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Is there evidence for the use of gematria or numerology in the Hebrew Bible?

By H. Churchyard [CC0]

Q: Is there evidence of gematria/isopsephy/numerology in the Hebrew Bible, or Jewish pseudepigrapha writing? Is there anything to suggest that that gematria/numerology was a prominent interest to Jewish scribes before the first century C.E.?

A: The short answer is that gematria and the closely-related isopsephy (the practice of linking words sharing the same numerical value) are best seen as interesting strands in how later readers interpreted the Hebrew Bible, rather than a major concern of the biblical authors themselves. Gematria seems fairly well established among Jews and Christians by the New Testament and early rabbinic period, probably through Greek influence, but gained a new lease of life in Jewish mystical texts of the later Middle Ages, notably in kabbalah.

Gematria can be found in two main forms. The more famous—reflected in Revelation’s 666 (Rev 13:18)—assigns a numerical value to each letter of the alphabet. Thus, the number of a name can be identified as the sum of the value of each letter. This kind of gematria is also attested in Jewish pseudepigrapha, notably the Sibylline Oracles (partly Jewish, partly Christian). Thus 888 (= Jesus in koine Greek) is given as the number of the Son of God (Sib. Or. 1:324-330). The number of Rome (948) is interpreted as revealing the number of years between the foundation of the city and its demise (Sib. Or. 8.145-149).

A second kind of gematria replaces letters with different letters, following a set scheme. The commonest is known as atbash, effectively reversing the order of the letters: hence the first letter (aleph) is replaced by the last (tav), the second (beth) with the penultimate letter (shin), etc. There is a rare example of atbash in the Hebrew Bible.  Jer 25:26 and Jer 51:41 both contain a puzzling reference to “Sheshach.” Using the atbash system, Sheshach is explicable as a substitute for Babel (= Babylon). But such usage is unusual among the biblical authors (it may also be found at Jer 51:1 and 1Kgs 9:13).

Those who claim that the Hebrew Bible contains more examples of gematria than those just mentioned are likely applying later interpretative methods to the biblical text drawn from rabbinic traditions of the second century onwards. One such example concerns Gen 14:14, where Abraham gathers 318 men to pursue the captors of his nephew Lot. The next chapter names Abram’s household steward as Eliezer (Gen 15:2). Given that the numerical value of Eliezer is 318, some rabbis took the 318 men to refer cryptically to Eliezer himself. Later kabbalistic texts present more complex gematrial interpretations, including speculation about the names of the angels. But these would reflect later interpretative traditions that developed after the texts had been copied by scribes.  

  • Ian Boxall

    Ian Boxall is associate professor of New Testament at the Catholic University of America. His recent publications include Black’s New Testament Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Hendrickson and Continuum, 2006), Patmos in the Reception History of the Apocalypse (Oxford University Press, 2013), and Discovering Matthew (SPCK, 2014).