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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Numbers (2)

NUMBERS.—In this article it is above all things necessary to distinguish carefully between passages in which numbers are used only in the ordinary way and those in which they are connected with some custom or belief, or have for any reason symbolic significance, whether secular or sacred. Three facts must be borne in mind throughout the inquiry: (1) the Oriental preference of round numbers to indefinite statements; (2) the close association in Western Asia from early times of numbers and religion. It seems to be proved that each of the chief Babylonian gods had his number: Anu, for example, 60, Bel 50, Ea 40, Sin 30, Marduk, as identified with Jupiter, 11, etc. (KAT [Note: AT Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Test.] [ZW] 454). And it is equally certain that number often played an important part in ritual. (3) The gradual obliteration of the original reference from the popular consciousness. By the time of Christ the process by which certain numbers had acquired special significance would be wholly or partially forgotten by most of the Jews resident in Palestine. They had received their use from their fathers, and found it expressed in literature and ceremonial and daily life, but knew little, if anything, of the way in which it had originated, so that it is very unsafe to credit them with conscious application of ideas current elsewhere. The Jews who lived in Babylonia from about b.c. 600 to the completion of the Babylonian Talmud unquestionably adopted in course of time many Babylonian thoughts and expressions; but this cannot be assumed, at any rate in the same degree, of the Jews of the Holy Land.

Seven.—Of the significant numbers met with in the Gospels the most prominent is that so freely used in the OT and the other literature of the Semitic area—the number seven, represented in the Gr. Test. by ἑπτά, ἑπτάκις, ἑπταπλασίων, ἔβσομος. In three contexts it must be understood literally, although perhaps in the first two with an underlying reference to another use: in the statement that Anna’s married life lasted 7 years (Luke 2:36), in the accounts of the feeding of the 4000 (7 loaves, 7 baskets, Matthew 15:34; Matthew 15:36 f., Mark 8:5-6; Mark 8:8; cf. also the references in Matthew 16:10 and Mark 8:20), and in a note of time, ‘the seventh hour’ (John 4:52). In all other passages: Matthew 12:45; Matthew 18:21 f., 28, Mark 12:20; Mark 12:22 f., Mark 12:16 [9] Luke 8:2; Luke 11:26; Luke 17:4; Luke 18:30 (a doubtful reading) Luke 20:29; Luke 20:31; Luke 20:33; in the number of the Beatitudes relating to character (Matthew 5:3-9); in the 7 disciples at the Lake (John 21:2); and in the grouping together of 7 parables of the Kingdom in Matthew 13—it has some kind of special significance. In the Apocalyptic passages which come within the scope of this study, the literal meaning combined with the symlbolic may be recognized in the 7 churches (Revelation 1:11; Revelation 1:20), the 7 candlesticks (Revelation 1:12; Revelation 1:20, Revelation 2:1), the 7 stars (Revelation 1:16; Revelation 1:20, Revelation 2:1, Revelation 3:1), and the 7 angels (Revelation 1:20). Elsewhere, in the 7 seals (Revelation 5:1; Revelation 5:5), the 7 horns, the 7 eyes, and the 7 spirits (Revelation 4:5, Revelation 5:6), the use is purely symbolic.

This symbolic or, to speak more generally, non-literal use is very frequent in the Jewish literature of the period extending from about b.c. 150 to about a.d. 100, the period which includes the time covered by the Gospels. The following are a few examples out of many. We read of 7 heavens (Slav. Enoch 3 ff.; Test, of Levi, 2 f.; cf. Charles in ExpT [Note: xpT Expository Times.] vii. [1895] 57 ff.), 7 angels (To 12:15, Ethiopic Enoch 81:5), and 7 high mountains, 7 large rivers, and 7 great islands (Ethiopic Enoch 77:4, 5, 8). Man is said to have been made by the Divine Wisdom of 7 substances (Slav. Enoch 30:8), and to have received 7 natures (30:9). Seven great works were made on the first day of creation (Jub 2:3); Adam and Eve lived 7 years in Paradise (3:15); at the Deluge 7 sluices were opened in heaven, and 7 fountains of the great deep in earth (5:24); and Jacob is said to have kissed his dying grandfather 7 times (22:26).

