Jun 3, 2009

From 613 to 3:16: An Interesting Thought

Bonus points if you get why I chose this image!
I've seen the bumper sticker more and more lately, and it simply says: "JOHN 3:16." After all, that's really all you need to know. The verse, the tour de force of Christian theology, says "For G-d so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." I'm not here to argue truth, fact or fiction. No, I'm here to discuss something incredibly interesting.

I was walking through the library yesterday when I saw a book, simply titled "3:16" when it hit me -- 3:16 is the reverse of 613, the number of mitzvoth in Torah. The crux of one flipped on its head to be the crux of another. One, with its 3:16 showing that it was Jesus dying that nullified the need for the 613 mitzvoth to be followed.

So, automatically, I asked myself: Which came first? The Gospel of John? Or the identified tradition of 613 mitzvoth? The Torah, of course, was written long before the Christian canon. But the issue is more complicated than just that.

The identification of 613 mitzvoth comes from the wisdom of a few rabbis. The Talmud notes that the Hebrew gematria (numerical value) for the word Torah is 611. If you combine Moses' 611 commandments to the two received directly from G-d at Sinai, we get 613! This number -- 613 -- is attributed in the Talmud to Rabbi Simlai (early 3rd century CE), but other classical sages held this view, too, including Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai (early 2nd century CE) and Rabbi Eleizer ben Jose (2nd century CE). So we can confidently say that in the early 100s, if not earlier, this idea was evident among the rabbis. There were 613 mitzvoth, and these mitzvoth -- 365 negative, 248 positive -- are the "rules" we as Jews are to live by.

The Gospel of John is a more difficult text to really wrangle. There is already a boatload of suspicion of who he was, where he was writing, whether he even knew Jesus, and most importantly, WHEN he was writing. From what I can conclude from a quick bit of research online, the "general" consensus is that the Gospel of John was written around 100 CE.

So here we have a text and an idea -- John 3:16 and 613 mitzvoth -- both from the early 2nd century. Whether the rabbis had exposure to the Christian text is something that I don't think we can really know, and there are some scholars who argue that the rabbis recording the Oral Torah were completely isolated from the greater world around them (I think this is kind of, well, ridiculous). But what we do have here is an interesting polemic coming from John, whose language was intentionally antagonistic against Jewish traditions and customs.

Thus, where better to write the championing verse for Christianity but in the reverse of the numerical tour de force of Judaism?

I don't know if this is something that anyone's written on this, but I think it's really fascinating and most definitely something worth considering. Maybe I'll spend more time on this during the school year, but I think it would be worth taking a more developed and in-depth look at the most agreed-upon dates of the texts and whether there is any literary evidence to maybe connect the two numbers.

I'm not big into gematria, but I think it's quite fascinating. Even if you're not into gematria, that there are 613 mitzvoth is something all frum Jews cling to and all Jews regardless of creed identify with. At any rate, I hope you all find this as fascinating as I do.

22 comments:

orieyenta said...

Very fascinating indeed.

Bonus points if you get why I chose this image!

Supposed to be 613 seeds in a pomegranate to represent 613 mitzvot?

Tuvia said...

I was also going to guess 613 or 316 seeds

Justin said...

Very interesting. I never even saw the connection between the too, but now they will forever be linked and my curiosity will not let it end there. Please update us on any new info you find.

הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

I think the verse numbers of the books of the Gospel are much later than the book itself. It took a long time till there was a concencus about which gospels to include in the connon, and different groups still have different ones, so the numbering system may have come around that time..

Hm. Maybe I should look it up before I talk....

..here! "The first person to divide New Testament chapters into verses was Italian Dominican biblical scholar Santi Pagnini (1470–1541), a system that was never widely adopted." (Wikipedia).

(And by the way, if you've ever read the New Testament, you come to this conclusion pretty quickly: "Unlike the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the structure of the Greek language makes it highly susceptible to being broken up into divisions that would be syntactically inappropriate and even contrary to the sense of the passage." (same article). ..which is why it was done so late. ..it's like splitting Dickens into verses..).

..so uh, "613" is way older, they copied from us! (The only question was later on; "which ones are the 613?"..that went on from about 900 to 1300..)

Also: I really don't think the Talmudists of the second century Palestine cared much fore some obscure Messianic group and their texts (at the time there were many such groups and many such texts).

Scroll Jew said...

cool idea but.... chapters and verses was only something that came about in the middle ages. A good example of this is the famous Isaiah 53 discourse which actual begins on chapter 52. Remember there were no things called "books", we had scrolls which had no pages or numbers. Also I might add that the idea for 613 actually goes back to Ezra and the men of the great assembly wo got it from the prophets who got it from Joshua who got it from Moses. ;)

Jack said...

Interesting thought.

Chaviva said...

Firstly, yes! 613 seeds are supposed to be present in a pomegranate, although an interest scientific study was done: http://www.aquaphoenix.com/misc/pomegranate/. Interesting!

Secondly, the point that the chapter/verse numbers arose so much later (a point I neglected to mention) is even MORE compelling for the idea that Christian theologians chose this verse as a flip on the classic 613 mitzvoth. Don't you think?

rabbifink said...

Very interesting observation!

That Pomegranate seed study is really cool. It always bothers me when people say that a pomegranate must have 613 seeds.

Now at least it won't bother me as much!

rabbifink said...

Also, another great inverse number observation was made by Thomas Friedman (author of the World Is Flat).

On 9-11(-02) the free capitalistic world was attacked.

On 11-9(-89) the Berlin Wall collapsed. An attack against the communist world. Hmmmm.

mother in israel said...

Even if you were to accept that someone would manipulate the text in such a way to assign this verse a specific number, it's far-fetched to assume that the reverse of 613 is what they would choose. They were concerned only about the text, and wouldn't expect anyone to notice the numbering. I doubt that they imagined bumper stickers with 3:16 in those days.
So while it might work as a drasha (lehavdil), I don't think it works as a scholarly theory.

shavuatov said...

Hmm, not convinced on this one Chavi! My first thoughts were that the divisions into chapter and verse came much later - and I see that I'm not the only one to alight on this....

Additionally, why would any day to day Christian really care that 3:16 is the reverse of the number of the 613 mitzvot? Or in fact, know that this was the case?

Still, you have managed to tell me something I didn't know before - that John 3:16 was the crucial text for the Christian faith...

Keep 'em coming!

rachel

Jon Konheim said...

I have always found John interesting.. The words he quotes the Rabbi's as saying indeed sound like sonething Rabbi's would say and then he mis-interperts or does not understand what they are talking about at all. I lean toward early 100BC or even earler but I have not kept up with the scolarship much since my degree in Religion at Penn State 44 years ago. Opf! writting that makes me feel really old, Rena Konheim Rebbizin in Baltimore Tinsbar on twitter. I love your twits P.S. somehow this site gives you my husband's name & e-mail Mine is rabsint@aol.com

josh waxman said...

interesting post. in terms of that pomegranate "study", it is likely a joke, or if not, is seriously flawed. you can check out my analysis here:
http://parsha.blogspot.com/2007/09/613-seeds-in-pomegranate.html

all the best,
josh

Ofir Hauptmann said...

I think that because the versification of the New Testament comes much, much later, the fact that the last thing Christian theologians would want to pay tribute to is the 613 mitzvot or to dishonor the number which they most likely knew nothing about or cared for, your idea is drashy at most and not worthy of serious academic study. But it's an interesting thought, nonetheless. In terms of the central text of Christianity, I'd disagree that it is John 3:16, but I only am familiar with the Roman Catholic religion among Xian sects.

Chaviva said...

I fully hear what you all are saying. But I never underestimate theologians with an agenda. The very phrasing in the Christian bible that upholds the notion that Jesus' death fulfilled the annulment of the Jewish way of life (not John 3:16, but other verses that I can't quote off the top of my head but if you want, I can name them) is a rearranging of words from the Hebrew text to fit the theology of the church. I really wouldn't put it past a Christian theologian of that period from numbering the verses in a way that would make this evident.

@Josh Thanks for that link. Interesting :)

@Rena Weird that it shows up as Jon! Thank you for your comments. I enjoy your Tweets!

Ofir Hauptmann said...

"The very phrasing in the Christian bible that upholds the notion that Jesus' death fulfilled the annulment of the Jewish way of life (not John 3:16, but other verses that I can't quote off the top of my head but if you want, I can name them) is a rearranging of words from the Hebrew text to fit the theology of the church."

I'm interested in this. Where is this in the New Testmant?

Chaviva said...

Okay. Let me try to explain -- hope this goes well!

Deuteronomy 27:26 says: "A curse on everyone who does not obey everything that is written in the book of the law." Elsewhere, I can't find the verse right now, in the Torah it says something along the lines of "Man is not redeemed by the law alone."

The conclusion by Christian theologians from this was that you're damned if you do, damned if you don't, so everyone is cursed. Thus, as Galatians 3 quotes these lines from Deuteronomy, it says "The Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us." How do they get this?

Deuteronomy 21:23 says "A curse on everyone who is hung on a tree." At least, that's how Galatians 3:13 quotes the phrase from Deuteronomy. What it actually says is that a body that is hung from a tree is a reproach to G-d (in a discussion on not leaving a hanged man to be hanged all through the night). The words are switched around in Galatians in order to prove, in a way, the idea that because Jesus was hanged on a "tree" of sorts, he took up the curse of all people that came with the law so that all you have to do is believe in Jesus and wam, bam, you're saved -- no need for the law.

At any rate, it's all in Galatians 3.

mother in israel said...

That the New Testament turns the Old on its head is well known. But that's different than assigning significance to the numbering of verses when none exists.

Chaviva said...

You can't say with absolute certainty that none exists. I mean, the burden of proof is on me, of course. I wasn't say that there for-sure was, but I am saying is that it would be an interesting topic to look into.

Then again ... I tend to pick topics that are out there, but they usually come up with some interesting stuff.

mother in israel said...

"You can't say with absolute certainty that none exists."

Agreed.

Ofir Hauptmann said...

Thanks for taking the time to post the verses, Chaviava. I'm going to read those selections in Galatians. I wish I had them in the original Greek. I am sure I could find that some place. I enjoy doing such comparisons.

Michael V said...

There is no correlation. The Christian chapter/verse system didn't exist until the 13th century. Until that point, it was unbroken text.

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