Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Use of Numbers in the Church

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 11
Use of Numbers in the Church

by Herbert Thurston


No attentive reader of the Old Testament can fail to notice that a certain sacredness seems to attach to particular numbers, for example, seven, forty, twelve, etc. It is not merely the frequent recurrence of these numbers, but their ritual or ceremonial use which is so significant. Take, for example, the swearing of Abraham (Gen., xxi, 28 sqq.) after setting apart (for sacrifice) seven ewe lambs, especially when we remember the etymological connexion of the word nishba, to take an oath, with sheba seven. Traces of the same mystical employment of numbers lie much upon the surface of the New Testament also, particularly in the Apocalypse. Even so early a writer as St. Irenaeus (Haer., V, xxx) does not hesitate to explain the number of the beast 666 (Apoc., xiii, 18) by the word "Lateinos" since the numerical value of its constituent [Greek] letters yields the same total (30+1+330+5+10+50+70+200=666); while sober critics of our own day are inclined to solve the mystery upon the same principles by simply substituting for Latinus the words Nero Caesar written in Hebrew characters which give the same result. Of the ultimate origin of the mystical significance attached to numbers something will be said under "Symbolism." Suffice it to note here that although the Fathers repeatedly condemned the magical use of numbers which had descended from Babylonian sources to the Pythagoreans and Gnostics of their times, and although they denounced any system of their philosophy which rested upon an exclusively numerical basis, still they almost unanimously regarded the numbers of Holy Writ as full of mystical meaning, and they considered the interpretation of these mystical meanings as an important branch of exegesis. To illustrate the caution with which they proceeded it will be sufficient to refer to one or two notable examples. St. Irenaeus (Haer., I, viii, 5 and 12, and II, xxxiv, 4) discusses at length the Gnostic numerical interpretation of the holy name Jesus as the equivalent of 888, and he claims that by writing the name in Hebrew characters an entirely different interpretation is necessitated. Again St. Ambrose commenting upon the days of creation and the Sabbath remarks, "The number seven is good, but we do not explain it after the doctrine of Pythagoras and the other philosophers, but rather according to the manifestation and division of the grace of the Spirit; for the prophet Isaias has enumerated the principal gifts of the Holy Spirit as seven" (Letter to Horontianus). Similarly St. Augustine, replying to Tichonius the Donatist, observes that "if Tichonius had said that these mystical rules open out some of the hidden recesses of the law, instead of saying that they reveal all the mysteries of the law, he would have spoken truth" (De Doctrina Christiana, III, xlii). Many passages from St. Chrysostom and other Fathers might be cited as displaying the same caution and showing the reluctance of the great Christian teachers of the early centuries to push this recognition of the mystical significance of numbers to extremes.

On the other hand there can be no doubt that influenced mainly by Biblical precepts, but also in part by the prevalence of this philosophy of numbers all around them, the Fathers down to the time of Bede and even later gave much attention to the sacredness and mystical significance not only of certain numerals in themselves but also of the numerical totals given by the constituent letters with which words were written. A conspicuous example is supplied by one of the earliest of Christian documents not included in the canon of Scripture, i.e., the so-called Epistle of Barnabas, which Lightfoot is inclined to place as early as A.D. 70-79. This document appeals to Gen., xiv, 14 and xvii, 23, as mystically pointing to the name and self-oblation of the coming Messias. "Learn, therefore," says the writer, "that Abraham who first appointed circumcision, looked forward in spirit unto Jesus when he circumcised, having received the ordinances of three letters. For the Scripture saith, And Abraham circumcised of his household eighteen males and three hundred.' What then was the knowledge given unto him? Understand ye that He saith the eighteen' first, and then after an interval three hundred.' In the [number] eighteen [the Greek IOTA] stands for 10, [the Greek ETA] for eight. Here thou hast Jesus ([in Greek] IESOUS). And because the cross in the [Greek TAU] was to have grace, he saith also three hundred.' So he revealeth Jesus in two letters and in the remaining one the cross" (Ep. Barnabas, ix). It will, of course, be understood that the numerical value of the Greek letters iota and eta,, the first letters of the Holy Name, is 10 and 8 18, while Tau, which stands for the form of the cross, represents 300. At a period, then, when the Church was forming her liturgy and when Christian teachers so readily saw mystical meanings underlying everything which had to do with numbers, it can hardly be doubted that a symbolical purpose must constantly have guided the repetition of acts and prayers in the ceremonial of the Holy Sacrifice and indeed in all public worship. Even in the formulae of the prayers themselves we meet unmistakable traces of this kind of symbolism. In the Gregorian Sacramentary (Muratori, "Liturgia Romana Vetus," II, 364) we find a form of Benediction in some codices (it is contained also in the Leofric Missal), assigned to the Circumcision or Octave of the Nativity, which concludes with the following words: "Quo sic in senarii numeri perfectione in hoc saeculo vivatis, et in septenario inter beatorum spirituum aginina requiescatis quatenus in octavo resurrectione renovati; jubilaei remissione ditati, ad gaudia sine fine mansura perveniatis. Amen."

We are fairly justified then when we read of the three-fold, five-fold, and seven-fold litanies, of the number of the repetitions of Kyrie eleison and Christe eleison, of the number of the crosses made over the oblata in the canon of the Mass, of the number of the unctions used in administering the last sacraments, or the prayers in the coronation of a king (in the ancient form in the so-called Egbert Pontifical these prayers have been carefully numbered), of the intervals assigned for the saying of Masses for the dead, of the number of the lessons or the prophecies read at certain seasons of the year, or of the absolutions pronounced over the remains of bishops and prelates, or again of the number of subdeacons that accompany the pope and of the acolytes who bear candles before him — we are justified, we say, in assigning some mystical meaning to all those things, which may not perhaps have been very closely conceived by those who instituted these ceremonies, but which nevertheless had an influence in determining their choice why the ceremony should be performed in this particular way and not otherwise. (For explanation of the mystical significance commonly attached to the use of numbers see SYMBOLISM.)

Herbert Thurston.