- Hebrew numbers: http://www.i18nguy.com/unicode/hebrew-numbers.html
- The Bible is a veritable mine of number symbology: http://afgen.com/symbols.html
- The Straight Dope: What's the story on numerology? http://bit.ly/e4ErM8
- Biblical Numerology: http://bit.ly/fbtvbd
Here's a brief summary of what these sites and other resources tell us about Biblical numbers.
The symbols we modern folk call numbers are borrowed from the Arabs. They're also called Hindu-Arabic numbers and are a combination of 10 symbols, 1 - 9 plus 0. They were introduced into Europe in the 12th century by a certain Leonardo Pisano, also known as Fibonacci. He was educated in North Africa. From there he carried the now popular numerals back to Italy.
The Hebrew Bible has no such symbols. Instead each letter in the Hebrew aleph-bet has a numerical value. Their alphabet (aleph-bet) is made up of consonants only. The vowels were added after the time of Christ to aid readers who did not know well how the words were to be properly pronounced. Modern Hebrew texts use the Arabic digits to represent numbers. However the Hebrew biblical texts continue to use the Hebrew letters as numeric values. Follow the above link for details.
The same was true for the Greeks and, of course, the Greek New Testament. With the Greeks the idea that each letter corresponds to a numerical value seems to have started with Pythagoras, somewhere around 500 years before Christ. Around 520 B.C. he founded a religious/philosophical/mystical society that came to be known as the Pythagorean School. What we know about Pythagoras and his society comes from his disciples through Plato. Their primary principle or dictum was All is number. This meant that everything in the universe has a numerical attribute that uniquely describes it. Examples include:
- the number of reason
- the first even or female number, the number of opinion
- the first true male number, the number of harmony
- the number of justice or retribution
- the number of marriage (2+3)
- the number of creation
Study the link for further elaboration. The primary point in either system is that if the letters of the alphabet (or aleph-bet) stand for numbers, then any name or word can be converted to numbers simply by adding the values of the separate letters. The Greeks called that process isopsephia (equal + psephos or pebble). A Greek synonym for pebbles is kalkuli from which we get the word 'calculate'. Early Greeks used pebbles arranged in patterns to learn arithmetic and geometry.
The Hebrew letters-numbers-process came to be known as gematria. We don't know the exact origin of that term. It may come from the order of the Greek alphabet. Gamma is the third letter of that alpha-bet, thus gamma-tria. Or maybe it was derived from Greek geo-metria (geometry) and so forth. Two forms of gematria are usually identified in Rabbinic literature: the "revealed" form and the "mystical". The mystical use is largely a Kabbalistic practice. The Kabbalah school of Judaism is a set of hidden or esoteric teachings, a philosophy that seeks to explain the relationship between the eternal Creator and His creation. There were and still are Christian Kabbalists.
Next time I will explain why confessional Lutherans generally avoid using gematria and Kabbalah to interpret the numbers found in the prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles of the New. Modern teachers of prophecy do not always practice such caution, teaching as they do, some very esoteric meanings to those same numbers.