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The Bible and Numbers


Numbers in the Bible have caused a lot of problems for people, including scholars and archaeologists. Some people put the responsibility for these discrepancies upon the shoulders of different scribes who may have copied the original autographs. While this may be so, we cannot exclude the idea that the discrepancies were placed in the extant manuscripts by those who do not believe and who sought to undermine the biblical texts

This reasonable explanation is often overlooked by scholars and other unbelievers in their haste to discredit the Word of God. They rather accuse God of sin (lying & misrepresenting the facts) than look to blame one of their own. We at this organization stick with the Bible and feel that there are reasonable, rational and logical explanations for the discrepancies, like the one given above, so we are not worried about the differences in numbers.

Remember the Bible also records what was said by certain people. Their recorded words are as spoken thus it is not the Bible that was in error but the person who spoke who may have rounded up or down, paraphrased and took other shortcuts that still exist today.

The idea that God or his biblical authors committed sin is not a viable or realistic option for believers. Keep this in mind as you read the following and do your own studies on the Bible and numbers.

#1. Youngblood, R. F., Bruce, F. F., & Harrison, R. K., Thomas Nelson Publishers (Eds.). (1995). In Nelson’s new illustrated Bible dictionary. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc.

Numbers in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, numbers are always spelled phonetically. But during the period between the Old and New Testaments, an alphabetic system of writing was used. Although this alphabetic system cannot be demonstrated in the Old Testament, it is interesting that the numerical value of the letters of David’s name (14) seems to have determined the pattern of the genealogy in the first part of the Gospel of Matthew.

Archaeological excavations have yielded some evidence about the way the Hebrew people wrote numbers. Stone workers’ marks and simple tallies have been discovered. Inscriptions such as the Gezer calendar, the MOABITE STONE, and the Siloam Inscription contain only numbers one through three; otherwise numbers are spelled out.

Conventional Use of Numbers. Little is known of the arithmetic of the Hebrews, but they seem to have had at least a practical awareness of the science. The Bible itself contains examples of addition (Num. 1:26), subtraction (Lev. 27:18), multiplication (Lev. 27:25), and division (Num. 31:27). A remarkable degree of accuracy in the use of fractions was achieved (Gen. 47:24; Lev. 5:16; Ezek. 4:11; 45:13). Scholars have noted that the proportions of the measurements of Ezekiel’s Temple would have required considerable skill in mathematics on the part of the prophet as he interpreted this message from God.

Most of the numbers in the Bible indicate specific quantities. But in some cases writers of Scripture did not include exact, official, detailed enumerations or sums. They gave an estimate of the total, which was rounded off. The most frequent numerical data given in the Old Testament are enumerations of census, age, or other statistics. These figures provide some difficult textual problems for serious Bible students.

Ages of people mentioned in the Bible are close to the life span of people today, except in the case of the people before the Flood and the patriarchs. All of the pre-Flood ages are either a multiple of five or a multiple of five plus seven (or, in the case of Methuselah, a multiple of five plus seven plus seven). Scholars are not sure why this phenomenon exists, and they do not know what it means.

Another difficulty with numbers concerns the high census figures for the Hebrew people given in some books of the Bible. These high numbers have caused some scholars to question whether the translation of the word “thousand” is accurate. They suggest that its primary meaning in these contexts is something other than the literal number itself.

Rhetorical Use of Numbers. Old Testament numbers are often used for poetic or rhetorical impact. This usage is neither literal nor symbolic. Used in this way, these numbers may indicate such concepts as few or many, or they may be used to intensify a point. In Amos 1:9, the phrase, “For three transgressions of Tyre, and for four” provides not a catalogue but an emphatic statement of Tyre’s sins. A similar usage is found in Proverbs 30. These are examples of a climactic formula, which builds stylistic progression and anticipation. The quantity itself, in such cases, is often indefinite.

Some Bible students have devised intricate systems for foretelling the future that revolve around symbolic usages of numbers. Some uses of the number seven in the Bible itself fall into this category. Many times seven is important as a symbol rather than a number. It is used almost 600 times in the Bible. Often it expresses the idea of completeness or perfection. To identify any other number as a symbol leaves the interpreter on very shaky ground. The number 12 may be a primary number on which numbers or decimals were built, and the number 40 may have some significance as a round number representing a generation.

