Saturday, September 8, 2007

9/8/07 6:54:32.10

I'm having some fun with numbers here using the date and time. So let us look at one of the latest posts from the inimitable Oengus Moonbones.

[Warning: If like Mattel's Barbie® you think that "math is hard", you might want to skip this post.]

There are three mysterious triangular numbers in the New Testament. The first is 153 which occurs in John 21:11. The second is 276 which occurs in Acts 27:37. And the third is 666 which occurs in Revelations 13:18.

These three numbers have certain curious relationships with each other, which I will endeavor to illuminate.

First, there are some elementary properties we should notice. Using the formula for the nth triangular number, T(n)=n(n+1)/2, it's easy to see that 153 is the 17th triangular number, 276 is the 23rd triangular number, and 666 is the 36th triangular number. And 36 is the square of 6.

He then goes on to explore relationships between these numbers based on different ways to slice and dice them. He points out that the context of all three of the verses containing these "mysterious triangular" numbers have something to do with the element of water. The mysterious catch of fish (153 fish), a shipwreck on one of St. Paul's missionary journeys (276 people) and the beast coming out of the sea (666).

The number "153" I had known about. A nice traditional Catholic lady pointed out that a 15 decade Rosary contained 153 Hail Mary's -- of course the Rosary was developed long after the St. John's Gospel was written. But her mention of it made me think about the story and how the number just kind of pops up surprisingly. I mean, think about it: the Apostles are in the midst of an intense encounter with the resurrected Christ, a miracle occurs, St. John realizes it's Jesus, St. Peter jumps into the water, and somebody says "Wow! look at all these fish! We'd better count these pappies"? Well, I think St. Matthew was an accountant, maybe it was his idea. Either that or it's a pretty weird estimate. Imagine St. John thinking later as he pens his Gospel, "Oh, I don't know, I guess there were, maybe, one-hundred-fifty-three or so. Roughly." But in the verse it reads pretty much like a certainty, and the strangeness of the number speaks to precision also. St. John's Gospel also contains loads of symbolism, so the number might have been chosen. I'm one of those both/and types who would suggest that it's likely that is was accurate (i.e., for real) and symbolic, the kind of thing Jesus, the guy who invented the sacraments, was really into.

Some of the other interesting features of the number 153 are on it's very own wikipedia page. It mentions that it is the 9th Hexagonal Number. But more interestingly to me, it possesses features like the Kaprekar constant, 6174, which fascinated me since the 4th grade or so. For 153, however, you pick any number divisible by 3 and add the cubes of the digits. Keep doing this to the results and you eventually get to 153.

The 153 page links to a interesting connection between the number and fish. It's an instance of 153 being used as a denominator in a fraction by Pythogoreans as an close estimate to the Vesica Piscis shape, literally the "bladder of the fish". A fish's bladder would seem to be a water symbol squared! Hold on a second...

I'm back. Sorry, all this talk about water, you know. But you've seen this Vesica Piscis in Christian art countless times usually with a saint or Our Lord sitting in it. It is supposed to be related to the IXΘYC fish, possibly the earliest Christian symbols. It also pops up in pagan art, jewelry and Arthurian Legend. You can also see it popping up in those crop circles, proving that those UFO aliens know about fish bladders as well.

What I like about Oengus's musings on these numbers is that it is what I would call true Biblical exegesis even though it may seem a bit speculative and esoteric to non-mathmatical scripture readers. There are plenty of people out there who approach numbers in the Bible, especially the book of Revelation, trying to prove how a modern day figure (e.g., Ronald Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Geo. Bush, etc.) is the anti-Christ of prophecy. They can usually find a way to "force" numbers to "prove" this about their political enemies, the object of their crackpottery. For this reason, the study of numbers in Sacred Scripture is generally seen as fraudulent and goofy by many, but I don't think it has to be. If nothing else, this stuff has informed and enriched meaningful Christian symbolism and fosters an appreciation for numbers in the geometry of the created order Thirty-seven genes in the human mitochondrial DNA might be a stretch but WHOAAA! dude, I like it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for mentioning my numerical musings. What you added was also fascinating. As I find more things to add, I'll be updating that entry.