Musings on music and meaning

Sometimes, when I’m editing, I come across an author’s humongously long sentence which rambles on and on—often, so the authors tell me in insouciant comments when I express my concern, because they are imitating the apostle Paul who, after all, wrote excessively long sentences like the famous one at the beginning of his epistle to the Ephesians which is 202 words in length and has such a complex structure that it is actually able to be interpreted more than one way—and when I suggest that paragraph–long sentences are inappropriate in the age of Twitter, they baulk at the thought.

The publisher I work for, however, is delighted. He uses my remark about the age of Twitter to try to get his more verbose authors to see reason. It doesn’t always work. A pity. Because authors who have a significant message are not being given a chance, due to their resistance to cutting the words into bite–size chunks. Communication is important, in whatever age. Since today’s Christians have no idea what 202 means, it’s pointless having such a long sentence. Still I have seen sentences as long as 140 words; they make my effort of 101 words in the first paragraph look a bit puny.

In the first century, there were no special digits for numbers as there are today. The letters of the Greek and Hebrew alphabets doubled as numbers, each letter having a specific value. The scribes, famous for their questions designed to trap Jesus, have a name in Hebrew—sopherim—which means ‘the counters’. One of the most important aspects of their job was to count the lines, letters, words, jots and tittles of a Scriptural passage as it was copied from one scroll to another. They had many ways of cross–checking. Proof–reading for the scribes also involved a series of numerical tests.

When I first realised not long ago that Paul had written a 202–word sentence, I was baffled. 101 words made sense to me. 303 words did too. But 202? I immediately began to wonder if there were a hidden set of 101 words in the Greek text. That would make 303 words in total. But where would I find it? Obviously not straight after the gargantuan sentences which, after an opening greeting, extends all the way from Ephesians 1:3 to 1:14, or there’d be lots of commentary on it. The second most obvious place was the end of the epistle. Paul, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, would likely have thought of the poetic structure of Hebrew poetry. So, discarding the final greetings, the logical place to find 101 words is in the Armour of God sequence.

Yes, it’s there!

So why 101? What does it mean? What is its purpose in either place? What was Paul saying that could only be said by using such looooooooooooooooong numbers?

I’ve done a lot of research into 101 in medieval poetry. While it is dangerous to extrapolate backwards across a thousand years, there are certain dead giveaways. If 101 meant the same thing to Paul as it seems to me to mean in late medieval times, then Ephesians 1:3 should open with a reference to God as creator and, more importantly, sustainer.

Here it is in the New International Version: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

Tick. That’s sustainer, the One who provides for His people.

And on to verse 4: For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

Tick. That’s creator.

In the first century, there were two groups of ‘atheists’: the Jews and the Pythagoreans. Christianity had not yet separated from Judaism, so it was considered ‘atheist’ too. By ‘atheist’, it meant at the time that a person worshipped only one God, not a multiplicity of them. And definitely not the emperor as the Son of God.

The Pythagoreans were worshippers of Python Apollo, the tutelary deity of the temple at Delphi in Greece. They were Platonists. They were also Gnostics. And they seem to have got it in their heads that Jesus of Nazareth was a reincarnation of Pythagoras who was an avatar of Python Apollo.

Reincarnation: the return of the spirit to a different body.

Resurrection: the return of the spirit to the same body.

From the start, Christianity fought the incursion of the Gnostics with such a totally different idea. For the Gnostics, matter was evil – so therefore was the body. For Christians, coming out of a Jewish faith, God had created matter and called it good. Therefore, so was the body.

Pythagoras was said to have invented the harmony of music by noticing that different sizes produced different notes. Two notes an octave apart, for instance, are widely known to be able to be produced simply by having one string double the length of another.

Except that widely known fact is actually false.

The second string has to be 101% longer than the other. (If we’re being pedantic: 101.3%) It appears to me that, for the Pythagoreans, they regarded the extra 1%  as the angel’s portion, the upbuild by which the Music of the Spheres sustained the harmony of the cosmos.

So Paul had an agenda with that 202–word sentence. It was to re–iterate, in the literary language of the time—a fusion of words and numbers—that the Lord God, the commander of the angel armies, was the creator and sustainer of the universe. No one else.

There are multiples of 101 in different places in Scripture. One of my favourites extends all the way from Genesis to Revelation: there are 1717 (or 17 × 101) references to ‘land’ in the Bible.

That is just amazing! It’s a miracle of design that shows His fingerprints. It not only says that God is creator and sustainer of the land in that multiple of 101; it testifies to Him as resurrection and life in 17.

But that’s another story!



  1. Interesting post, Annie, especially puts Paul’s sentences into perspective. Given his long, complex sentences, I know a few people who have made the comment ‘Paul could have done with a good editor.’ Interested to see your researched take on it.

    • Hi Dale!

      A few years ago, I would have agreed with those who think Paul needed a good editor. However the moment I saw 202, I was suspicious. And find 101 at the end really confirmed to me the design was deliberate.

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