In this non-literal use of the number, three shades of significance can perhaps be traced, (a) It was a favourite round number. Instead of ‘many’ or ‘a considerable number,’ an Oriental in many cases preferred to say ‘seven.’ This is probably the force of the number in Peter’s question about forgiveness (Matthew 18:21); in our Lord’s command of sevenfold forgiveness for sevenfold injury (Luke 17:4); in the promise (Luke 18:30, according to some Manuscripts ) of sevenfold reward (ἑπταπλασίονα instead of the usual reading πολλαπλασίονα); in the references to the 7 evil spirits (Matthew 12:45, Mark 16:9, Luke 8:2; Luke 11:26); in the question of the Sadducees about the 7 brothers (Matthew 22:25 etc.); and in the passages alluded to in the Book of Jubilees.—(b) Seven often expressed the idea of completeness. So in 7 churches, 7 parables of the Kingdom, the 7 Beatitudes above mentioned, perhaps in the 7 loaves and the 7 disciples, and some of the passages referred to in the Books of Enoch. This use of 7 in the ancient East is directly attested by some cuneiform texts which explain a sign consisting of 7 wedges as meaning ‘totality,’ ‘whole’ (Zimmern in Busspsalmen, p. 73).—(c) Seven was for the Jews and all their neighbours from early times a sacred number. In our Lord’s day there were many features of Jewish religious life which kept the sacredness of 7 continually before the mind: the observance of the 7th day and the 7th year; the 7 days of unleavened bread and of the Feast of Tabernacles; the 7 sprinklings of the leper (Leviticus 14:7); the 7 sprinklings of the blood of the bullock in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:14); the 7 he-lambs prescribed as an offering for several important occasions (Numbers 28:11; Numbers 28:19; Numbers 28:27; Numbers 29:36); the 7 days of seclusion for uncleanness or suspected uncleanness (Leviticus 13:4; Leviticus 13:6; Leviticus 13:26; Leviticus 14:9; Leviticus 15:13; Leviticus 15:19; Leviticus 15:24; Leviticus 15:28, Numbers 12:14-15 etc.). the sevenfold march round the altar on the 7th day of the Feast of Tabernacles (Mishna, Sukkah iv. 4); and the seven-branched candlestick in the Temple (Josephus Ant. iii. vi. 7, the Arch of Titus). For all classes of Jewish society in the period of our Lord’s ministry the number 7 was inseparably associated with the most solemn seasons and the most important acts of worship. There is no direct illustration of this sacredness of 7 in the Gospels, but it can be confidently traced in Apocalyptic imagery: in the 7 candlesticks (Revelation 1:12; Revelation 1:20; Revelation 2:1) which evidently allude to the seven-branched candlestick in the Temple, and in the 7 horns of the Lamb, and the 7 eyes which are the 7 spirits of God sent out into all the earth (Revelation 5:6; cf. Revelation 4:5). In non-canonical literature it is found in the 7 heavens and the 7 angels, and in the remarkable description in the so-called Fourth Book of Maccabees of the 7 brothers put to death by Antiochus Epiphanes as a most holy 7 (παναγία συμφώνων ἀδελφῶν ἑβδομάς), who circled round piety in choral dance like the 7 days of creation round the number 7 (4 Maccabees 14:7 f., according to the emended text followed by Deissmann in Kautzseh’s Pseudepigraphen, p. 169). The rise and development of these shades of meaning, which to some extent melt into one another (for the use of 7 as the number of completeness was probably connected with its sacred use, and its employment as a round number may have been facilitated by the other uses), are questions which hardly come within the range of this article, as the process must have been completed millenniums before the Christian era. Seven is distinctly a sacred number in the inscriptions of Gudea the ruler of Lagash some centuries before the time of Abraham (RP [Note: P Records of the Past.] , new series, ii. 83, 94 ff.). Whatever the primary impulse, whether the observation of the phases of the moon, or of the 7 planets, or of the 7 brightest stars of the Pleiades, or of the 7 stars of Arcturus, or of the 7 stars of the Great Bear, which all attracted the attention of early star-gazers, the Jews of our Lord’s age (with a few exceptions) will have used the number simply as their fathers had used it for many generations, as they found it in ritual, in proverbial lore (Proverbs 6:16; Proverbs 6:31; Proverbs 9:1; Proverbs 26:16; Proverbs 26:25, Sirach 7:3; Sirach 20:12; Sirach 35:11; Sirach 37:14; Sirach 40:8), in other literature, in history (Joshua 6:4, Judges 6:1; Judges 16:7; Judges 16:13, 2 Samuel 24:13, 2 Kings 5:10 etc.), and in common life (7 days of the marriage feast, To 11:18; and 7 days of fasting and mourning, 1 Samuel 31:13, Job 2:13, Móed Katon 27b). A few highly educated men associated the number with astral phenomena; the pseudo-Enoch, for example (Slav. Enoch 30:3), and Josephus, who affirms that the 7 lamps of the candlestick imitated the number of the 7 planets (τῶν πλανητῶν τὸν ἀριθμὸν μεμιμημένοι, Ant. iii. vi. 7); but most will have had little or no acquaintance with such speculations.

