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I was asked to speak briefly on these issues to a group of Christians following a Wednesday evening meal at the Oliver Creek Church of Christ, in Arlington, TN.
It is VERY informal and brief. These comments are certainly not polished or extensive. There has been more interest in the topic of Hell in recent years due to the publications of Rob Bell (aka No Hell Bell) and Edward Fudge (aka Fudging on Hell). My comments should not stir the controversy that either of these authors has.
Thanks to Oliver Creek congregation for making this audio available.
This audio recording begins a few minutes into my presentation [mea culpa].
“Why Can’t Johnny Count?” A Needed Guide for Preachers (and Commentators) on Gematria (666/616), Isopsephism, and Counting
This should be the last post on this particular topic of gematria, isopsephism, and related areas for some time. However, there is so much bad information in preaching, in commentaries, in various Wikipedia articles, in DVD Bible lessons, and in cyberspace that I feel the need to point out some of the more widespread misunderstandings about all this. The last straw, so to speak, came when a well known evangelical/fundamentalist Bible teacher suggested a connection between some of the numbers associated with Goliath in 1 Sam. 17:4-7 (Goliath’s height was “six cubits” and the point of his spear “weighed six hundred shekels”) and the anti-Christ. Besides the fact that the term “anti-Christ” does not appear in the book of Revelation, this correlation of Goliath and the number 666 reveals more of a fertile imagination than a serious understanding of John’s use of numbers in Revelation 13:18.
Traditional numerology, where different numbers of the Bible have distinct symbolic meanings, would include discussions about numbers such as 3, 7, and 12. I will not be discussing this kind of traditional numerology in Revelation, although that is also a very important study. Rather, I am looking at later misconceptions about the use of mathematical calculations in the interpretation of Rev. 13:18. In particular, these misunderstandings do not recognize or appreciate the prophet’s use of an alphabetic system where letters of the alphabet have arithmetic significance. The name for this technique of composing words that have specific arithmetic sums is called gematria. This is the specific method used in Revelation 13:18 when it states that words or names have an arithmetic sum that can be determined by the mathematical operation of addition. In Rev. 13:17-18 the audience is informed that, “no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This 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.”
Often when surveying distinctive perspectives in the interpretation of Revelation, it is a simple matter to categorize these various outlooks according to the standard classifications of Pre-millennial, Post-millennial, A-millennial, etc. When it comes to the misunderstanding of gematria in Rev. 13:18, however, it appears that ignorance is very ecumenical, completely impartial, and is equally at home in all groups. Liberal scholarship, conservative scholarship, preterist scholarship, futurist scholarship, and even those who have boasted (correctly) of having no scholarship, have all perpetuated garbled notions about gematria. These confused notions about gematria often bear little resemblance to the historical realities of the thought world of the early church and the practice of gematria in its larger world. I have earlier discussed the fact that the number 666 may not even have been the number John wrote when he penned Revelation 13:18; indeed, the number 616 should also be regarded as a contender for this privileged place. The inclusion of the number 616 at Rev. 13:18 in some copies of the Bible in the early church, attested by Irenaeus who opposed the number 616 (Against Heresies, 5.30.1-3), and the singular fact that the earliest copy we possess of Rev. 13:18 contains the number 616 rather than 666 (Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish. Greek Papyri Beneath the Egyptian Sand Reveal a Long-Lost World, p. 206) should not be neglected in this discussion. These two facts ought to have diminished, faster than a tachyon particle beam, this unequivocal loyalty to the number 666.
In an effort to rehabilitate the meaning and understanding of gematria in the setting of the John’s ministry, I want to highlight four inconvenient truths about gematria. These inconvenient truths about the nature of ancient alphabets and gematria in John’s setting and culture will reveal how poorly many later scholars and preachers have understood John’s intent. Turning to Graeco-Roman and Jewish primary sources from antiquity is the easiest way to disclose the flaws in ideas held by later interpreters of the phenomenon of gematria in Revelation.
