Number, both the concept and specific concrete individual numbers, in the ancient world was a highly philosophized subject, with a variety of treatises written on the symbology of single numbers or whole classes and families of numbers, and much of this material, this arithmology, was taught alongside ordinary mathematics and not as a distinct topic. Elements of these traditions continued down from the Pythagoreans and the neo-Pythagoreans through the kabbalists, Renaissance neo-Platonists, the German paragrammaticists and many others, down through the more diffuse and watered down modern notions of “numerology”.
Often overlooked is the role such number symbolism played in the text of the Bible. (Even the few texts like E.W. Bullinger’s Number in Scripture tend to focus only on the occurrence of literal numbers in the text.) Few seem to notice it at all beyond the ever popular “666” of the Book of Revelation. It’s an example of isopsephia, or Greek gematria, the assigning of numerical values to words or phrases based on the values their constituent letters have in the alphabetic numeral systems of languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Coptic and so forth. It was believed that words and expressions whose tallies were equal themselves had some kind of equality or symbolic connection.
῟Ωδε ἡ σοφία ἐστίν. ὁ ἔχων νοῦν ψηφισάτω τὸν ἀριθμὸν τοῦ θηρίου, ἀριθμὸς γὰρ ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν, καὶ ὁ ἀριθμὸς αὐτοῦ ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ.
hic sapientia est qui habet intellectum conputet numerum bestiae numerus enim hominis est et numerus eius est sescenti sexaginta sex
Here is wisdom. Who has understanding, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and the number is 666.Revelation 13:18
Over the ages, an overwhelming amount of time and effort has seemingly been spent by people trying to find a way to make a name—typically of some favored villain of the day—sum to this number, whether the attempts in the earliest days to suggest it was the Emperor Nero to more modern Protestant lines implying it was this Pope or that, all of which seem to miss a slight jest inherent in the problem. What? The Greek phrase τὸ μέγα θηρίον means “the great beast”, and its number is itself 666: τ + ὸ (300 + 70), μ + έ + γ + α (40 + 5 + 3 + 1), θ + η + ρ + ί + ο + ν (9 + 8 + 100 + 10 + 70 + 50), 370 + 49 + 247 = 666. In the same text, there is talk of the woman who rides the beast, arrayed in reds and scarlets; some have observed that ἡ κόκκινη γυνὴ, “the scarlet woman”, enumerates to 667, “one” on “the beast”.
Something slightly strange however is that before the number was in its way demonized via the Revelation reference, 6 and its extension on three scales as 666, was interpreted quite positively. Six is the third of the (arithmologically) important triangular numbers, the last before the tetractys so important in Pythagoreanism. It’s the first perfect number, the first number to be equal to the sum of its aliquot parts; it’s the second circular number; it was held classically to be the number of the “directions” (front/back/left/right or n/s/e/w and up/down) and myriad other things. None of which, of course, mean much to us today as number symbolism holds no great sway in our time, yet to the arithmologists of that era and for a few centuries prior, these thoughts were considered quite important. Pseudo-Iamblichus’ Τα Θεολογούμενα της Αριθμητικής (The Theology of Arithmetic) devotes several pages to the symbolism of the number 6 alone. The next rank of polygonal numbers beyond the triangular is the square, and the square of 6 brings us back around to the number above, in that the square of 6 is 36—and the 36th triangular number is 666, the sum of the numbers from 1 to 36, the sum of 6, 6 by the tetractys and that by the tetractys again. Pseudo-Iamblichus was at pains to observe in that context that 600 is itself the enumeration of κόσμος (world, universe, cosmos). All told, before Revelation 666 should have been positive and important.
Indeed, in Hebrew, the word for gain, profit, advantage, superiority, etc., יתרון, enumerates to 666 (10 + 400 + 200 + 6 + 50), which occurs twelve times in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes (1:3; 2:11, 13×2; 3:9; 5:8; 5:15; 7:12; 10:10-11). In I Kings 10:14 and II Chronicles 9:13, it’s stated that Solomon was given 666 talents a year (and the acronym [שמשוך] of that line [שש מאות ששים ושש ככר], itself enumerates to 666), and the number occurs as well as the number of the “sons of Adonikam” in Ezra 2:13 (and their number turns into 667 in the Nehemiah 7:18 version). The number was routinely related to the Sun and solar symbolism, due largely to the ancient numbering of the “planets” associating 6 to the Sun, which made 666 the sum of its magic square.
Adding to the significance is that it is one of the numbers that are “equal in their ranks” (in modern positional notation it simply means that the number has the same digit in the ones, tens, hundreds, etc., places; the multiples of
(10^y-1)/9). Virgil, in his Aeneid, ll. 257–277, uses the symbolism of 333; and the Christian numerologists also focused on 777 and 888, where 888 was the enumeration of Ἰησοῦς (Jesus) and by substituting Ϛ (stigma, 6) for the expected στ (s and t, 500) in the word σταυρὸς (cross) it was made to enumerate to 777 (6 + 1 + 400 + 100+ 70 + 200).
The classical theory with gematria (rather than pure arithmology) being, however, that these numbers are less significant as things in themselves than in the context of the words and phrases that bear them as their sum, what do we find if we look for words and phrases enumerating to these numbers? Over the years, I have entertained myself by playing with such number puzzles as these, sometimes doing tallies by hand, sometimes running computerized searches against some text or other. The results are occasionally amusing. Now and then you can run across an older source that suggests one or another of these results was known to earlier generations, and some have been written about elsewhere, but I will present some few oddments here for possible interest.
εἰμι ἡ ζωή (“I am the life”, John 14:6)
λόγος ἐστί (“the Word is”, which “word” was theologically identified with Jesus)
παρακληθήσονται (“they shall be comforted”, Matthew 5:4)
אלהינו עולם ועד
[“our god forever”, Psalms 48:14/15)]
אני יהוה לא שניתי
[“I am YHWH, I do not change”, Malachi 3:6]
השמים מספרים כבוד-אל
[“the heavens declare the glory of god”, Psalms 19:2]
[“the salvation of our god”, Psalms 98:3]
τὸν ἄρσενα (“the child”, Revelation 12:13)
[“in the expanse of the heavens”, Genesis 1:14]
[“gate of light”]
[“more desirable than gold”]
δι’ ἀπιστίαν (“because of disbelief”, Hebrews 3:19)
παρὰ θεοῦ (“from god”, John 1:6)
[“your god”, Isaiah 40:9]
[“he spread out the earth”, Isaiah 42:5]
האל יהוה בורא השמים
[“the god YHWH who made the heavens”, Isaiah 42:5]
[“let there be luminaries”, Genesis 1:14]
[“YHWH is a sun”, Psalms 84:12/11]
יום יהוה הוא חשך ולא אור
[“the day of YHWH will be darkness not light”, Amos 5:18]
חשיכה ואורה היא כאחד ליהוה
[“darkness and light are like one to YHWH”, cf. Psalms 139:12]
ענן וערפל סביבי יהוה
[“cloud and gloom surround YHWH”, Psalms 97:2]
[“secret / hiding place”, Psalms 18:12/11]
[“your dwelling-place”, Psalms 91:9]
[“holy ark”, II Chronicles 35:3]
ורב שלום בניך
[“and great will be the happiness of your children”, Isaiah 54:13]
[“from his cruel sword”, Isaiah 27:1]
[“as the dust of the earth”]
[“den of jackals”, Jeremiah 51:37]
אין אדם אשר לא יחטא
[“No man is without sin”, II Chronicles 6:36]
[“I am a man”, “I am Adam”]