Q: Is there evidence of gematria/isopsephy/numerology in the Hebrew Bible, or Jewish pseudepigrapha writing? Is there anything to suggest that that gematria/numerology was a prominent interest to Jewish scribes before the first century C.E.?
A: The short answer is that gematria and the closely-related isopsephy (the practice of linking words sharing the same numerical value) are best seen as interesting strands in how later readers interpreted the Hebrew Bible, rather than a major concern of the biblical authors themselves. Gematria seems fairly well established among Jews and Christians by the New Testament and early rabbinic period, probably through Greek influence, but gained a new lease of life in Jewish mystical texts of the later Middle Ages, notably in kabbalah.
Gematria can be found in two main forms. The more famous—reflected in Revelation’s 666 (
A second kind of gematria replaces letters with different letters, following a set scheme. The commonest is known as atbash, effectively reversing the order of the letters: hence the first letter (aleph) is replaced by the last (tav), the second (beth) with the penultimate letter (shin), etc. There is a rare example of atbash in the Hebrew Bible.
Those who claim that the Hebrew Bible contains more examples of gematria than those just mentioned are likely applying later interpretative methods to the biblical text drawn from rabbinic traditions of the second century onwards. One such example concerns
- Yarbro Collins, Adele. “Numerical Symbolism in Apocalyptic Literature,” in W. Haase, ed., Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1984, pp. 1221-1287.
- Bauckham, R. The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1993.
- Noegel, Scott B. “Atbash in Jeremiah and Its Literary Significance: Part 1,” Jewish Bible Quarterly 24/2 (1996), pp. 82-89.
- Scholem, Gershom. Kabbalah. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1974, pp.337-43.