Hebrew letters used as numbers

peter_kirk at sil.org peter_kirk at sil.org
Fri Jun 18 22:29:52 EDT 1999

Henry Churchyard wrote:

"Unfortunately, the developed system of unit, tens. and hundreds 
values assigned to the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet (Aleph-Tet 1-9, 
Yod-Tsade 10-90, Qoph-Taw 100-400), didn't exist until the Hellenistic 

I know that's what the books say, at least the older ones I have at 
hand. But is there actually any evidence that the system did not 
exist, or evidence of it being newly introduced, rather than an 
absence of evidence that it did exist? For example, GKC section 5k 
notes that the earliest traces were on Maccabean coins, but were there 
any earlier coins, do any survive, and what system if any was used in 
them? And if this is the "developed" system, does it mean that there 
were other, earlier "developing" systems? Does anyone know anything 
about this beyond what is written in the standard grammars etc?

Then John Burnett wrote:

"Your comment about the late assignment of numbers to hebrew letters 
is interesting-- first of all, is this dating absolutely certain, or 
do we merely not have evidence, among the handful of texts we have 
from the prior period, that such an assignment was used?  Because that 
would be an argument from silence (not the first!)  And secondly, if 
it is true, then if we find any consistent use of gematria in any text 
of the OT (not just applied to it, but presupposed by it, as may be 
the case with the passage in John 21 that I discussed yesterday)-- 
would this not be strong evidence for hellenistic dating?  Of course, 
that might be something we already know about a given sequence of 
passages-- but one can easily imagine situations where it could either 
be very upsetting, or very confirming."

This starts with the same point as I made above before reading this 
posting. But then the logic becomes rather flawed. If there is no 
evidence for the numbering system before the Hellenistic period, and 
then (hypothetically) traces of the system are found in documents 
believed on other grounds to be earlier, that suggests that the system 
is older than Hellenistic. And even if there does seem to be evidence 
that the system was newly developed in Hellenistic times, we can still 
not be sure that it is a completely new development and not just a 
refinement of an older system. So all in all I don't think this 
argument could ever be used to support the hellenistic dating of any 

And then Henry wrote:

"I got this from the appendix to John F. Healey's "The Early 
Alphabet". I don't know the exact evidence for this conclusion, but I 
gather it's partly from silence, and partly from the fact that the 
Aramaic/Hebrew system was influenced by the Greek system, and the 
Greek system didn't come into existence until the second century B.C. 
(according to B.F. Cook's "Greek Inscriptions", a companion volume in 
the same series)."

Two logical problems here: 1) How do we know the date of the Greek 
system? Is this also argument from silence? 2) How do we know that the 
Aramaic/Hebrew system was influenced by the Greek system and not vice 
versa? An argument from silence supported by an argument from silence 
is still an argument from silence.

Peter Kirk

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