Ask a Scholar

Gematria by Ian Boxall

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, "Gematria", n.p. [cited 20 Jan 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/gematria

Contributors

Ian Boxall

Ian Boxall
Associate Professor, Catholic University of America

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).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A set of esoteric, mystical Jewish teachings that emerged in the Middle Ages; it attempts to convey the unknowable Divine in terms humans can understand. (Cognate: Kabbalistic.)

Relating to a set of esoteric, mystical Jewish teachings that emerged in the Middle Ages that attempts to convey the unknowable Divine in terms humans can understand.

The historical period generally spanning from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. in Europe and characterized by decreases in populations and the degeneration of urban life.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Works that claim to be written by authors that scholars have determined did not write them.

Related to the rabbis, who became the religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E. Rabbinic traditions were initially oral but were written down in the Mishnah, the Talmud, and various other collections.

Rev 13:18

18This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.

Jer 25:26

26all the kings of the north, far and near, one after another, and all the kingdoms of the world that are on the face of the earth. And after them the king of S ... View more

Jer 51:41

41How Sheshach is taken,


the pride of the whole earth seized!


How Babylon has become


an object of horror among the nations!

Jer 51:1

1Thus says the Lord:


I am going to stir up a destructive wind


against Babylon


and against the inhabitants of Leb-qamai;

1Kgs 9:13

13Therefore he said, “What kind of cities are these that you have given me, my brother?” So they are called the land of Cabul to this day.

Gen 14:14

14When Abram heard that his nephew had been taken captive, he led forth his trained men, born in his house, three hundred eighteen of them, and went in pursuit ... View more

Gen 15:2

2But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.