Besides possibly having chosen the wrong number, namely 666, for Rev. 13:18, one of the greatest flaws in misunderstandings about the “mark of the beast” is a disregard for the basic arithmetic meaning of the Greek term psēphizō (ψηφίζω) used in 13:18. In the older New Testament Greek dictionary by Joseph Thayer (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament) he defined the term “psēphizō” as “to count with pebbles, to compute, calculate, reckon.” According to the more recent New Testament Greek dictionary BDAG (Walter Bauer and Frederick William Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the Greek New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature) the meaning for this word psēphizō is “to add up digits and calculate a total, count (up), calculate, reckon,” except its occurrence in Rev. 13:18 Strangely, BDAG gives a different meaning for psēphizō at Rev. 13:18, “to probe a number for its meaning, interpret, figure out.” This unusual BDAG decision can only be maintained by jettisoning the normal arithmetic meaning of psēphizō in other occurrences in the Greek New Testament and elsewhere (cf. “count the cost,” in Luke 14:28 and sunpsēphizō in Acts 19:19). Furthermore, it is certainly begging the question to suggest a non-arithmetical meaning of this term psēphizō to interpret Rev. 13:18 when this is the sole instance given of this supposed different meaning.
The implications of this lexical evidence for the arithmetical significance of psēphizō are profound since it means preachers and commentators should stop interpreting 666 through the perspectives of traditional numerology and stay on task with true gematria. Interest in generic symbolism and in traditional numerology does not correspond to the meaning of psēphizō, nor is this gematria, pace many commentators. Perhaps you have heard a preacher or commentator make this type of comment regarding 666, “The number 6 is less than the perfect number 7, and, therefore, 666, is three times less than the perfection of the number 7.” This type of symbolic interpretation is not obeying the directive of the author of Revelation. In order to respond to John’s original imperative (13:18, “let him calculate the number,” ὁ ἔχων νοῦν ψηφισάτω τὸν ἀριθμὸν), the interpreter must “add up digits,” or “calculate” a number arithmetically. John’s words leave little room for traditional numerical symbolism since that is not based upon the mathematical task of adding up a series of numbers.
The next inconvenient truth is that gematria in the early Roman era was not a specifically Hebrew or Jewish technique. It is misguided to imagine gematria as some form of “Holy Ghost” math; nor should gematria be viewed as quintessentially “Hebrew Numerology.” Suggestions that it originated within Jewish communities of antiquity or later Jewish Kabbalah have yet to be demonstrated. The only way to justify the explanation that gematria is fundamentally Jewish is if one only looks at Jewish examples. To be sure, the Greek alphabet seems to have originated approximately in the 8th century BC with its adaptation of Phoenician letters. Nevertheless, long before the time of early Christianity the Greek language and alphabet had become the property of the Greeks, and they did not imagine that they were still employing a “Western Semitic Script,” any more than typical Americans today imagine that they are employing a Latin or Etruscan alphabet.
Below is the standard Greek alphabet of the Graeco-Roman period with its corresponding numeric values.
Alphabet in Greek with Numeric Value
The three Greek letters digamma, koppa, and sampi became extinct in writing but were retained for their numeric use.
ϝ\Ϝ 6 (digamma)
ϙ\Ϙ 90 (koppa)
ϡ\Ϡ 900 (sampi)
A third inconvenient truth that undermines many popular notions about gematria is that gematria is only possible with languages whose alphabets carry both lexical and mathematical significance. If this is not a characteristic of a particular alphabet, then gematria, by definition, is simply not possible. Accordingly, John’s ideas about the “number of the beast” could work with Aramaic, or Hebrew, or Greek, but not with Latin or English, notwithstanding an online “English Gematria Calculator.” If the English alphabet had this characteristic, then there would be no need to import Roman numerals to have letters of the alphabet carry numerical significance. Modern mystics and fundamentalists can play cryptography until Jesus returns and devise ciphers in every modern alphabet if they wish, but that is not the gematria that John utilized and that was well known by his audiences.
