Having previously discussed the Bible’s use of Atbash codes, it is time to look at the other type of code probably found in the Bible (as opposed to those people erroneously see there), that is, gematria.1 Before going too far, if you don’t have decent unicode support in you OS and browser, you’re going to miss some of the fun below.
Gematria is the calculation of numerical values of words based on the assignment of values to the letters used to write the words. The obvious example of the use of gematria in the Bible is in Rev 13:18 where we are told: “let the one who has insight calculate the beast’s number, for it is man’s number, and his number is 666” (i.e. ο εχων νουν ψηφισατω τον αριθμον του θηριου, αριθμος γαρ ανθρωπου εστιν, και ο αριθμος αυτου εξακοσιοι εξηκοντα εξ, English from NET).
Assuming that this is an example of gematria, the number 666 would be calculated by adding the numeric values of the letters found in a word. The usual way this is done follows a specific scheme whereby the letters of the alphabet are assigned increasing values. Obviously much depends on what numerical values are assigned to each letter! The most common approach is particularly suited to Greek, because (with the inclusion of some obsolete letters) the values round out nicely, as follows:
Now if you’re familiar with NT Greek you’ll probably notice a couple of odd things about the tables above: the “additional” letters Ϝ (digamma), Ϙ (qoppa), and Ϡ (sampi). These letters had dropped out of normal use by NT times, but appear to have remained in use for representing numbers. To complicate matters slightly, Ϝ (digamma) was sometimes replaced with Ϛ (stigma, not to be confused with ς the final sigma) in later manuscripts.
By way of contrast, the system when applied to Hebrew doesn’t quite look as complete:
Hebrew simply runs out of letters. Some extend the Hebrew to include final forms of letters to cover the remaining values from 500–900, but this appears to be a modern innovation (and it certainly couldn’t be pre-exilic when the Hebrew script differed to that used today). This is also sometimes taken as an indication that this system of assigning numerical values to the Hebrew alphabet was not a native innovation.
However, there is archaeological evidence indicating that around 700 BC and earlier Egyptian Hieratic numbers were used with Hebrew in Israel (for designating weights, for example). Hieratic used a decimal system with symbols for 1–9, then 10–90, then 100–900, and so on. In other words, the value sequence employed in normal gematria calculations of Hebrew and Greek could reflect an adaptation of this sort of numerical annotation.2
Anyway, time for an example. The number 666 is taken by some to point to Nero Caesar because in Hebrew his name is supposedly written נרון קסר which totals 666. One problem with this is the lack of evidence for the use of Hebrew letters to represent numbers: the evidence is rather sparse with but a couple of possible examples BC, and not until around the 7th century AD is there good evidence for the widespread use of the Hebrew alphabet for numerical values.
Now assuming that 666 really is an instance of gematria, and keeping things in Greek, there are no names in the NT whose value amounts to 666. The closest are Αρφαξαδ = 667, Ραιφαν = 662, and Φοινικη = 668. Σατανας is way out at 753, Ιουδας is closer at 685. If we expand to look for nouns, then we get a couple of matches: ευπορια and παραδοσις (which only goes to show that wealth and tradition are bad!).
What about the LXX, I hear you ask! Well, now we find some proper nouns with precise matches: Βεελτεθμος (1Esd 2:19), Συηνη (Ezek 29:10; 30:6, 16), and Χελκια (1Chr 9:11).
Now for those of you who may want to play a little here, I’ve included the following calculator. Simply type (or paste) unicode Hebrew or Greek and the value of the word(s) you type should appear below (if you’re using a reasonably modern web browser).
Update: The calculator will now even calculate values for English, so give it a go, see if you’re name returns 666!
This calls for wisdom: let the one who has insight calculate the author’s number, for it is a man’s number, and his number is 771!
1. I say “probably” because, although many assume that Rev 13:18 is an example of gematria, there remains some doubt and there remain some who argue for alternate significance. It may be, for example, that if “7” is the number of completeness, then “666” represents a triple shortfall (and, who knows, then it may become significant the Ιησους has a numerical value of “888”!). Alternatively, some claim herein lies a link to other instances of this number in the Bible (see 1Kings 10:14; 1Chr 9:13; Ezra 2:13).
2. There appears to be one innovation in Hebrew numbering. To avoid writing the common abbreviations of the divine name, numbers 15 and 16 were written as טו and טז — i.e. 9+6 and 9+7 respectively.