Some interpreters use a system that attempts to find hidden meanings in the Bible by using elaborate codes based on the numerical values of the individual letters. A few interpreters have sought a mystical numerical pattern that establishes the correctness of the text, thus proving to their satisfaction the divine authority of the Bible.

Even considering its shorter length, the New Testament contains substantially less numerical data than the Old Testament. Most New Testament numbers are enumerations of groups of figures taken from the business world used to illustrate a point. With the possible exception of the genealogy in Matthew 1, there are no special signs for numbers in the New Testament. As they are in the Old Testament, numbers are always written out in full.

The only mystical use of a number in the Bible occurs in Revelation 13:18. Attempts to identify the meaning of 666 (some manuscripts have 616) have generally been more clever than convincing. Like every other feature in God’s Word, numbers should be studied with considerable care.

#2. Geisler, N. L., & Howe, T. A. (1992). When critics ask : a popular handbook on Bible difficulties (pp. 561–562). Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.

Numeric Figures

We have already dealt with some numeric discrepencies in the body of this book. However, it would be wise to restate some of the dynamics which have given rise to these types of discrepencies. The same principle is at work in copying numbers as in copying names. Unlike English, the ancient Hebrew language did not have a set of numerals. Rather, ancient Hebrews employed words and letters of their alphabet to stand for numbers. Just like English uses the word “one” as the name for the numeral “1,” so, Hebrew used names for numbers.

ENGLISH                                             HEBREW

One                                                       אֶחָד

Two                                                 שְׁתַּיִם / שְׁנַיִם

Three                                                    שׁלשׁ

Four                                                     אַרְבַּע

Large numbers employ additional words, just like in English.

Five hundred                                      חָמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת

Five thousand                                   חֲמֵשֶׁת אֲלָפִם

 Very large numbers were also written out. Although there was no hard and fast rule, usually the larger number would be first, then the next largest number and so on. For example, the number 503 would be written just like the English order

חָמֵשׁ מֵאוֹת וּשְׁלשָׁה                         (five hundred and three).

Sometimes, however, the numbers would be written in reverse order, “77 years and 700 years.”

Ancient Hebrew also employed the Hebrew letters to stand for numbers:

ENGLISH                             BIBLICAL HEBREW

One                                                אחד

Two                                                שׁנים

Three                                              שׁלשׁ

It is easy to see how transcribing numbers from one document to another could become confusing and lead to copying errors. Some of the words are very similar in spelling, and even some of the lettes are quite similar. This is compounded by the fact that later generations were not as familiar with the ancient alphabets as the original authors.

#3. Biblical Studies Press. (2006). The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Re 13:18). Biblical Studies Press.

54 tn Grk “it is man’s number.” ExSyn 254 states “if ἀνθρώπου is generic, then the sense is, ‘It is [the] number of humankind.’ It is significant that this construction fits Apollonius’ Canon (i.e., both the head noun and the genitive are anarthrous), suggesting that if one of these nouns is definite, then the other is, too. Grammatically, those who contend that the sense is ‘it is [the] number of a man’ have the burden of proof on them (for they treat the head noun, ἀριθμός, as definite and the genitive, ἀνθρώπου, as indefinite—the rarest of all possibilities). In light of Johannine usage, we might also add Rev 16:18, where the Seer clearly uses the anarthrous ἄνθρωπος in a generic sense, meaning ‘humankind.’ The implications of this grammatical possibility, exegetically speaking, are simply that the number ‘666’ is the number that represents humankind. Of course, an individual is in view, but his number may be the number representing all of humankind. Thus the Seer might be suggesting here that the antichrist, who is the best representative of humanity without Christ (and the best counterfeit of a perfect man that his master, that old serpent, could muster), is still less than perfection (which would have been represented by the number seven).” See G. K. Beale, Revelation, [NIGTC], 723–24, who argues for the “generic” understanding of the noun; for an indefinite translation, see the ASV and ESV which both translate the clause as “it is the number of a man.”

sn The translation man’s number suggests that the beast’s number is symbolic of humanity in general, while the translation a man’s number suggests that it represents an individual.

55 tc A few MSS (