A final inconvenient truth that has also yet to makes its way into some pulpits and halls of academic learning is that gematria was not a “secret code” used primarily by persecuted, minority groups to stay beneath the radar of the Evil Empire. The diverse uses of gematria by all kinds of people from all kinds of religions in the Mediterranean Basin speaks against romanticized notions of persecuted cells of Christians using gematria as anti-imperial argot to conceal clandestine meetings and subversive teachings. Anyone familiar with the watershed publication by Adolf Deissmann almost one century ago, Light from the Ancient East, knows this. Deissmann records examples from Pompeii (p. 277). A certain Amerimnus thought highly of a female friend and “the number of her name is 1035.” Another graffito from Pompeii reads, “I love her whose number is 545,” while at Smyrna ones reads “I love a woman whose number is 731” (Roger Bagnall, Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East, pp. 14-15). As mentioned in an earlier post the Greek term for “Amen” equaled 99 and was sometimes signed in Christian papyri as ϘΘ (AnneMarie Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord, pp. 218-21). Pagans also expressed their polytheistic piety using the same technique, noting that the name of the goddess “Isis” in Greek equaled arithmetically the phrase “the great hope.” The Greek term “God” equals “holy,” “Paul” equals “wisdom,” and “Easter” equals “the good life” (Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, p. 206). Perhaps the best known of all examples is recorded in Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Nero, 39) where he reports about the frequency of public lampoons against Nero. One public criticism of the Emperor Nero stated, “A new calculation. Nero killed his own mother.” In the Greek spelling of Nero’s name, the letters for “Nero” =1005, and the sentence [he] “killed his own mother” also equaled 1005. Suetonius’s example of the Greek name for Nero and its association with an entire sentence goes farther than John’s example in Rev. 13:18. In John’s example the spelling of the name is arithmetically equal to the “number of the beast,” which is then given in the text as 666/616. In the example of Nero from Suetonius, the public graffito never gives the arithmetical sum of 1005. Thus, there is no stated number like John’s 666/616. Rather, the graffito states that there are two new sums/calculations. One is the Greek spelling of the name “Nero,” and the second is the sentence, [he] “killed his own mother.” Since these two have identical arithmetical sums, this is an example of isopsephism (equal sums or equal calculations).
It should be clear that none of these examples seem to point to the necessity of gematria being a “secret code,” especially by a persecuted, minority group. In a conversation with my colleague, Dr. Allen Black (Prof. of New Testament @ Harding School of Theology, Memphis, TN, 38117), he and I concluded that maybe the use of gematria could be compared to the use of initials or abbreviations in modern circumstances. That is, initials, like gematria, could be used by people in love (Jason loves CJR) or by members of an organization, cadre, religion, urban gang, or terror cell that uses argot or abbreviated idiom so that outsiders cannot know all their secrets. To be sure, it could be used to create a sense of “possessing” information, perspective, and experiences unique to a group. Nevertheless, in the ancient evidence cited above, admittedly partial, there is not any proof that the idea of gematria pointed to the use of this primarily by persecuted groups or marginal groups or only Judeo-Christian groups. Gematria was ubiquitous, like our use of initials or abbreviations, and its character was adaptable and flexible in its use and significance.
As you read the plethora of ideas about the “number of the beast” and number related hermeneutics, I hope this above evidence gives you some information to use as a compass to follow, because at times preachers can get pretty disoriented on these issues. Beyond my earlier posts on this topic, one can also consult one of those by Ben Witherington, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2012/04/22/graffiti-and-gematria-in-early-christianity/.
When writing my commentary on Revelation chapters 1-3, I finally reached the point when I could no longer vacillate about the title of my commentary. How was I to translate the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) that the prophet John used for each of the communities that he wrote? It has certainly been traditional to entitle this kind of commentary as a study on John’s “Letters to the Seven Churches.” Should I call these communities that followed Christ “churches” or “congregations”?
Then I remembered the preface to the first edition of the King James translation of the Holy Scriptures. Toward the end of the eleven page “Translators to the Reader” that was regularly a part of the earliest printings of the KJV, one of the leaders of the translators from Oxford and Cambridge wrote, “Finally, we have on the one hand avoided the strictness of the Puritans, who reject old ecclesiastical words and adopt other words, preferring washing for baptism, and Congregation instead of Church” (Drs. E. F. Rhodes and L. Lupas, The Translators to the Reader, The Original Preface of the King James Version of 1611 Revisited, p. 84).