One use of the number in the Gospels which has been already briefly referred to needs fuller treatment. In three or four passages, which are really but two, mention is made of 7 evil spirits. Our Lord cast 7 devils or demons out of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2, Mark 16 :[9]), and He spoke of an evil spirit which had been cast out as returning with 7 other spirits worse than himself (Matthew 12:45, Luke 11:26). It has been suggested, cautiously by Zimmern (KAT [Note: AT Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Test.] [ZW] 462–463), positively by R. C. Thompson of the British Museum (Devils and Evil Spirits of Babylonia, i. xliii.), that these 7 are connected in some way with the evil 7 so often referred to in Babylonian incantations, and identified to some extent with winds and storms. That the Babylonian belief was widely diffused in the regions affected by Babylonian civilization is probable enough, and that it lingered in one district at any rate into Christian times is attested by a curious Syrian charm cited by Thompson; but there seems to be no clear allusion to it in the extant Jewish literature of the period inclusive of the time of Christ. The 7 spirits put by Beliar into man, according to the Test, of Reuben (2 f.), are mere abstractions. The whole passage seems to be a sort of allegory. And it must be remembered that the Test., as we have it, has been manipulated by a Christian, who would be familiar with the passages in the Gospels under consideration. The use of 7 in the latter can be fully accounted for without any reference to Babylonia.

In the Holy Land and amongst the Arabs there are still many echoes of the ancient use of 7 as shown in the preceding paragraphs. Dalman’s Diwan contains several examples of it as a round number in popular poetry (pp. 260, 287, 305, 309). Mourning for relatives and marriage rejoicings extend amongst the Arabs over 7 days (Forder’s With the Arabs in Tent and Town, 216, 218). If the person is stained with blood, the stain is washed 7 times (Robinson Lees, Village Life in Palestine, 2nd ed. 218). A festival at Nebi Musa lasts 7 days (Curtiss, Primitive Semitic Religion To-day, 163). These illustrations show that the modern Oriental not only employs 7 as a round number, but sometimes associates it in some measure with the ideas of completeness and sanctity.

Three and a half.—Of the symbolic use of the half of seven there is one instance in the Gospels, viz. the reference to the famine in the time of Elijah as lasting three years and six months (Luke 4:25, cf. James 5:17). This number, the half of the number of completeness, seems to have been often used by the Jews of periods of trial and judgment. According to Josephus (BJ i. i. 1, v. ix. 4), the worship of the Temple was discontinued in the time of Antiochus Epiphanes for three years and six months; and, according to the Midrash on Lamentations 1:5, the siege by Vespasian continued for the same period (cf. Daniel 7:25; Daniel 9:27; Daniel 12:7, Revelation 11:2, and Wetstein’s note on the last passage).

Fourteen.—The double of 7 in the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew can hardly be accidental. When the Evangelist carefully divides the generations from Abraham to Christ into three groups of 14 each (Matthew 1:17), he must intend the number to have some meaning. He does not forget that it is the double of a favourite round number which is at the same time suggestive of completeness. This multiple of 7 seems to have been common in old Canaan, for scores of the Tell el-Amarna Letters from Canaanites to the Pharaoh have some form of the salutation: ‘Seven and seven times I fall at the feet of the king my lord.’ A striking example of the use of a multiple of 7 in a scheme of history is supplied by a writing composed probably within a hundred years of our Lord’s ministry, ‘the Book of Jubilees’ or ‘Little Genesis.’ The writer arranges the whole period from Adam to the giving of the Law in about 7 times 7 jubilees, the interval between two jubilees being 7 times 7 years (50:4).

Seventy.—Of another much used multiple of 7, 7 × 10 = 70, there is only one instance in the Gospel narrative, the sending out by Jesus of the 70 disciples (Luke 10:1; Luke 10:17). It must be noted, however, that WH [Note: H Westcott and Hort’s text.] read (with BD, some OL, Vulgate , Syr [Note: yr Syriac.] cur and Syr [Note: yr Syriac.] sin) 72, the multiple of 6 by 12. In either case the use of 70, of which there are so many examples in the OT and elsewhere (Genesis 50:3, Exodus 1:5; Exodus 15:27, Numbers 11:16, Judges 1:7; Judges 8:30, 2 Kings 10:1, 2 Chronicles 29:32, Psalms 90:10, Jeremiah 25:11, Ezekiel 8:11, Daniel 9:24, Ethiopic Enoch 89:59 ‘the 70 shepherds,’ Test, of Levi, c. 8, 2 Esdras 14:46; Josephus Vita, 11, BJ ii. xx. 5; Bk. of Jub 11:20 clouds of ravens returned 70 times; Sanhedrin i. 6 the high court of justice with 70 members and president) as a round number for ‘very many,’ with perhaps the added idea of comprehensiveness, may be safely recognized as influential.

The Rabbinic idea of 70 languages for the 70 peoples is found in the Mishna (Sota vii. 5), and so may be as old as the time of Christ, but can hardly be alluded to in a mission intended only for Jews. Dr. A. Jeremias (Babylonisches im NT, 93) regards 70 as used in the Gospel as ‘a round number with astral character;’ but any reference to the stars is unnecessary and improbable. Babylonian astrologers might be credited with it, but not the Galilaean Jews of our Lord’s time and the Evangelists.

Seventy times seven.—The 70 times 7 of Matthew 18:22, the multiple of 10 times 7 by 7, is a very strong way of saying ‘very many times,’ almost equivalent to ‘without limit.’ The alternative rendering of (Revised Version margin) ‘seventy times and seven,’ which yields a much less emphatic meaning, rests on the LXX Septuagint translation of Genesis 4:24 where the same Greek ἑβοδμηκοντάκις ἑπτά represents Hebrew words which clearly mean 77. In Mt. the familiar rendering is distinctly preferable. Wellhausen (Das Evangelium Matthaei, 94) notes that D [Note: Deuteronomist.] reads ἑπτάκις for ἑπτά, which is strictly correct (but cf. Moulton, Proleg. Gr. Gram. 98).

Ten (δέκα, δέκατος, ἀποδεκατεύω ἀποδεκατόω).—The number ten is probably a round number in the parables of the 10 virgins (Matthew 25:1), the 10 pieces of silver (Luke 15:8), the talents (Matthew 25:28), and the 10 servants who received 10 pounds (Luke 19:13; Luke 19:16 f., Luke 19:24 f.); and in the prediction to the Church of Smyrna of tribulation 10 days (Revelation 2:10). In other passages (Matthew 20:24, Mark 10:41, Luke 14:31; Luke 17:12; Luke 17:17, and the references to the payment of a tenth to God, Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42; Luke 18:12) it is used literally. As a round number significant of completeness (although without the idea of sacredness associated with 7), its use was facilitated by the decimal system, which may have been suggested in the first instance by the number of fingers on the two hands Be that as it may, the Jews of our Lord’s day found 10 again and again in their sacred’ books and in history; for example, in the 10 patriarchs from Adam to Noah (Genesis 5); the 10 righteous men whose presence would have saved Sodom (Genesis 18:32); the 10 commandments (Exodus 34:12-26; Exodus 20:2-17, Deuteronomy 5:6-21); the 10 temptations with which Israel tempted God in the wilderness (Numbers 14:22); the 10 curtains of the tabernacle (Exodus 26:1); the 10 lavers (2 Chronicles 4:6); the 10 candlesticks (v. 7) and the 10 tables (v. 8) in Solomon’s temple; the 10 servants of Gideon (Judges 6:27), and the 10 elders of Boaz (Ruth 4:2).

The non-canonical literature of later times supplies many additional examples. The Book of Jubilees knows of 10 temptations of Abraham (19:8), a thought found also in the Mishna (’Abóth v. 4), and the Test, of Joseph of 10 temptations of Joseph (ch. 2). The fondness of the Rabbis for the number receives striking illustration from the long series of significant tens in ’Abôth v. 1–9. The number was also applied in daily life. Ten persons constituted the minimum required for a community or congregation (Mishna, Sanhedrin i. 6), and for a company at a Paschal supper (Josephus BJ vi. ix. 3). Later authorities fix 10 as the number of persons drawn up in a row to comfort mourners (Sanh. 19a) and as the number requisite for the utterance of the nuptial benediction (Kethuboth, 7b). The 10 virgins of the parable may possibly receive illustration from an Arab custom mentioned by some mediaeval Jewish writers. They affirm that in the land of the Ishmaelites, when the bride was taken from her father’s house to her new home on the evening preceding the completion of the marriage festivities, 10 torches or lamps were borne in front of her. The authority is, it is true, very late, but the custom described may have been of ancient origin (given in the gloss to Kelim ii. 8, 9b, and in Latin in Wetstein’s note on Matthew 25:1). The payment of a tithe or tenth to the Deity, referred to twice by our Lord (Luke 18:12, Matthew 23:23 || Luke 11:42), must have been connected in the first instance with the symbolic use of 10. The custom has been traced among Hebrews, Babylonians, Phœnicians, Greeks and Romans. The prominence of the subject in later Judaism is attested by the great space devoted to it in the Mishna, three treatises with 150 hălâkhóth.

Five.—Five, the half of ten, is met with in a considerable number of passages in the Gospels, in some of which it may have more than mere numerical significance. So perhaps in the 5 loaves (Matthew 14:17; Matthew 14:19; Matthew 16:9, Mark 6:38; Mark 6:41; Mark 8:19, Luke 9:13; Luke 9:16, John 6:9; John 6:13), a great multitude fed by an amount of food strongly suggestive of smallness and incompleteness; the 5 talents which bring in 5 more (Matthew 25:15 f., 20); the fivefold profit of the second servant in the parable of the Pounds contrasted with the tenfold profit of the first (Luke 19:18 f.); perhaps the 5 sparrows worth two farthings (Luke 12:6); and the 5 disciples of Jesus at the beginning of His ministry (John 1:35-51; cf. the 5 disciples of R. Jochanan ben Zakai, c. [Note: circa, about.] 80 a.d. [’Abôth, ii. 10], and the 5 disciples ascribed to Jesus in a baraitha removed from the censored editions of the Talmud [Sanh. 43a, see Laible’s Jesus Christus im Talmud, Anhang 15]). In the other passages (Matthew 25:2, Luke 1:24; Luke 12:52; Luke 14:19; Luke 16:28, John 4:18; John 5:2) it is safest to find only the ordinary meaning. Five, as a small round number, is repeatedly met with in the OT (Genesis 43:34; Genesis 45:22, Leviticus 26:8, Isaiah 30:17 etc.) and in the Tell el-Amarna letters, in one of the latter (ix. 20 in Winckler’s edition) it seems to be regarded as a number so small as to need an apology.

Forty.—An important multiple of ten is 40, found in the accounts of the Temptation (Matthew 4:2, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:2) and of the period intervening between the Passion and the Ascension (Acts 1:3). That it is in both cases more than a mere number is evident. The 40 days of fasting in the wilderness clearly point back to the 40 days spent by Moses on Sinai (Exodus 24:18; Exodus 34:28) and the 40 days’ journey of Elijah in the same region (1 Kings 19:8). The 40 days of temptation remind us of the repeated use in the OT of the number 40 of periods of testing or punishment. The rain at the Flood fell 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:4; Genesis 7:17). The spies were absent 40 days (Numbers 13:25). The punishment and proving of the people extended over 40 years (Numbers 14:34). Nineveh was granted 40 days of respite (Jonah 3:4). The Philistine oppression lasted 40 years (Judges 13:1), and Ezekiel predicted that Egypt should be desolate 40 years (Ezekiel 29:11). That this application of the number was not confined to Israel is probable from the statement on the Moabite Stone (lines 7 f.), that the occupation of Mehedeba by Israel lasted 40 years. Even if king Mesha intended the number to be understood literally, which is very doubtful, he may have recorded it with a view to its special significance. In another group of passages, also, 40 seems to be a normal or ideal number. Three periods of rest from foreign invasion, each of 40 years, are mentioned in the Book of Judges (Judges 3:11; Judges 5:31; Judges 8:28). Eli was judge for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18); and the reigns of David and Solomon are reckoned at 40 years each (2 Samuel 5:4, 1 Kings 11:42 : add from tradition the reign of Saul, Acts 13:21 Josephus Ant. vi. xiv. 9).

How did 40 come to be used in this way? The most satisfactory answer is suggested by the following passages in the OT and other Oriental literature and history. Isaac and Esau married at 40 (Genesis 25:20; Genesis 26:34). Moses came forward as a friend of his people about 40 (tradition recorded in Acts 7:23; cf. Exodus 2:11 ‘when Moses was grown up’), and began his work as their divinely appointed leader 40 years later (Acts 7:30 and Exodus 7:7). Caleb was 40 years old when sent out as one of the spies (Joshua 14:7). Hillel is said to have entered on his Rabbinic career at 40 (Sifre referred to in Jewish Encyc. art. ‘Forty’), and Jochanan ben Zakai to have exchanged commerce for study at 40 (Rosh ha-shanah, 31b: the same is affirmed of ’Akiba in the late writing, the ’Abôth of Rabbi Nathan, c. 6). Mohammed, according to a tradition referred to by König (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii. 563b, Stilistik, 55; cf. Muir, The Coran, its Composition and Teaching, 11), appeared as a prophet at or about 40. These passages suggest that 40 was regarded in the ancient East as the age of intellectual maturity, and there are not wanting direct declarations of that belief. In the addendum to the fifth chapter of ’Abôth, 40 is described as the age of reason or understanding (נן אדבעים לבינה), and a passage in the Koran cited by König (ll.cc.) runs: ‘until he reached his full strength and attained the age of 40 years.’ Forty years, therefore, represented a generation, and thus the number 40 became a round number for a full period, a complete epoch, and more generally for ‘many.’

It is still used in this way to some extent in the modern East. There is a Syrian proverb: ‘If you live 40 days with people, you will then either leave them or become like them’ (Mackie, Bible Manners and Customs, 111; Bauer, Volksleben im Lande der Bibel, 236, gives it rather differently, but with the same use of 40). As the ancient star-gazers noted the disappearance of the Pleiades for 40 days, some recent writers (Cheyne, perhaps, Bible Problems and their Solution, 114 f., and Winekler cited there; Zimmern, too, in KAT [Note: AT Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Test.] [ZW], 389, thinks the reference possible) connect the interval between the Passion and the Ascension, through a pre-Christian myth, with this astronomical period. This need not be seriously debated. The explanation given above is quite sufficient to account for the 40 days of the Temptation and ‘the Great Forty Days.’

A Hundred (ἐκατόν, ἑκατονταπλασίων).—That the product of 10 by 10 should be frequently used in a general way to express a large number, could be expected only in a civilization which was acquainted with the decimal as well as the sexagesimal system. There are instances in the OT, etc.: Leviticus 26:8, 2 Samuel 24:3, Proverbs 17:10, Ecclesiastes 6:3; Ecclesiastes 8:12, Sirach 18:9 (Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 : ‘The number of man’s days at the most are 100 years’), and the Moabite Stone (lines 28 f.: ‘I reigned over 100 chiefs’). In the Gospels the number is used mainly in this way: in the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:8; Matthew 13:23, Mark 4:8; Mark 4:20, Luke 8:8), in the parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18:12, Luke 15:4), and in Matthew 18:28; Matthew 19:29 (not WH [Note: H Westcott and Hort’s text.] ), Mark 10:30, Luke 16:6 f. In Mark 6:40, John 19:39 it is employed in the ordinary way.

The division of 100 into 99 and 1 (Matthew 18:12 f., Luke 15:4; Luke 15:7), with the preference of the 1, is found in the Mishna, Peah iv. 1 f. The same division is also met with in a remarkable passage in the Jerus. [Note: Jerusalem.] Talmud (Shabbath xiv. 3), which, however, is not earlier than the 3rd cent. a.d. Perhaps the contrast of 90 and I was not unknown to the Rabbinic teaching of our Lord’s day.

Ten Thousand.—In the two passages in the Gospels in which the multiple of 10 by 1000 occurs (μυρίος, Matthew 18:24; μυριάς, Luke 12:1), it is best regarded as hyperbolical. The intention in the one case is to name an amount quite inconceivable in ordinary life, a debt which could not possibly be discharged by a private person; in the other, to impress on the reader the enormous magnitude of the crowds which gathered round Jesus at that period of His ministry. There are many examples of this use in the OT (Leviticus 26:8, Deuteronomy 32:30, 1 Samuel 18:7 f., Ca 5:10, Ezekiel 16:7 (Revised Version margin) , Daniel 11:12, Micah 6:7 etc.). In the Tell el-Amarna letters 100,000 is used in this way. Dushratta, king of Mitani, prayed that Ishtar might protect him and his royal brother the Pharaoh for a hundred thousand years (No. xx. in Winckler’s edition).

Two.—There seems to be no special significance of the number 2 in the Gospels, unless, with könig (Stilistik, 51 f.), we regard it as, in some passages, an equivalent for ‘a few.’ This idiom seems to be proved for the OT. ‘Two days,’ in Numbers 9:22, may well mean ‘a few days’; and ‘the 2 sticks’ of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:12) can hardly be understood literally. It may be illustrated in the NT by the 2 fishes (Matthew 14:17; Matthew 14:19, Mark 6:38; Mark 6:41, Luke 9:13; Luke 9:16, John 6:9), and the 2 who agree in prayer concerning anything (Matthew 18:19); but the ordinary interpretation seems not inadmissible in both these cases. The custom of sending out representatives in pairs, of which there are several examples in the Gospel story (the 2 disciples sent by the Baptist to Jesus [Luke 7:19], the 12 sent out by two and two [Mark 6:7], the 70 sent out by two and two [Luke 10:1], the 2 sent out near Jerusalem [Matthew 21:1, Mark 11:1, Luke 19:29], and the 2 sent out to make preparations for the Paschal supper [Mark 14:13, Luke 22:8; cf. the 2 going to Emmaus, Luke 24:13 ff., Mark 16 :[12]], the 2 angels at the sepulchre [Luke 24:4, John 20:12], and the 2 on Olivet [Acts 1:10]), was probably known to the Jewish society of our Lord’s time.

