Alpha and Omega are also numbers (3)

Some people find it almost impossible to make the mental shift required to think of numbers and letters as marriage partners. The very idea of mathematical metaphor is a stretch too far, so they automatically assume numerology, not numeracy.

However numerical literary style is as far from numerology as astronomy is from astrology. Even Jesus makes a passing reference to it in a famous passage: ‘…till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled…’ Matthew 5:18 NKJ

It’s no coincidence that just one verse removed from this remark, He refers to the scribes, known in Hebrew as the Sopherim. A scribe’s three main tasks were:

  1. copy the Scriptures verbatim
  2. set the Scriptures in correct order
  3. count each letter, line, syllable, jot and tittle to ensure the text was duplicated exactly, word for word, so that not even the smallest missed stroke of the pen would happen or an element thereby drop out of the Law.

The Sopherim are generally thought of today as writers, but the word actually means counters. It comes from Hebrew ‘caphar’, count, number, enumerate exactly but also meaning recount or talk. Names such as Joseph, God adds, are related to it.

The job of the Sopherim was to cross-check copied manuscripts and to testify to the truth of their transmission. Their mathematical ‘proof-reading’ provided independent verification of the copyist’s work. It wasn’t simply a matter of counting—there were arguments amongst the Sopherim as to whether the middle letter or word belonged to the first half or second half of a passage.

Thus the Sopherim would have known exactly what John’s gospel prologue of 496 syllables implied. Greek readers who noticed the count would undoubtedly have thought it was aimed at the Gnostics by outwitting them at their own game of numerical perfection. Certainly John had no time for Christians who were persuaded there was a secret way to God. The story goes that he went to some baths before realising that Cerinthus, an infamous Gnostic, was there and had to grab his clothes and rush out in case God’s wrath suddenly descended.

The Sopherim would not have thought of a secret way to God, however. They would have recognised something entirely different in that 496 syllable-count. The opening to John’s gospel is a 496 syllable poem. There was a well-known Hebrew prophecy framed as a poem which also featured the same number of syllables—twice!

Hebrew poetry has a feature called ‘chiasmus’ meaning the verses are reflected around the centre like rings. Andrew Bartelt points out in The Book around Immanuel that the ‘ring’ surrounding the prophecy of Immanuel is 496 syllables. By choosing this number, John not only thumbed his nose at the Gnostics but he also echoed the prophetic poetry of Isaiah.

In setting up a count of widely-recognised numerical perfection, he equated Jesus with the Prince of Peace, the Jewish Messiah.

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