In fact, this strictness of the Puritans reflected not only their rejection of “old ecclesiastical words,” but also their accuracy in translation. For unlike the English term “church” which invariably refers to a Christian organization or structure, the Greek term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) used by John the prophet was a far less religious term in ancient Greek. When there is a meeting of the PTA, or a city’s council, or a group of legislators we do not designate any of these as a church. Acts 19:32, 39, and 40, as well as numerous examples from pagan literature, however, use this term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) for similar non religious meetings. Thus the KJV translators took a Greek term that was not essentially religious and changed it into an English term which was not only religious, but particularly Christian.
The term “congregation,” chosen by the Puritans and myself, certainly seemed closer to the non religious term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia) used by John. Clearly the English verb “congregate” has no essential religious connotations. The noun “congregation” can refer to a Christian assembly/organization (but not a building) or a Jewish assembly/organization (but not a building) and sometimes in English can even refer to non religious gatherings. An article dated July 1, 2010 in the online edition of CNN
(http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/africa/06/29/somalia.journalists.wounded/index.html) contained this non religious use of the term “congregation.”
“Warring sides have made it their habit to bombard or attack places with a congregation of journalists ostensibly to eliminate their enemy’s claims of political gains,” said Omar Faruk Osman, NUSOJ secretary-general. “But we must remind them of their responsibility to protect journalists and civilians.”
Accordingly, I decided upon “Seven Congregations” rather than “Seven Churches” since this choice not only seems to resonate with the spirit of John’s term ἐκκλησία (ekklēsia), but also does not as easily conform itself to the architectonic Christianity that dominated the thinking of King James I and his translators. These seven communities that John addressed were individual congregations of women and men who, with varying degrees of faithfulness, followed the Lamb, and certainly did not see themselves as part of a religious organization with a corporate profile.
One of the current mantras in American theological education is globalization, and rightly so. Globalization should be built into the DNA of every congregation of followers of Christ. The world of Jesus was a world replete with views of globalization. Alexander the Great had created a world of globalization from Albania to Afghanistan and the Romans from the Thames to the Tigris (for Roman globalism see Oster, Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible, pp. 29-40).
In fact, globalism was an integral part of Roman politics and theology and contributed to the Roman State’s hostility and aspersions toward the church’s geopolitical Jesus. Buddhist “missionaries” had come to the Mediterranean before the time of nascent Christianity.
There exists a Greek navigation guide from the mid-first century AD, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, that demonstrates Roman sea trade into sub-Saharan Africa as far south as Tanzania and as far east as Sri Lanka and eastern India. In addition, the very presence of silk garments in the Roman world testified to the existence of China and the famous Silk Route, since it was not until centuries later, when China lost its monopoly on silk, that the West could produce its own silk.
When Dr. James Allan Francis, a Baptist minister, presented his essay (eventually) called One Solitary Life, he could not have known that it would become a Christmas classic. Nor did later believers realize the profound accuracy and significance of his words,
He never went to college.
He never put his foot inside a big city.
He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born.
Jesus’ provincial travel resume of “he never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born” stands in stark contrast to Paul and his co-workers, the itinerant Jewish exorcists of Acts 19, the tens of thousands of pagans and Jews who sailed in and out of the Herodian port at Caesarea, the first century AD, Lycus Valley merchant, Titus Flavius Zeuxis who made 72 journeys from his hometown of Hierapolis to Rome on business (according to his epitaph preserved in Hierapolis).
Had it been within the purview of Jesus’ divine calling to reach out to pagan sinners, it would have been relatively easy for him to travel the less than 30 miles from Nazareth to the major port city of Caesarea Maritima and to catch one of the many ships that would take him to Alexandria, Corinth, Ephesus, Athens, or Rome. What God did through Jesus to ignite the fuse of the Abrahamic Great Commission (Gen. 12:1-3) apparently required that Jesus not wander too far from home, which meant Christ, unlike Paul and virtually all Diaspora Jews, had little opportunity to mix and mingle with those who represented the seamy underbelly of pagan life and idolatry.