A comparatively early tradition enjoined that the collectors of charity should travel in couples (Baba Bathra, 8b). When the son of Rabban Gamaliel (the grandson of St. Paul’s Gamaliel) was ill, the distressed father sent two of his disciples to R. Chanina ben Dosa to request his prayers (Berak., 34b). The 5 zu̇goth or couples of eminent teachers, the last of which consisted of Hillel and Shammuai, referred to in the Mishna (Peah ii. 6, ’Abôth i. 4–16), may also be mentioned. The expression ‘pairs’ was probably used of them in Rabbinic circles in the time of Christ.

The two ways of Matthew 7:13 f. probably represent a widely current mode of teaching. They are met with in Jeremiah 21:8 (cf. Deuteronomy 30:15, Sirach 15:17), Slav. Enoch 30:15 ‘I showed him the two ways, the light and the darkness’ (cf. the note of Charles), in the Jewish manual probably incorporated in the early chapters of the Didache (cf. Ep. of Barnabas, 18 ff.), and in a remarkable passage in the Talmud. When R. Jochanan ben Zakai (c. [Note: circa, about.] 80 a.d.) was on his deathbed, he said to his disciples, who wondered at his tears: ‘There are two ways before me: one leading to the Garden of Eden and the other leading to Gehenna, and I do not know in which I am about to be led’ (Berak. 28b).

Three.—A number of peculiar interest to the student of the Gospels is three—τρεῖς, τρίς, τρίτον, τρίτος. It is purely numerical in the following passages: Matthew 15:32, Mark 8:2; Peter’s words about the three tabernacles on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:4, Mark 9:5, Luke 9:33); Matthew 18:16-20; Matthew 20:3; Matthew 22:26, Mark 12:21; Mark 15:25, Luke 1:56; Luke 2:46; Luke 12:38; Luke 12:52; Luke 20:12; Luke 20:31; Luke 23:22, John 2:1; John 2:6. In a much greater number of passages it obviously or probably means more: in the allusion to Jonah (Matthew 12:40), in the parables of the 3 measures of meal (Matthew 13:33, Luke 13:21), the friend asking for 3 loaves (Luke 11:5), the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:36), and the barren fig-tree (Luke 13:7), in the 3 temptations (Matthew 4 ||), and the 3 prayers of Jesus (Matthew 26:44, Mark 14:41), in the references to Peter’s threefold denial (Matthew 26:34; Matthew 26:75, Mark 14:30; Mark 14:72, Luke 22:34; Luke 22:61, John 13:38), in the allusions to the 3 days’ interval between the Passion and the Resurrection (Matthew 12:40; Matthew 16:21; Matthew 17:23; Matthew 20:19; Matthew 26:61; Matthew 27:40; Matthew 27:63 f., Mark 8:31; Mark 9:31; Mark 10:34; Mark 14:58; Mark 15:29, Luke 9:22; Luke 13:32; Luke 18:33; Luke 24:7; Luke 24:21; Luke 24:46, John 2:19 f.: add Acts 10:40, 1 Corinthians 15:4), in the 3 manifestations of the risen Lord recorded in the Fourth Gospel (John 21:14), and in the threefold question, ‘Lovest thou me?’ addressed to Peter (John 21:15 ff.). In this latter and larger group can be traced a reference to the use of 3 as a significant number, of which there is a multitude of examples in the OT and other Jewish literature: the 3 feasts (Exodus 23:14), Job’s 3 friends (Job 2:11), the 3 times of prayer (Psalms 55:17, Daniel 6:10), the threefold shooting of Joash (2 Kings 13:18), the 3 sanctuaries—Eden, Mount Sinai, Mount Zion (Bk. of Jub 8:19), the 3 branches of a vine and the 3 baskets representing 3 days (Genesis 40:10; Genesis 40:12; Genesis 40:16; Genesis 40:18), 3 days’ journey (Exodus 3:18, Numbers 10:33, Jonah 3:3), the 3 days’ search for the body of Elijah (2 Kings 2:17), Esther’s 3 days’ fast (Esther 4:16), the 3 days of rejoicing for the honour done to Enoch (Slav. Enoch 68:7), the perfuming and anointing of the body of Abraham for 3 days (Test, of Abr. text A, ch. 20), the 3 sayings of the men of the Great Synagogue (’Abôth i. 1), the 3 things on which the world standeth (Shim‘on the Righteous in ’Abôth i. 2, and Shim‘on ben Gamaliel in ’Abôth i. 19), and the 3 sayings ascribed to each of the 5 disciples of Rabban Jochanan ben Zakai (’Abôth ii. 14 ff.).

