How Should Christians View Gematria?

HomeReligion, Atheism, and Odd TheologyHow Should Christians View Gematria?

Gematria is a process that uses a combination of letters and numbers to communicate. If we assign number values to letters, then combine letters into words, those words can have a total mathematical value. For example: if we assign 1-2-3 values to A-B-C (and so on, through the whole English alphabet), the word HOME has a value of 8+15+13+5, or 41. This is neither a moral nor an immoral thing to do. It’s simply a method for creating a kind of code.

History

This practice has been around for a long time. The ancient Babylonians assigned numerical values to words, though the values were arbitrary and has no real patterns. Aristotle wrote that the Greeks did this as far back as the 6th century BC. The Romans, of course, had “Roman numerals.” The letters I, V, X, L, C, and D were used as numbers, and you may have learned to use them in school. The first evidence of using Hebrew letters as numbers dates to around 78 BC. Alexander Jannaeus, king of Judea, marked the 20th and 25th years of his reign by putting the Aramaic K and KE on coins. There’s graffiti in Pompeii that reads, “I love the woman whose number is 545.” We can only speculate whether the woman in question learned the identity of her secret admirer.

Numbers in the Bible

The Bible contains a significant amount of numerical symbolism. These patterns are generally pretty easy to spot. Here are a few examples where we see the same numbers repeated in a way that connects separate people and events:

I could go on, of course. With or without regard to gematria, it’s clear that numbers communicate some meaning in the Bible. When we study how God uses numbers, we can make connections that we otherwise might miss. This is a valid area of study.

Is Gematria in the Bible?

The books of the Old Testament were written long before we see any use of gematria in the Hebrew language, so it’s unlikely the writers of Scripture purposely included any. In theory, God could have inspired them to unknowingly include certain words that create hidden coded messages, but that’s problematic. More on that below.

The books of the New Testament were all written after the use of gematria in Hebrew had begun, so it’s possible that they used the idea to communicate. Scholars generally recognize two passages as possible gematria:

When we read Matthew’s gospel, we may find gematria in action. As mentioned above, Matthew lists three groups of 14 ancestors for Jesus. What wasn’t mentioned is that the calculated value of “David” Israel’s most famous king, is 14. Matthew’s geneology may be connecting the gematria value of David to Jesus’ identity as the One from the line of David who would forever sit on the throne of David.

Secret Codes?

In all its forms, gematria has been used to try to find hidden meanings in seemingly ordinary things. In a number of cultures, it was used to validate belief in a mystical relationship between a number and an event. For example, calculating the values of the names of two combatants would theoretically predict the winner of a conflict. When applied to a person’s name, it was used in onomancy, a kind of fortune-telling. Gematria has almost always been associated with astrology and divination, which is condemned in Scripture. That doesn’t mean it’s always wrong, but it’s worth mentioning in this assessment.

The number of the beast in Revelation is most certainly a secret code. Speculation is that John didn’t want to name the beast outright, to avoid bringing the wrath of Rome on those reading the prophecy. Readers were to use wisdom to calculate the number, by which they could learn the beast’s identity. Beyond that, I see no other uses of gematria in the New Testament.

Keep in mind that those who apply gematria to the Bible are looking for hidden meaning in the text. Edward F. Vallowe, in Biblical Mathematics, says this: “Only to the students of the Word, those to whom God’s Spirit has given spiritual insight, will the code be plain.” This is problematic, as we shall see below.

I would suggest three ways of thinking about this for Christians.

It’s Interesting

As we study the Bible, we’ll find numerous examples of number patterns (no pun intended). The 12 tribes of Israel are echoed in Jesus’ 12 disciples. The Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness are echoed in Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. You get the idea. By making note of these patterns, we may be able to more clearly understand how God’s plan has been in action from the beginning. Where God has used these numbers, we should explore His intentions. This is a good thing to do.

It’s Unreliable

Gematria isn’t a precise system. It’s messy and unreliable. There’s tons of room for varying interpretations, and the numbers often don’t fit at all. For example: depending on which system of gematria you use, the name Melissa would often be calculated as 78. That’s the same value as the Latin donatio, which means “gift.” What does that tell us? Obviously, that anybody named Melissa should give me a gift. Right?

No, of course not. That would be silly. The fact that two things can be connected numerically doesn’t indicate that they’re connected in any other ways… and claiming there IS a connection may be nothing more than guesswork, fantasy, or even outright manipulation. Melissa equals 78. Here are a few other words and phrases with a value of 78:

You can imagine what kind of nonsense might come from trying to find spiritual meaning in a magazine article where Nick Cage talks about playing a bad man in a movie who gets ebola from hacking a chicken and is miraculously healed in an encounter with the Almighty. There’s no spiritual meaning there, and this is part of the problem with using gematria to find hidden meaning in Scripture.

In another simple example, calculating the number of Revelation’s “beast” has led to theories that literally hundreds of different people were presumed to be the prophesied anti-christ. Would you like to see a few phrases that add up to 666?

No kidding. Those all add up to 666. It’s literally impossible to derive any meaningful information from a system this imprecise… and it’s literally possible to arrive at virtually any meaning, if you’re looking for something specific. If you’re unfamiliar with “Bible codes,” you can check out an article on that. It’s very similar. We can create our own patterns, which then leads us to believe that we’ve discovered something important, even if we haven’t.

Here’s what early theologian Irenaeus had to say about calculating the number of the beast:

“It is therefore more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfillment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned; and the same question will, after all, remain unsolved.”

It’s Backwards

While there are number patterns in Scripture, consider what gematria says about God: the claim is that He hid important messages in the text, and that we will either discover these secrets or remain spiritually ignorant. However: that’s the opposite of what we see in Scripture. God’s messages are plain for all to see. At Sinai, He spoke to all of the Israelites and said that they would be His people and He would be their God. When Jesus was asked, He revealed that He is the Messiah. Commentators throughout the ages mention how obvious God’s words are, and how Israel kept messing up in spite of it. While there are definitely passages of Scripture that seem obscure, almost all of the Bible is pretty straightforward.

In contrast, Gnostics believed that true spirituality could be found in secret, hidden information that’s only known by a few. Much of the New Testament was written to combat Gnosticism, which casts serious doubt on whether gematria can bring spiritual wisdom. I would suggest that it cannot.

In the end, diligent students of the Bible (which should include every believer) will find great meaning in the clear patterns found there. Those who look for secrets in the text may find something… but it’s unlikely God put it there.


Join me on Substack! Join me on Substack!

Bookmark this page!
Close
Bible Reading Checklist
Visit Awesome Christian Music

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *