Luke’s use of numbers

Posted: July 16, 2012 by J in Bible, Luke Commentary

You’re not going to like this. But before we talk about Anna, we’d better get it out in the open. Most commentators don’t like this either. They know Luke does funny things with numbers, but they’d rather not get drawn into discussing it. Numerology is traditionally the precinct of cranks and crazies, and also JWs, Bahais and other wacky guys. So the commentators brush over it with the barest mention if any – they don’t want to sound like The Quibbler –  and move on to more respectable aspects of Luke’s writing!

But the thing is, Luke uses numbers to mean things. Symbolic things. There, I’ve said it. Check out the stories in Luke 8:40 – 9:17: they all involve the number 12. Every one of them. Luke is not very interested in counting stuff normally. When there are thirteen, or twenty six, or four of something, he normally doesn’t bother to tell us about it. He’s not really a details man in that sense. But when there are three or twelve, he lets us know. In Luke’s narrative language, numbers provide him an opportunity to say something. Jewish people liked this stuff (and Luke thinks like a Jew).

Before you get worried, Luke doesn’t get too tricky with this. No complex calculations used to predict the arrival of the antichrist, or the downfall of the United Nations. He mostly sticks to a few tried and true numbers that we can all recognise: three (death and resurrection), seven (fulfilment/completion), and twelve (Israel). Occasionally he hides one of these numbers inside other numbers (see the next scene, below), or splits it up into two, but this is rare.

So don’t panic. There are going to be quite a few instances of significant numbers in Luke’s story, you’ll get used to it. Try it out in this next scene, see how it feels. And keep an eye out for recurring numbers in the narrative as you read through Luke-Acts…

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