It is not difficult to see how the number came to be used in this manner. Several wholes which are often met with can be readily divided into 3 parts: the head, trunk, and legs of a body; the source, stream, and mouth of a river; the root, trunk, and corona of a tree (König, DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] iii. 562b); the van, centre, and rear of an army; morning, noon, and evening. Early Eastern speculation grouped all things under three heads; heaven, earth, and the abyss (cf. the Babylonian triad of gods, Anu, Bel, Ea). It will have been noticed in very early times that 3 is the smallest number with beginning, middle, and end. So it naturally came to be used on a small, well-rounded total, especially, as shown above, in reference to time.

The 3 days’ interval between the Passion and the Resurrection may perhaps receive additional illustration from the Jewish rule that evidence for the identification of a corpse could not be received after 3 days (Yebamôth xvi. 3). A reason for the rule is given in a tradition ascribed to Bar Kappara, who was associated with the compiler of the Mishna (c. [Note: circa, about.] a.d. 200). This Rabbi is reported to have said that for 3 days the soul hovers near the body, waiting for an opportunity of returning into it, but that at the end of that period, seeing that the features are altered, it goes away (Midrash on Genesis, c. 100; Midrash on Ecclesiastes 12:6 : cf. Bousset, Die Religion des Judeuthums, 285 note). The resurrection of Jesus evidently took place before the close of the period of identification. Be that as it may, there can hardly be a doubt that the belief expressed by Bar Kappara, or something like it, underlay the words of Martha: ‘Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days’ (John 11:39). The 3 days were ended, and decay, she thought, had advanced so far that the features would be unrecognizable. That the 3 days between the Passion and the Resurrection had even the remotest connexion with the 3 days’ disappearance of the new moon in spring (Zimmern in KAT [Note: AT Die Keilinschriften und das Alte Test.] [ZW] 389), is highly improbable.

Two other passages cannot be entirely passed over, although little or nothing can be said in illustration: the reference to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost in the baptismal formula (Matthew 28:19), and the words ascribed to the risen Lord in the Apocalypse: ‘I am the first, and the last, and the living one’ (Revelation 1:17). There is no parallel to the use of the number in the former in pre-Christian Jewish literature, and connexion with Babylonian and Egyptian triads is out of the question. The triple priestly blessing (Numbers 6:24-26) and the Thrice Holy in the song of the seraphim (Is 6:3) are remarkable, but cannot be safely regarded as foreshadowings of the doctrine of the Trinity. The number 3 is in both cases strongly emphatic, but it is not advisable to find more than emphasis. ‘Holy, holy, holy’ is a very strong superlative. The passage in the Apocalypse is, no doubt, like the preceding words ‘him which is, and which was, and which is to come’ (Revelation 1:4), an expansion or interpretation of the name I AM THAT I AM (Exodus 3:14), and has a partial parallel in Plato, de Legibus, 716: ὁ μὲν δὴ θεὸς (ὥσπερ καὶ ὁ παλαιὸς λόγος) ἀρχήν τε καὶ τελευτὴν καὶ μέσα τῶν ὄντων ἁπάντων ἔχων, but must not be connected with it.

Four.—The number 4 (τέσσαρες, τεταρταῖος, τέταρτος, τετράμηνος, τετραπλόος) is found in the Gospels in the following passages: in the 4 months before harvest (John 4:35), the 4 bearers of the paralytic (Mark 2:3), the 4th watch (Matthew 14:25, Mark 6:48), the fourfold restitution promised by Zacchaeus (Luke 19:8), the 4 days of Lazarus in the grave (John 11:17; John 11:39), the division of the garments of Jesus among the 4 soldiers (John 19:23), the 4 winds (Matthew 24:31, Mark 13:27), and the 4 kinds of soil in the parable of the Sower, with the types of character which they represent (Matthew 13:4 ff. and parallels). We may add the 4 Gospels, the number of which was early regarded as significant. The four last references constitute a group. The 4 winds, associated with the 4 points of the compass, are met with in the OT and elsewhere in Oriental literature and symbolism: 1 Chronicles 9:24 (Revised Version margin) , Jeremiah 49:36, Ezekiel 37:9;

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Numbers (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/n/numbers-2.html. 1906-1918.

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