Seventeens in Scripture (3)

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεός ἦν ὁ Λόγος

En archē ēn ho Lógos, kai ho Lógos ēn pros ton Theón, kai Theós ēn ho Lógos
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Seventeen words, in both Greek and English. This is the marvellous poem that opens John’s gospel and is sometimes called the ‘Hymn to the Logos‘.

The significance of starting with seventeen words while referring to the Logos is not often obvious today, even to theologians. There was a rival claimant to the title ‘Logos’.

Across the waters of the Bay from Corinth was one of the most famous sanctuaries of the ancient world: the temple at Delphi. Here an oracular priestess sat on a tripod over a vent of gas and uttered prophetic statements. If a devotee came with an inquiry (and many did, including the man who became the Emperor Nero) then, for a fee, these prophecies babbled in other tongues could be interpreted by the priests of Python Apollo. (If you detect warning allusions to Delphi in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, you’d be right!)

The cult of Delphi drew the strong loyalty of the Pythagoreans (after whom Pythagoras, who had lived some five centuries previously, had been named). Although this question from a catechism comes from the third century, it still gives us a very good idea what they thought:

  • Question: What is the oracle of Delphi?
  • Answer: The tetraktys. It is also the harmony in which the Sirens sing.

The tetraktys was the ultimate mystical symbol of the number-adoring Pythagoreans: 10 dots arranged in a triangle. It was regarded as Manifest Deity, the source of nature, the Number of Numbers, the Meaning of Meaning, the creative principle, the fundamental Truth of the universe, the heart of the Logos. So hidden in this enigmatic answer about Delphi is a claim that Pythagoras (as an avatar of Pythian Apollo or Hyperborean Apollo) is the creator of the cosmos.

There are some other deep concepts in the reference to the siren’s song but let’s not concern ourselves with that, at the moment.

Now there were Pythagoreans amongst the Gnostics infiltrating fledgling Christianity in the first century. Some of them apparently wanted to believe Jesus was the re-incarnation of Pythagoras (and thus of Apollo). Some of them apparently wanted to believe that Jesus had not come in a body, so that the hands of humanity could touch Him. He had not been incarnated into matter, which they saw as evil, but had been a spirit who only appeared to come in the flesh. There were several variants of this view.

So there wouldn’t be any mistake about the Logos, John started his gospel with 17 words: the only number the Pythagoreans considered an abomination. He ended with a reference to 153, the seventeenth triangular number. Just to be on the safe side.


  1. Are you going to continue this series Annie? It’s fascinating!
    I didn’t receive a notification for this post… I found it when I went back and reread Part 2.

    • Hi Lyn
      My plan is to do seventeen posts about the 17s in Scripture. I hope I make it to the end!

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