It is the uniform theological outlook of the New Testament that Jesus did exactly what he was supposed to do by his ministry primarily among the Jews in the Land of Promise and that the church did exactly what it was supposed to do by both declaring a divine globalism and living in a way that was commensurate with its declaration. It is certainly significant for us that neither the Gospels, nor Acts, nor Paul, etc. see a need, either doctrinally or missionally. to re-locate Jesus in the world of the Diaspora. If all of the canonical writers were at peace in confronting their own world of paganism with a Christ that never rubbed shoulders with true paganism, then, perhaps we could also.
A disclaimer is in order: First, I don’t think TobyMac is the Antichrist, a member of the Illuminati, or guilty of any other nefarious associations or behavior, and I think it is clearly helpful to the Christian movement worldwide that he won the Best Contemporary Christian Album at this year’s Grammy Awards. I also find many of his lyrics to be on target spiritually.
I must, however, take umbrage at one of his comments that shows up in interviews and was quoted in an article cited in Huffington Post. I am referring to an article entitled “Christian Music Bounces Back With TobyMac, Chris Tomlin, Lecrae And More.” According to this article, “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church,” the artist [TobyMac] said. “He hung out with the people, where they were. And that’s to me where Christian music should be.” Since everyone knows there was no Christian church in existence in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this statement is designed for its rhetorical impact, rather than its historical accuracy. Sometimes, though, rhetorical statements have a life of their own, and hearers forget the limitations of rhetoric. More probably the rhetoric of this statement was meant to emphasize the viewpoint that Jesus did not spend time associating with religious/Jewish organizations or hanging out in Jewish meeting places or chillaxing with the officialdom of Jewish religion. A fact-check of this viewpoint led me to conclude that it did not represent the whole story of Jesus.
This anti-institutional view of Jesus has a long history, but it stands in stark contrast to the picture of Jesus given us by the major writer of the New Testament, Luke, and also by John the prophet. Let’s look at a few facts. There was a very small nucleus of Jewish people for whom God pulled back the curtain to allow them to see and understand the historic and spiritual realities associated with the nativity story. This nucleus found in the birth narratives of Luke 1-2 includes:
1. the priest and temple functionary, Zechariah, and his wife Elizabeth
2. Simeon who was guided by the Holy Spirit into the Jewish Temple (the epicenter of Jewish officialdom and pious folk) rather than into a local tavern to encounter there Mary, Joseph, and Jesus
3. and, finally, the prophetess Anna who would have only left the Temple if she were dragged out screaming and kicking (Lk. 2:37, “She never left the temple.”)
There were of course Jesus’ parents who had to be from the line of David and could not be priestly, but who seemingly went to the Temple at every ordained time. It seems that none of those chosen by God to be insiders into the miracle of Jesus’ birth felt compromised or dragged down by “hanging out in church” in their own day.
Then, of course, there is the 12 year old Jesus (Lk. 2:41-48), who had clearly broken away from the typical obedient child model and who began to establish his own spiritual identity. To establish his identity and mission early on, he chose to go to the center of Jewish formality and regulations. Since Jesus chose to be at the Temple discussing theology with Jewish teachers and theologians at the age of 12, he was about as churchy as a Jewish boy could be. When the frustrated parents of Jesus finally discovered him and questioned him about his behavior he replied (Lk. 2:49, The Message), “Didn’t you know that I had to be here, dealing with the things of my Father?” It would be difficult to construe this response into an anti-institutional statement by Jesus; in fact, it shows Jesus’ preference for hanging out at “Jewish church!” The words recorded next in Scripture preserve the response of Jesus’ mom and dad, but they also could have come right out of the mouths of many modern Christians who have been persuaded by the hip/hop-pop picture of Jesus, “But they had no idea what he was talking about” (Lk. 2:50, The Message).
