Biblical numerology is a topic discussed in theological literature, where several opinions exist regarding the symbolic use of numbers. Numerical symbolism was originally taught by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, according to whom “all things are fittingly ordered according to the nature of numbers; [number is the eternal essence; God is number; number is God]”. The Pythagorian theories have influenced many philosophers (the neo-Pythagorians) and many Christian thinkers, among whom can be found both heretical Gnostics and orthodox Church Fathers.
The Gnostics seek out hidden metaphysical truths in the essence of numbers, using them in a mystical way. St. Irenaeus condemns this tendency stating that it has no place in Christian exegesis. He writes: “[The Gnostics] endeavor to bring forward proof [of their system] through means of numbers, and the syllables of names, sometimes also through the letter of syllables, and yet again through those numbers, which are, according to the practice followed by the Greeks, contained in different letters: this I say, demonstrates in the clearest manner their overthrow and confusion, as well as the untenable and perverse character of their professed knowledge”.
Although St. Irenaues was a severe critic of the Gnostic system of mystical numerology, he does not conclude that “their numerological analysis is a fallacious thing in itself”, as Davis remarks (p.112). After all, St. Irenaeus follows the theological thought of St. Justin who supported his argument for monotheism by quoting Pythagoras. The difference between the Church Fathers and the Gnostics is that for the Church Fathers the use of numbers has a symbolic value, while for the Gnostics it has a mystical value, holding a metaphysical value in itself.
The symbolic value of numbers is discussed not only by Sts. Justin and Irenaeus, but also by St. Clement and St. Methodius. However, it is in the thought of St. Augustine where we see a deeper appreciation of biblical numbers. St. Augustine saw in numbers an icon of the unchangeable and absolute, and in their ignorance the risk of failing to understand the biblical truths or events (e.g. why Christ fasted for forty days in the wilderness).
Having as a point of departure the writings of the Church Fathers, the following can be an interpretation of symbolic numbers: Number one (1), symbolizes the essence of God; number two (2), God’s creative revelation; number three (3), the hypostaseis (persons) of God; number four (4), the creation of the world; number five (5), the grace of God; number six (6), the creation of man; number seven (7), the notion of perfection and completeness; number eight (8), the resurrection of the New Man (Christ); number nine (9), the Divine judgment; and number ten (10), the union with God.
There are some other important numbers in the Bible that may be understood in accordance with the aforementioned interpretation. Number twelve (12 = 2+10) symbolizes God’s revelation to His chosen people; number forty (40 = 4 X 10), the “life of toil” (in Augustinian words) that leads to union with God; and the number seventy (70 = 7 X 10), the perfect administration of the world by God. The numbers 156 (the fish gathered by the apostles) and 666 (Antichrist’s name) are also considered symbolic numbers, but there is a variety of interpretations offered by the Church Fathers. We can only speculate, following the exegesis of the numbers 1-10, that 156 can symbolize God’s(1) grace (5) on man (6), and 666 (number 6 written 3 times) can symbolize the Antichrist’s blasphemous imitation of the Holy Trinity.
In conclusion, it must be emphasized that the biblical numbers in the patristic thought must be understood symbolically (pointing to higher truths) and not mystically (having a metaphysical importance in themselves).
Ethelbert Bullinger, Number in Scripture (London, 1984).
R. McCormack, Seven in Scripture (London, 1926).
Edwin Hartil, Biblical Hermeneutics (USA, 1947).
John Davis, Biblical Numerology (USA, 1968).
St. Justin, Horotary Address to the Greeks, chapter 19.
St. Irenaeus, Against Heretics, Book II:24.St. Clement, Stromata, Chapter 6.
St. Methodius, The Banquet of the Ten Virgins, Chapter XI.
St. Augustine, On the Morals of the Manicheans, 11:12.
St. Augustine, Sermon on Mark, 8:5.
Rev.Fr.Dr.Vassilios Bebis is the Presiding Priest at Saint Nektarios Orthodox Church in Rosindale,Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Sophia Institute.