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How should we interpret the numbers in the Bible?

Published: 9 May 2015 (GMT+10)
iStockphoto numbers

Sometimes it is difficult to know when to take a biblical passage or detail literally or figuratively, but the context of Scripture can give us the answer! P.K. from the UK asked:

I do believe in literal Genesis. However, the use of numbers throughout the Bible bothers me e.g. 600,000 troops, 930 years old, etc. I understand that Revelation needs to be viewed rather differently than the other Books but would really appreciate your views as to whether we should take ALL the quoted numbers as accurate and literal.

CMI’s Lita Cosner responds:

Thanks for writing in. The first basic principle for interpreting the Bible is that we need to take the Bible as it intends itself to be taken. That means when a number is stated in a context where one would expect an actual number, we take it as an actual number. When a number is stated in a context where it could be symbolic or literal, then we need to look carefully at the text to see whether a symbolic or literal number makes more sense in the context. Note: we are letting the text itself tell us whether the number is literal or figurative, not our own preconceived ideas about what is more likely.

We can give a few examples from places where numbers are important in the biblical text. In Genesis 5, the text tells us that Adam lived to be 930 years old, and his descendants experienced similarly impressive lifespans. But the text gives us no indication that these are anything other than a straightforward record of their lifespans, so we have to take it as literal lifespans. And when we can use these lifespans to deduce a chronology of history, we also have to take it as a literal chronology. We may believe or disbelieve what the text tells us (of course, as Christians we believe it!) but we cannot deny that this is what the text is saying.

In Revelation 7, the text speaks of 144,000 Israelites, 12,000 from every tribe, who were sealed. Now, we know that there are several significant numbers:

  1. There are 12 tribes
  2. There are 12,000 from each tribe: 12 x 1,000
  3. The total number of the sealed are 144,000: 12 x 12 x 1,000.
This makes the 144,000 an extremely significant number for symbolic reasons—it is an indication of the perfect completeness of God’s salvific work in Israel. But is this a literal number? Revelation is full of imagery, and many disagree on when to take this imagery literally or figuratively (and we don’t take a position on denominational details of eschatology in CMI). But note: even though this is obviously a significant symbolic number, it still could be a literal number. For instance, Jesus chose 12 Apostles, obviously because there are 12 tribes of Israel. The number was symbolic, but also literal—there were 12 actual men.

So while we can say that there are definitely many literal numbers, I would be hesitant to say that a number was definitely purely figurative, even if it has obvious symbolic meaning.

C.C. from the US asked:

How much of Josephus’s writings can we trust? Is there still any questions surrounding The Testimonium Flavianum?

CMI’s  responds:

Thanks for writing in. Josephus was a first-century Jew writing in the context of his day, with specific goals in mind. In a sense, he was writing ‘propaganda’ (but in a sense, so do all historians—the ancients just tended not to pretend otherwise). However, for the most part, he was writing a true, if biased, account of things that actually happened. For instance, imagine if a Southern general and a Northern general had each written an account of a particular battle in the American Civil War. Some of their details would be the same—the number killed on both sides, the hour the battle began and when the troops started to retreat, and so on. But their perspective on those facts would be different. Josephus tells a Jewish perspective of the events he records.

The Testimonium Flavianum in its current form is certainly not what Josephus wrote, but was manipulated by a well-meaning Christian copyist sometime later. But beneath the Testimonium is almost certainly a genuine statement about Jesus by Josephus. If you take out the pious language, you are left with something that sounds like what Josephus wrote, and various Josephus scholars have made attempts at reconstructing the likely original.

Of course, Josephus is not Scripture, and there are some places where he has been shown to be relying on mistaken information. But he is one of the great ancient historians, so his work is definitely useful in that capacity.

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Readers’ comments

K. H.
For example:

And they pitched one over against the other seven days. And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined: and the children of Israel slew of the Syrians an hundred thousand footmen in one day.

The word 'thousand' is in hebrew 'eLePh'. Probably it is vocalized incorrectly. It is submitted that it should be vocalized as 'aLLuPh', which means 'chieftain' or 'officer'. So children of Israel slew hundred syrian chieftains and their men in one day. That is much less than hundred thousand men.
Dennis ` S.
About the Jewish chronologies,; heard R.C. Sproul explain that one cannot deduce elapsed time by adding dates of the ancestral tables. Jews only listed important, noteworthy ancestors, drunks and donkey thieves were left out.
Lita Cosner
This very well may be true for later genealogies; Matthew and Luke's sources for their genealogies clearly omitted names. However, the chronogenealogy gives us a watertight chronology, whether it is talking about father to son, or grandfather to grandson.
Dean Y.
There's nothing well-meaning about a copyist who manipulates someone else's writing - Christian or otherwise. However, like most issues historical, the experts are divided. Most accept that there could have been some interpolation by a Christian copyist, but why such a subtle touch? The data without the subtle interpolations (if they are interpolations) are more valuable in the original text from a hostile witness than from a Christian sympathizer, which, it seems, Josephus was not. I am not sure that a Christian or Christian sympathizing copyist would fail to see this, no matter the century of his birth. The debate centers mostly on the writings about Jesus Christ and are virtually uncontested when Josephus reports on James, the brother of Jesus. Theories abound, but the fact is that Josephus did write about the historical Jesus. In the end, this is less important than the revealed Christ of the New Testament. Thankfully, the New Testament writings are historically more relevant than any extra-Testament report. For a fuller historiography, google Dr Gary Habermas' Minimal Facts.
Lita Cosner
Because Eusebius quotes this passage from Josephus in virtually the same form in the fourth century, this change was apparently made early--before Christians would need historical confirmation of Jesus' existence. Everyone, both Christians and their opponents, agreed that Jesus existed; they only disagreed on His identity.
George J.
Symbolism notwithstanding, why would anyone question the fact that 144,000 means 144,000(as in 143,999 + 1) as you do here? "This makes the 144,000 an extremely significant number for symbolic reasons—it is an indication of the perfect completeness of God’s salvific work in Israel. But is this a literal number? "
Lita Cosner
George, if you read a little further, you will notice I said that it could very well be a literal number. The context does not allow me to make the leap that it is a literal number.
James D.
Hey Lisa. I agree totally with your views. Let me try to add a bit without being long-winded.
:-) As to Biblical numbers: The claims that the writers exaggerated numbers are a part of the textual critique and rationalists that basically denied almost everything in the Bible as untrue. Through archaeology, the Bible has been vindicated time after time. Though no one can be sure exactly how many people left Egypt during the Diaspora for example, the true Mt Sinai has been located and evidence of huge amounts of people having lived near its base and sacrificed in vast numbers gives credence to the Bible's numbers rather than the false accusers of the 1800's upwards. Concerning Josephus; In 1972 already, at the Hebrew University, a certain Professor Schlomo, found an Arabic copy of Josephus which contained the original text before the interpolation. The interpolated text was not reason for Historians like Dr. Paul Maier to doubt everything that Josephus wrote, but to work on trying to get at the original. The reason why most liberals want to throw sand in everything Josephus wrote, would be his actual and rather positive uninterpolated text. Though Josephus wan't a Christian, he didn't deny Jesus Messianic role either in his uninterpolated text! It's actually quite positive. (See "In The Fullness of Time" pgs. 199-200; and I recommend highly, Josh McDowell's book "Evidence for Christianity" for excellent historical view of Biblical criticisms and their old roots!) Sincerely,
James Dill

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