To be sure, the validity of Christian ministry is determined by the authenticity of its message and accompanying lifestyle and not by its location. Bars and brothels are certainly within the purview of modern Christian ministry, but we need to be clear that this was not the fundamental approach used by Jesus. Most of Jesus’ time was spent in synagogues, in travel through the Jewish countryside, and in Jewish homes. It does not seem to have been an erratic choice when Jesus decided to give his inaugural teachings in synagogues (Lk. 4:14-15). There were inns and taverns in the Roman world and apparently in the social knowledge of Jesus’ audiences (Lk. 10:34-35), but based upon the historical record preserved in the Gospels, it does not seem possible to place Jesus in them for the purpose of reconstructing his public ministry. Moreover, many of the “outcasts” and “sinners” that Jesus encountered were in fact Jewish. For example, we might remember Zacchaeus regarded as the “chief tax collector” and known by the crowd in Luke 19 as “one who is a sinner.” Even though Zacchaeus was a tax collector and sinner, according to Jesus, Zacchaeus was “a son of Abraham” (Lk. 19:9). From a Lukan theological perspective, this spiritual reclamation of Zacchaeus, the back-sliding “son of Abraham,” is seen as a clear manifestation of Jesus’ missional identity as the “Son of Man who came to seek out and to save the lost” (Lk. 19:10).
For sake of space, let me encourage you to read through Luke’s second volume, Acts, to see whether most of the gentile converts came from religious settings and religious buildings or from the bars and brothels of the Roman world. When Paul (if I may leave Acts of the Apostles for a moment) refers to saints in Corinth as former “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers” (1 Cor. 6:9-10), there is no reason to exclude these converts out of paganism from the “outsiders or unbelievers” that would have heard the truth of God when they attended the church’s worship services in Corinth (1 Cor. 14:23-25).
Now let’s turn to Revelation. Admittedly John is not concerned primarily with evangelism and outreach, but his view of Christ, believers, and the church seems to have a different flavor than the idea that “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church.” In the mind of some, the statement that “Jesus didn’t hang out in the church” might leave the impression that one could love Jesus and ignore the church, for example. That outlook would strike John as unacceptable, based upon what Jesus told him in the beginning of the book of Revelation. For the seven congregations in Revelation the defining picture of Jesus was not, as many might expect, the sacrificial Lamb of God (which does not show up until chapter 5:6), but instead the Son of Man. John’s message for his contemporary Christians did not focus on Jesus on the clouds (Rev. 1:7), contrary to the belief of some fundamentalist millenarians and evangelicals. Rather, for the Christians of his own day, John the prophet’s focus was upon Jesus “in the midst of the lampstands” (Rev. 1:13), the very lampstands Jesus himself identifies as the seven churches to whom John wrote (Rev. 1:20). For John the prophet, the Enthroned Christ lives and moves among the congregations of God. As I noted in my commentary, (Seven Congregations in a Roman Crucible. A Commentary on Revelation 1-3, p. 89),
From first to last the Christ of Revelation is an ecclesiastical Jesus, a Jesus for the congregations of God. Whether seen under the rubric of the 144,000 sealed on their foreheads, or the Bride of the Lamb, or the city he loves, or the great multitude that no one can count, or the saints, or the witnesses of Jesus, or the New Jerusalem, the Jesus Christ that John knows and proclaims is one for the collective people of God, the congregations of Roman Asia. The prophet John’s identity is inseparably linked with congregations (ekklēsiai, ἐκκλησίαι, 1:4); the identity of Jesus is inseparably linked with seven congregations (epta ekklēsiai, ἑπτὰ ἐκκλησίαι, 1:11); and the significance of the book of Revelation is inseparably linked with congregations, “It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches” (epi tais ekklēsiais, ἐπὶ ταῖς ἐκκλησίαις, 22:16).
We contemporary believers just might need to reconsider whether we want to recapture apostolic belief by acknowledging and confessing “that Jesus is not a parachurch Messiah” (p. 89), but a churchy Jesus, notwithstanding all the abuses and heresies propagated by his ostensible followers, both past and present. It cannot be doubted that Jesus of Nazareth, Luke, and John the prophet all knew very well the abuses and unspeakable atrocities engendered by God’s people over the centuries, but it never seemed a viable spiritual choice for them to dishonor God in response to the lamentable behavior of his people.
