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.
Eddie O’Neill writes from New Castle, Colo.