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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 Sanders 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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