# What Is Gematria and Should Christians Use It?

Borrowed Light

Gematria either sounds like a disease you don’t want to catch or a villain from The Legend of Zelda. It is neither of those. Gematria is a method of biblical interpretation where each letter in the Hebrew or Greek alphabet is assigned a number. This number is then used to extract hidden meanings from the words in biblical text.

If you’ve listened to enough sermons or read enough Christian books, you’ve likely stumbled upon the use of gematria. For example, have you ever heard someone hypothesize that the number 666 in Revelation 13:18 points to Nero Caesar? Then you’ve witnessed the usage of gematria. But is this a biblical way to study Scripture? Should Christians use this?

## What Are Examples of Gematria?

The best way I know to teach gematria is to compare it to a cryptogram. In a cryptogram, each number is represented by a secret letter. If you can unlock the code, you’ll be able to find the secret message hidden in the numbers. As an example, one word in your puzzle might be 5-9-21-21-16. Through deduction and dumb luck, you’ve learned that 5=H, 9=E, 21=L, and 16=O. You can now discern that the hidden word is HELLO.

Gematria is similar, but with this you have an established “key.” Each Hebrew letter represents a number. The first nine letters are 1-9. Then it starts counting by tens, until it gets to Qof, Resh, Shin, and Tav. These last four are 100, 200, 300, and 400 respectively. The Greek alphabet follows a similar pattern. A couple of examples will be helpful.

Consider the Hebrew word for "truth" (emet, אמת).

Aleph 1 = (א)

Mem מ) = 40)

Tav ת) = 400)

The gematria value of emet is 1 + 40 + 400 = 441.

Or, consider the Greek word for "Jesus" (Iesous, Ιησους).

Iota (Ι) = 10

Eta (Η) = 8

Sigma (Σ) = 200

Omicron (Ο) = 70

Upsilon (Υ) = 400

Sigma (Σ) = 200

The gematria value of Iesous is 10 + 8 + 200 + 70 + 400 + 200 = 888.

If you’re wondering at the significance of these numbers, you aren’t alone. How are we supposed to derive meaning from the fact that Jesus’ “number” was 888? Is there significance?

Some might find that the number for Jesus is found all throughout the Old Testament. The numerical value for Almighty God (El Shaddai) is 888. The “I am who I am” also comes to 888 in Hebrew. Psalm 19:1, a verse about the heavens declaring the glory of God, add up to 888. And if you jumble some of the words together just so you can find the number 888, then in Isaiah 7:14 we read of the virgin bearing a son.

It sounds pretty cool, but is that a valid way of interpreting Scripture? Perhaps looking at the origin might also be helpful.

## Where Did Gematria Come From?

I should also mention that there are different ways of arriving at these numbers. It’s not nearly as wide open as a cryptogram, but there are at least three different types of values.

Standard Gematria is the basic form, where each letter's value is simply added up.

In the Mispar Katan method, the value is reduced to a single digit (e.g., 441 would become 4 + 4 + 1 = 9).

And Mispar Gadol is a variation where the final forms of letters (which occur at the end of words) are given higher values (e.g., final Mem (ם) = 600 instead of 40).

These are the main three, but there are other variations as well.

Gematria is a practice with ancient origins. The concept of using letters as numbers is found in some ancient Near East literature. And the belief that numbers connect with symbolic or mystical meanings is ancient as well. Greek and Egyptian cultures often attributed spiritual significance to numbers. But the gematria we know of today is rooted in Jewish tradition.

The earliest documented usage of this practice was found in the Second Temple period, though the evidence is scant. But it is more explicit during the Talmudic period (200-500 AD). There are explicit discussions where gematria is used to derive legal and moral lessons from the numerical value of words. As an example, one might use the numerical value of holy (30) to conclude that the default period for a nazir vow is 30 days.

The Jewish mysticism of Kabbalah, which flourished in medieval Spain and France, used gematria extensively to explore esoteric meanings of the Torah and uncover hidden truths about God. The expansive use of the practice, then, is clearly after the time in which the Scriptures were written. But can we find any uses of gematria in the Bible?

## Did the Biblical Writers Use Gematria?

There are a few places in the Old and New Testament where strange numbers appear. This invites much speculation, which gematria is happy to fulfill. One of these places is in John 21:11, when John mentions the precise number of 153 fish. That’s strange. Usually, biblical writers will round up or speak less specifically. That lends us to wonder what special meaning John attached to 153.

In Ezekiel 47:10 one of the places mentioned is Eneglaim. There we read of the spreading of nets and fish of many kinds of the Great Sea. The number for Eneglaim is 153. John has been using Ezekiel throughout, and Ezekiel 40-47 speaks of the new temple. Some will confidently conclude that John gives us this number to draw us back to Ezekiel 47.

The other place many point to is in Revelation 13:18, which states that the number of the beast is 666. This has led many to speculate as to the identity of the beast. Some have found it as a reference to Nero Caesar. There are others that can come to 666 though. Hitler, Hitler, Hitler would come to that number, as would 2Pac’s album “All Eyes On Me” (though you can’t spell it with a Z). Thomas Cruise also comes to that number. And if I can mess with the numbers enough, I think I might be able to give myself this position. “Mike Leake the Antichrist” nets me 648 in the Hebrew Gematria calculator. That’s 18 short. But if I can squeeze in the word “life,” “beef,” or even “big” somewhere in there, we can nail this down.

I hope you can see that I’m being facetious. I am not convinced that the biblical writers used gematria. Not even close. For one, the practice wasn’t widespread enough for them to put something there. I could almost be convinced that there is some measure of code in Revelation — that might have been late enough and written with enough of a cryptic message that it would fit. But even here, almost anything can be combined to arrive at this number. Far better to see it as a symbolic “number of man.”

This method of interpreting is a later addition as far as I can tell. It does not appear to have influenced the writers of the New Testament nor the Old Testament. But can we use it today?

## Should We Use Gematria Today?

Frankly, I have enough of a difficult time discerning the meaning of the original author using something like the grammatical-historical method. And even when we come to arrive at a straight-forward meaning, I have even more of time dedicated to living out what Scripture is calling me to do. I’ve yet to find any convincing or beneficial interpretation which has come from gematria.

God’s Word is interesting in itself. It tells the story of Jesus Christ and our redemption through Him. It’s the greatest story ever told. It doesn’t need to have some hidden codes and formulas to show the absolute beauty and wonder of the story. There is nothing gained from this. This kind of interpretive method at least comes close to falling under what Paul warned Timothy about. We should be wary of those who “devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies.” These things, he says, “promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work.”

There are many good ways to study the Scriptures. Gematria is not one of them.