For any student of the Bible, it doesn’t take long to see that certain numbers appear throughout both the Old and New Testament.

For instance, there are the 12 tribes of Israel and the Twelve Apostles. God rested on the seventh day of creation in Genesis, and one cannot forget the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12.

What is the story behind all these numerals? Why do they appear again and again? For us as Catholics, do numbers mean more?

The practice of interpreting numbers is nothing unique in religious history. Cultures have applied meaning to numbers since the beginning of civilization. However, numbers found in the Bible have taken on mystical meaning across the centuries.

Assigning meaning to numbers in the Bible is an ancient practice known as gematria, a Greek term meaning calculation. It is based on numbers which are assigned to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Gematria is thus the calculation of those letters, which translate into words or phrases. By assigning a numerical value to a word or phrase, it is believed that two words with the same numerical value have some significant meaning to each other or simply to the number itself. Numbers thus have a key role in understanding God’s role in the universe.

For instance, the number 40 is used throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Noah was afloat during the Great Flood for 40 days and 40 nights (see Gn 7), Moses and the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert and Jesus was tempted by Satan for 40 days (Mk 1:13). Jewish tradition has it that the number 40 represented a time of transition where an extraordinary event occurs.

Enter the Church Fathers

Around the second century, the Church Fathers — those who clarified or passed on Christian doctrine — were quite familiar with this Jewish tradition of assigning numerical meaning to words or phrases. However, they condemned the use of numbers as having some magical significance. Instead, they taught that the numbers found in the Holy Scriptures were full of mystical meaning which could be interpreted for deeper significance.

For instance, St. Augustine, in a letter replying to Tichonius the Donatist, said, “If Tichonius had said that these mystical rules open up some of the hidden recesses of the law, instead of saying that they reveal all the mysteries of the law, he would have spoken truth.”

As well, it would have been around these first centuries of Christianity that the formal rituals which related to public worship and the Mass were taking shape. The question to ask then would be: Is there numeric symbolism in the sacrifice of the Mass or in some of the prayers for Catholics? The answer is yes.

For instance, as Catholics, we have the threefold penitential right — Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison — and the Agnus Dei, or Lamb of God. Outside of the Mass, we have a certain number of Masses that are offered for the dead. The Latin word novena is the root for our novenas. These nine days of prayer are thought to be based on the time that Mary and the disciples prayed in the Upper Room before the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Finally, if one wants to pray a 54-day Rosary Novena they will end up praying six full novenas. The first three should be offered for a particular intention and the last three novenas offered in thanksgiving.

In short, when it comes to numbers in the Bible and in Catholic tradition, nothing is coincidence. TCA

Eddie O’Neill writes from New Castle, Colo.

A Biblical Top Ten
1. One is associated with the oneness of nature in God; also one divine person in Christ; one true Church founded by Christ; and there is one mortal life, one baptism, one death, and after death one judgment before eternity.
 
Scripture — The Shema: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Dt 6:4).
 
2. Two represents the two distinct natures in Christ, human and divine; the two covenants of God with the human race, the Old and the New; there are two basic commandments, to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself; and the final separation on the Last Day into two groups, the saved and the lost.
 
Scripture — The children of Israel were forbidden to collect manna on the Sabbath and therefore were permitted to collect a double portion of manna on Friday (see Ex 16:5).
 
3. Three is the number of persons in the Trinity; Christ spent three days in the tomb and rose from the dead on the third day.
 
Scripture — The theological virtues are faith, hope and charity (see 1 Cor 13).
 
4. Four evangelists wrote the Gospels; the heavenly City of God is perfectly square, with all its dimensions a multiple of four; and there are four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.
 
Scripture — Four rivers flowed out of Eden (see Gn 2:10).
 
5. Five is derived from the Greek words forming the acrostic phrase “Jesus Christ, God’s Son Savior,” and taking the first letter in Greek from each word forms the Greek word for “fish”: Iota, Chi, Theta, Epsilon, Sigma = (ichthys) “FISH,” which became a symbol for Christ and a secret symbol for identifying Christians.
 
Scripture — Jesus feeds the five thousand (see Mt 14:13-21).
 
6. Six is associated with the days of creation, signifying completion and symbolizing the principal attributes of God — namely, his power, majesty, wisdom, love, mercy and justice.
 
Scripture — Jesus suffered on the Cross for six hours from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. (see Mk 15:25-33).
 
7. Seven is the symbolic number of charity, grace and the Holy Spirit. It is the term that stands for perfection. There are seven sacraments, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven deadly sins, seven joys and seven sorrows of Our Lady.
 
Scripture — Seven devils left Mary Magdalene, signifying the totality of her previous possession by Satan (see Lk 8:2).
 
8. Eight is seen as the number for joy and the Resurrection. There are eight beatitudes, and Christ rose from the grave on the eighth day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, symbolized in the octagonal shape of many baptismal fonts.
 
Scripture — There are seven or eight Beatitudes, depending on how one counts them (see Mt 5:1-12).
 
9. Nine is the angelic number since the Bible speaks of the nine choirs of angels. It is also the typical number of devotional prayer, such as in a novena.
 
Scripture — It was the ninth hour in Jewish time (3 p.m.) when Jesus gave up His life on the cross (see Mt 27:46).
 
10. Ten stands for the Ten Commandments that Christ confirmed for His followers; it is the basic multiple for fullness, and any number multiplied by ten (or tens) represents the highest or greatest possible.
 
Scripture — Jesus heals the ten lepers (see Lk 17:11-19).

666 ... Why so Ominous?

It could be called the most notorious three digits in the Bible.
 
“No one could buy or sell except one who had the stamped image of the beast’s name or the number that stood for its name. 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 13:17-18).
 
The number itself conjures images of the devil, or the Evil One. It is often connected with bad luck and even possession or a dark curse. How did 666 come to be associated with such evil connotations?
 
It relates to the numerical value of the Greek word for the beast as described in the last verse above. Through the practice of gematria, the beast, popularly known as the Antichrist, has been associated with 666.
 
Interestingly, six is associated with the idea of secular or human perfection. Sixty-six is a more emphatic expression of that. The number 666 would thus be the pinnacle of human perfection, or as scholars have noted the perfection of human pride or the ultimate declaration of independence from God.
 
It is also important to note that the Antichrist is not the only “bad guy” associated with the number six. For instance, two Old Testament figures have six very much connected to them. Goliath, in the First Book of Samuel, was six cubits tall and had six cubits of armor. His spear weighed 600 cubits.
 
In the Book of Daniel, the image of king Nebuchadnezzar was 60 cubits in height and six cubits broad and was worshiped when music was heard from six musical instruments.
 
Finally, it needs to be noted that when gematria is applied to the Greek word for Jesus the number is found to be 888. The number 8 has been traditionally associated with salvation, the Resurrection or the Second Coming — all ideas directly connected to Christ.
 
Even more significant is that 8 = 7 + 1. And sticking to the Bible symbols of these numbers, Jesus would equal perfection (seven) plus unity (one).