, while others see it as referring to God’s chosen people; in fact, both fit perfectly with its connection to the Church and apostolic succession. This connection is taken up in the Book of Revelation, which depicts 24 elders sitting on “twenty-four other thrones” in the heavenly throne room (Rv 4), uses the number 144,000 ([12x12] x [10x10x10]) to represent the saints of the Church (Rv 7:3-10; 14:1-3) 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)?
The number 40 makes several notable appearances in Scripture and has a prominent role in the liturgical calender. 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), during which time the people shaped and worshipped the golden calf (Ex 32). After that debacle, they spent 40 years in the desert (Ps 95:10), a time of both trial and preparation for entering the promised land. Elijah journeyed for 40 days and nights to Mount Horeb (1 Kgs 19:8). Jesus entered the wilderness, where he fasted for 40 day and was tempted by the devil (Mt 4:1-11; Mk 1:12-13; Lk 4:1-13), during which time he rejected the temptations which overwhelmed the Israelites many centuries before. This, of course, is the basis for the season of Lent, in preparation for Holy Week and Easter. Finally, after his Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the apostles and disciples during a 40-day period before the Ascension (Acts 1:1-9).
While 40 is associated with trial, 50 connotes a full measure of time which culminates with a period of rest and, at times, with liberation. 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; Dt 16:9-12). Originally, the feast focused on giving thanks for the harvest; it later was associated with the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, traditionally believed to have occurred 50 days after the first Passover in Egypt. The feast of Pentecost was one of the three great pilgrimage festivals of Israel, a celebration of the spring harvest that took place 50 days after the offering of first fruits at Passover and the feast of Unleavened Bread. 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 millennium (Rv 20:1-7), indicates both fullness and quantity (10x10x10), 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, a “thousand” in Scripture means “a big, big number”!
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.