Alpha and Omega are also numbers (1)

Mention the word ‘mathematics’ and most people tend to squirm.  But I love the subject and I delight in finding it in unexpected places. I’m always thrilled to discover a new spot where God has pulled out all stops in a virtuoso display of numeracy.

Most people don’t cope well on being told the Bible is full of mathematics. They think numeracy equals numerology. But they are as different as astronomy and astrology.

John’s gospel is one such place where the underlying mathematical structure of the text is simply splendid. The elegance and variety of arithmetic and geometry there is worth examining closely. So let’s go explore a lost world…

John’s gospel starts and ends with the same number. This isn’t apparent in the English text but it is in the Greek manuscript. There are 496 syllables in the prologue to his gospel (which features the Logos) and 496 words at the end. Even diehard skeptics don’t think this is coincidence.

So what, you may wonder, is so special about 496?

Now John’s gospel is simply shimmering with mathematical jewels. These arithmetic bookends aren’t the only treasure lying around. His eyewitness account mentions numbers like 153 fish caught in a net or 38 years as the time the crippled man had waited by the pool at the Sheep Gate. It’s also mathematically sectioned in ways that reflect these numbers.

So, they are all significant.

To start, we’ll just look at one aspect of 496.  It is a so-called ‘perfect’ number. In fact, it’s the third perfect number.

From ancient times, ‘perfect’ numbers have been classified as those which have factors that add up to the numbers themselves.  For instance, the first perfect number is 6 because its factors (excluding 6) are 1, 2 and 3 which together add up to 6.  The second perfect number is 28 because its factors (excluding 28) are 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14 which together add up to 28. The third perfect number is 496 because its factors (excluding 496) are 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 31, 62, 124 and 248 and together all these add up to 496.

John’s gospel starts and ends with ‘perfection’.  His words are so beautiful and poetic that some theologians call the opening the ‘Hymn to the Logos’, but it also embeds the concept of mathematical perfection. There is a practical aspect to this too: MJJ Menken (in Numerical Literary Techniques in John – The Fourth Evangelist’s Use of Numbers of Words and Syllables) has pointed out that, from a copyist’s point of view, it’s possible to cross-check the accuracy of a transmitted text by counting words, syllables and letters.

Unfortunately much as I’d like to explore several other aspects of 496, I’ve decided to keep to a ‘numerical literary style’ and so I am restricted to 496 words in this post.  Consequently, further explanation must wait until next time.  I hope you’ll join me then as we enter the exotic world of triangular numbers.

1 Comment

  1. I love learning about this! I just love Papa’s hidden perfection in all things! How wonderful to learn more… Thankyou.

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