john and mathematics

There are many literary techniques, of which numerics is one of them. For example, Solomon (or, whoever edited the book of Proverbs) perhaps used it once. (and we should expect this, since Solomon was well-known for his wisdom) There are 375 proverbs in ‘the proverbs of Solomon’ (Pro 10.1), which are located in Pro 10.1-22.16. And, 375 is the numerical value of Solomon’s name in Hebrew. (300 Shin, 30 Lamed, 40 Mem, 5 He – Hebrew letters were also used as numbers, and any word or name therefore had a total value equal to the sum of the letters)

Currently I am reading a book on the gospel of John, and I found the following part intriguing (of course, biased by my predisposition towards mathematics). Apparently, it was thought that Apostle John also employed this numerical literary technique. The context of this section was the author, Richard Bauckham, wanted to argue that the Epilogue (John 21.1-23) is not a later addition to the Gospel, but an integrated part of the Gospel. He sets out a few arguments to support this thesis, and one of them was on the numerical correspondence between Prologue (John 1.1-18) and the Epilogue.

The correspondence between Prologue and Epilogue is confirmed by an element of numerical composition (of which this is one of many in John — I shall demonstrate this in a work currently in progress). The Prologue consists of 496 syllables, appropriately since 496 is both a triangular number [it is the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 31, 496 = 1 + 2 + 3 + … + 31] and a perfect number [it is equal to the sum of its dividers, 496 = 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + 31 + 62 + 124 + 248] and is also the numerical value of the Greek word monogenes (meaning “only son” and used in 1.14, 18) [μονογενης = 40 + 70 + 50 + 70 + 3 + 5 + 50 + 8 + 200 = 496]. The Prologue has 496 syllables, while the Epilogue, correspondingly, has 496 words. The poetic character of the Prologue, compared with the narrative character of the Epilogue, makes this correspondence in syllables (in the one case) and words (in the other) appropriate. (Richard Bauckham, The Fourth Gospel as the Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, in Richard Bauckham & Carl Mosser (eds.), The Gospel of John and Christian Theology, p. 127)

A few qualifications must be made:

1. An even perfect number (the first odd perfect number is still to be found) is always a triangular number, so Bauckham was a bit redundant here in declaring that ‘496 is both a triangular number and a perfect number.’ An even perfect number has a form of 2n−1(2n − 1), where n is some prime numbers. Thus, it is also a triangular number, since 2n−1(2n − 1) = 2n(2n − 1)/2 = sum of first (2n − 1) numbers (sum of the first k numbers is equal to k(k + 1)/2).

2. Hence, he should have only said, “496 is a perfect number and is also the numerical value of the Greek word monogenes.” And it would make his case less firm than it was thought earlier. Nevertheless, numerical correspondence was only one of his arguments to show that the Epilogue was an integrated part of the Gospel. Even if he was wrong on this numerical correspondence hypothesis, it didn’t destroy his whole argument, which were built on other analyses.

3. The first four perfect numbers (6, 28, 496, 8128) were known to early Greek mathematics (6th century BC onwards), so at least it is not implausible for John to know about it. (the next perfect number is 33550336, which is pretty tedious to guess manually!)

As Bauckham noted, he will demonstrate the ‘many numerical compositions in John’ in a work currently in progress. (he cited one earlier work: M. J. J. Menken, Numerical Literary Techniques in John) So, I guess I will just wait for it. One thing that has been noted quite long is the ‘prominence’ of number ‘7’ in John, echoing its significance in Judaism thought. Jesus did 7 signs (although, numbered explicitly to two only) in John, and there are 7 ‘witnesses’ in the Gospel. These numerical compositions in John perhaps indicated (not without reservation; some will be convinced by Bauckham’s argument, some will remain skeptical) that Apostle John was a skilled writer who was well-versed in various literary techniques of his time.


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