The Gospel Ring (1)

It’s been quite some time since my last post. Perhaps I should apologise but it wouldn’t be entirely sincere. I’ve been enjoying myself far too much to even begin to be sorry.

The fun started when I forgot a significant item of information I wanted for my next book. I could remember reading somewhere that John the apostle identifies himself as the author of the fourth gospel by using a unique placement. His signoff as ‘the disciple Jesus loved’ mirrors the testimony of John the Baptist at the beginning. This bookending identifies the writer as John.

Well, being unable to remember where I’d read this, I tried googling it. No joy. I remembered the technical name for this mirror technique was chiasmus and tried that as well. Lots of different examples of mirror episodes in John’s gospel turned up but not the particular matter I wanted. After quite a bit of searching, I began to realise that the lists of chiastic scenes were rarely the same. So I created my own list by putting together the ones I’d found. And that’s when I noticed something fascinating: the names almost always match.

It’s not just the testimony of John the apostle mirroring that of John the Baptist.

It’s a scene involving Mary the mother of Jesus mirroring one with Mary Magdalene.

It’s a scene with Nicodemus matching another with the same Nicodemus.

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Threshold Thursday

Recently I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about whom I’m writing for. Is it me? Well, of course it is, at least in the first instance. I’m very much of CS Lewis’ philosophy when it comes to writing: I write the sort of things I would have wanted to read or know as a kid or younger adult.

However, there’s an aspect of my writing that is not me. At the end of the day I want to communicate to the widest possible audience. So I make sacrifices to achieve that goal.

Lately, as I’ve struggled to communicate the concept of ‘show, don’t tell’ to many writers who reject the idea, I’ve looked more deeply at the way Scripture writers told their stories. I’ve tried to see how they responded to the taste of their age and the target audience of the day.

So because today is the Thursday before Easter, I’d like to take a specific look at the story of Jesus in front of Annas and Caiaphas as told one of my heroes: a man who used numerical literary technique so exquisitely he raised it to an artform, an author who fused number and word design in ways that bubble with humour. But he also faced a complex problem that I’m glad I don’t: he wrote in Greek to communicate a Hebrew understanding of the world. Writing to Gentiles in their own language, he nonetheless wanted to convey to the Jews of the time the message that Jesus really is the Messiah.

John, the son of Zebedee, was clearly presented with a unique challenge.  How he responded is quite surprising: to me, it’s clear he selected his information so that the story of Jesus’ trial was told with specific reference to doors. 

Yes, doors.

Possibly you’ve never noticed them. So I’m going to point them out. In fact, John was so focussed on doors and words related to them that he occasionally offered us some really awkward constructions. Check out the words in bold: Simon Peter was following Jesus, and so was another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered with Jesus into the court of the high priest, but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the doorkeeper, and brought Peter in. (John 18:15-16)

It would be so much simpler if we had a name instead of ‘the other disciple, who was known to the high priest’. Many commentators believe the ‘other disciple’ was John himself and this is his rather inelegant attempt at humility. However, I don’t believe that needs to be the case at all. The disciple could have been anyone, male or female, close or distant. In my view, John simply didn’t want to mix his metaphors by mentioning a disciple whose name was not about a doorway.

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In the twelfth century, the legends of King Arthur were enthusiastically embraced by the French. Lancelot appeared and was made famous in The Knight of the Cart, a poem by Chrétien de Troyes. Chrétien’s less famous foray into the world of Camelot is his poem, Erec and Enid.

In her essay Erec and Enide—Cosmic Measures in Nature and the Hebrew Heritage, Joan Helm looked at the significance of the numbers 1111 and 1742 within the poem’s structure. She connected 1111 to the mathematics of the City of God in the prophecy of Ezekiel and ultimately to the ‘kiss of heaven and earth’. There are other medieval poems with the same motif and numeric design.

Helm was a scholar at the University of Queensland who became internationally renowned for her discovery of mathematical architecture within Old French texts. She makes the point in Erec and Enid, moreover, that the old English land measurement system is not a hodgepodge but a deliberate construction, meant to reflect Ezekiel’s town plan of the New Jerusalem with its built-in 1111s. It seems to have been an ancient tradition that when heaven comes down to touch earth, somewhere below the orbit of the moon, there was a uniquely appropriate mathematical way to express it: using a series of ones.

Which is why I find this curious fact delightfully amusing: the Hubble Space Telescope weighs 11110 kg.

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The prologue and epilogue to John’s gospel are clearly defined literary sections. The opening, sometimes called the Hymn to the Logos, is composed of 496 syllables while the ending is 496 words in length. So far we’ve looked at five reasons why John might have chosen to highlight this number in order to make a persuasive and compelling ‘numerical literary’ apologetic. It might not impress the average post-modern thinker who grew up in a world where arithmetic and language are completely different subjects. However, even two millennia after it was written, its word-number fusion still retains enough of the ‘wow!’ factor to stop more than a few skeptics in their tracks.

So far we’ve looked at five reasons why John might have chosen to feature 496:

(1)   It’s a ‘perfect’ number.

(2)   It’s a ‘triangular’ number.

(3)   The mathematical structure recalls that of the Immanuel prophecy.

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Traditionally the last words of John the beloved disciple were ‘Little children, love one another.’ It seems a likely story because, after all, he says just that so often in his epistles.

However, it’s worth remembering that Jesus gave him and his brother James the nickname Boanerges, usually translated Sons of Thunder, but perhaps more correctly rendered sons of rage.  So the story that he grabbed his clothes and fled the public baths when he realised the Gnostic teacher Cerinthus was in the same building, just in case God’s wrath was about the turn the place to a cinder, is not altogether far-fetched.

The gospel of John was, in the second century, of uncertain status. Helms points out that some Christians believed it had been written by the apostle as an anti-gnostic anti-Cerinthian work while others considered it had been written by Cerinthus himself!

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It’s not particularly difficult to write in numerical literary style. The last three posts in this series were about the significance of the number 496, so naturally they were all 496 words long. It’s as simple as that to make a start.

One day, I’d like to emulate my hero—the author of the fourteenth century poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight—but I’ve a very long way to go before I reach the exalted heights of numerical artifice he achieved.

Numerical literary style has its detractors. They come in various ilks. Some critics agree that some ancient texts show a mathematical architecture, but think the motive is numerological. Others simply deny outright that any premeditated arithmetic design exists, preferring to explain away structural details as scribal error. ‘Why would anyone,’ they scoff, ‘mix words and numbers?  Why would anyone restrict the creative impulse by confining themselves to a rigid mathematical framework?’

I’d like to try these questions on a Japanese master of haiku, the 17-syllable poem of three lines in a 5-7-5 pattern. Behind the blank inscrutable stare I’d get, I’m sure there’d be the incredulous thought: ‘Don’t you get it? A true craftsman doesn’t find strict form a restraint, but freedom.’

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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:

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There’s a famous story about Karl Friedrich Gauss, one of the most distinguished mathematicians of all time.  His talent was evident from an early age. His teacher told the class to add up all the numbers from one to 100.  Moments later, Gauss appeared at his desk with the correct answer: 5050.  The boy later to be known as ‘The Prince of Mathematicians’ had figured out a short-cut. His cunning method of calculation actually works for all similar situations or for so-called ‘triangular’ numbers. Triangular numbers have this name because, if they are arranged in rows of dots on paper, they form perfect triangles. However, they can also be found by adding successive whole numbers together. For instance, 171 is the eighteenth triangular number because all the numbers from one to 18 add to 171 while 153 is the seventeenth triangular number because all the numbers from one to 17 add to 153.

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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.

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