Now, go and watch the official music video for TobyMac’s “Eye on It.” http://tobymac.com/videos/eye-it-official-music-video
It has been assumed for years by leading NT scholars that the oldest archaeological artifacts that can be traced back to early Christians were produced after AD 180 [Graydon F. Snyder, Ante Pacem: Archaeological Evidence of Church Life Before Constantine, rev. ed. 2003]. Therefore, many do not know that it is time to abandon that earlier assumption in light of relatively recent discoveries in Asia Minor. Now there is earlier evidence, earlier by two generations than was previously thought, and this new material culture pertains to one of the seven congregations to whom John wrote. Equally significant, this archaeological material reflects some of the facets of the Johannine practice of numerology. Any one of these three aspects about this new artifact, its date, its location, or its numerology, would justify posting this evidence, but the combination of all three of these relating to the book of Revelation is extremely noteworthy.
The evidence comes from the area of graffiti excavated by archaeologists working in early Roman Smyrna (modern Izmir, Turkey), and the evidence is dated no later than AD 125. Prof. Roger Bagnall, former professor of classics and history at Columbia University and now Director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW) at New York University, reported these findings recently in his important work Everyday Writing in the Græco-Roman East [Sather Classical Lectures, University of California Press; Reprint edition 2012].
Bagnall reports that there are graffiti found in layers of plaster in the Roman basilica in Smyrna, and one of these layers of plaster can be dated precisely to AD 125, using a Roman era date contained in the plaster. The layer dated AD 125 is the “uppermost layer of plaster” and it “follows that the earlier layer or layers of plaster, and the inscriptions on them, must date before 125.”
In the plaster pre-dating AD 125 Bagnall mentions “a most remarkable graffito” which “can only indicate a Christian character.”
Before reproducing the information given by Prof. Bagnall, some might need a brief refresher course in the Graeco-Roman technique of numerology known as isopsephism, since it is impossible to understand this graffito without this. Even if you are conversant with the details of biblical numerology, you might have slept through the lecture and demonstration about isopsephism in seminary. The term isopsephism comes from the Greek word ἰσόψηφα [=isopsephism] which means “of equal numerical value.” The presupposition for isopsephism to work and have meaning is the fact that “each letter of the original Greek alphabet . . . serves also as a numeral,” (Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish. Greek Papyri Beneath the Egyptian Sand Reveal a Long-Lost World, 2007, p. 205) thereby making it possible to assign a numerical value to words as also happens in gematria. Isopsephism is a technique where two words, or a word and a phrase, or a word and a letter of the alphabet had the same numerical value. Thus, to give one example, the Greek word “Amen” [=ἀμήν] has the numerical value of 99 [ἀ=1; μ=40; ή=8; ν=50]. According, we have early Christian documents which end with the term “Amen” given in its numerical amount, 99. Now we can appreciate the meaning and significance of this new discovery that brings the modern interpreter of Revelation closer to the world of John and his congregations.
Discovered at Smyrna was the following Greek wording:
ἰσόψηφα “Of equal value”
κύριοϲ ω “Lord 800″
πίστιϲ ω ”Faith 800”
Putting this in the context of ancient Smyrna and its community of believers, we see an artifact standing chronologically between John’s admonition to the congregation at Smyrna that, “the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested” (Rev. 2:10) and the brutal martyrdom of Polycarp, Bishop of the congregation in Smyrna (ca. AD 155). If the church in Smyrna continued to experience suffering in the time between John and Polycarp, it would be difficult to imagine two other words more important to a suffering congregation than the words “Lord” and “faith.”
The close correlation of these two pregnant theological terms through the technique of isopsephism clearly shows the outlook of the believer who scrawled this isopsephism because of his or her association of them. Contrary to what many scholars affirm, I have yet to be persuaded that this use of numbers is all about “secret code” coming from a persecuted and marginalized sect. Rather isopsephism here is a technique for the association of beliefs, ideas, values, etc that stand in an essential relationship to each other and whose fuller meaning is manifested through this association.
In the next post, deo volente, I will give some more historical evidence about modern misconceptions about the use of numbers by those early Christian believers, especially “secret code” interpretations.