Question: "What is gematria?"
Answer: The practice of gematria (pronounced gə 'may tree ə) is a method of assigning a numerical value to each letter of a word, name, or expression to ascertain the hidden meaning of the word. The word gematria is of Hebrew origin, but, according to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “is perhaps a corruption of the Greek word γεωμετρία (‘geometry’).”
Gematria is a form of biblical numerology. In late Judaism and early Christianity, gematria provided a basis for numbers having religious or spiritual symbolism. Jewish rabbis commonly used gematria to interpret the Old Testament. For example, the mysterious “Shiloh comes” in Genesis 49:10 (NKJV) was understood to represent the coming Messiah in part because, in Hebrew, the letters of Shiloh comes and Messiah share the same total numerical value of 358.
In another example of gematria in action, some rabbis note that Eliezer (Genesis 15:2), the name of Abraham’s treasured servant, has a numerical value of 318, signifying that this one man’s worth was equal to that of all Abraham’s servants put together, for Abraham had 318 servants (Genesis 14:14). Going a step further, the pseudepigraphical Epistle of Barnabas suggests (through a complicated process of gematria) that these 318 servants of Abraham represent Christ’s death on the cross. Of course, in gematria, word interpretations and hidden meanings depend heavily on how the numbers are understood and arranged.
The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary indicates that it was common for the Hebrew- and Greek-speaking people of the Bible to add up the total numerical value of the letters used to spell a person’s name and consider that sum “the number of (that) person’s name” (as in Revelation 13:17–18). This custom is easy to understand, given the letters in ancient Hebrew and Greek alphabets were also used as numbers. To present-day Bible readers, this system might seem like trying to decipher a code. However, in Bible times, the process was second nature. Most people already knew the numerical value of each letter. In New Testament days, gematria was used to create jokes, games, and riddles associated with people’s names and the names of prominent figures.
The average Jew would have known that the Hebrew letters in the name David add up to 14—a number that has been given messianic significance in biblical numerology. The Messiah would be the “Son of David,” and He would sit on David’s throne (Matthew 22:41–42; Luke 1:32–33). Matthew’s Gospel underscores this significance, dividing the genealogy of Jesus into three segments of 14 generations each (see Matthew 1:17).
Most early Christians would have instinctively calculated the total numerical value of letters in the name Jesus (in Greek) and arrived at 888. Some considered this number significant because 8 is higher than 7—the number for perfection. Something similar to gematria seems to be in view in Revelation 13:18, which says, “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.”
The second-century church father Irenaeus showed how difficult it is to use gematria with any precision, noting that 666 was the sum of several names, including Euanthas, Lateinos, and Teitan. Irenaeus’ conclusion: “It is therefore more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfilment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned; and the same question will, after all, remain unsolved” (Against Heresies, 5.30.3). Ignoring the advice of Irenaeus, others throughout history have continued to use gematria to assign the role of Antichrist to various emperors, presidents, popes, and other world figures.
The Bible neither confirms nor denies hidden meanings in numbers. Since gematria depends heavily on human ingenuity, alternate spellings, and subjective word groupings, it should not be relied upon for serious scriptural interpretation.
Over time, most traditional Christian and Jewish groups have distanced themselves from the practice of gematria, primarily due to the long-standing association of numerology with black magic and occult systems. Today, gematria remains in force in kabbalah and various mystical religions.