The Mystical Interest in the Number 99 in Christianity

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Secret Alias
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The Mystical Interest in the Number 99 in Christianity

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Given, therefore, (1) the early external attestation of theological interest in
the number eighteen which requires the visual representation of the abbreviated
numeral as a mystical connection with the name of Jesus, and (2) the rare form of
nomen sacrum for the name of Jesus in P45, and (3) the scribe’s preferred method of
longhand numbers, it is at least conceivable that the numeral was intentionally
abbreviated to highlight this connection.
7.4 “Ninety-Nine”
Another number of special interest to many early Christians is ninety-nine. As we
saw in chapter 2, a notable example of this interest comes from private letters
between Christians in documents discovered in ancient Oxyrhynchus. In no less than

82 (2001): 1–16 (10 n. 39), English reprint in Thomas J. Kraus, “Ad Fontes: The Benefit of the
Consultation of Original Manuscripts as for Instance P.Vindob.G 31974,” in Ad Fontes: Original
Manuscripts and Their Significance for Studying Early Christianity. Selected Essays, TENTS 3
(Leiden: Brill, 2007), 25–45 (32 n.39). The same point is made in Thomas J. Kraus, “From ‘Textcritical Methodology’ to ‘Manuscripts as Artefacts’: A Tribute to Larry W. Hurtado,” in Mark,
Manuscripts, and Monotheism: Essays in Honor of Larry W. Hurtado, ed. Chris Keith and Dieter R.
Roth, LNTS 528 (London: T & T Clark, 2015): 79–98 (esp. 88–94).
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eight documents, many dated to the third and fourth centuries, the number ninetynine is employed in a curious way. In each, the number is written in symbol form
(ϙ̅θ̅) in the opening line or the close of the letter or document as a cipher for ἀµήν.
This is an example of isopsephy, the Greek equivalent of Hebrew gematria.
Isopsephy involves adding up the numerical values of each letter in a given word into
a single value, and it often entails connecting this with other words that equal the
same numerical value.29 Famously, it was through isopsephy that Suetonius noted
that Emperor Nero killed his own mother, as the numerical total of the letters in the
name Νερῶν is the exact same as the phrase ἰδίαν µητέρα ἀπέκτεινε (“He killed his
own mother”).30
In this case, ϙθ = 99, which happens to be the same value as the combined
sum of ἀµήν: that is, α (= 1) + µ (= 40) + η (= 8) + ν (= 50) = 99. The documents in
which ϙθ is employed this way are the following:
(1) P.Oxy. XXXI 2601 (early fourth cent.), letter from Copres to his “sister”
Sarapias. It concludes: ἀπ(όδοϲ) τῇ ἀδελ̣φῇ π(αρὰ) Κοπρῆτ(οϲ) ϙθ (ln. 34; “Deliver
to my sister, from Copres. 99/Amen.”).
(2) P.Oxy. VIII 1162 (fourth cent.), letter of recommendation from priest Leon
on behalf of Ammonius. It concludes: ἐρρῶϲθαι ὑµᾶϲ [ε]ὔχοµε | ἐν κ(υρί)ῳ [θ](ε)ῷ.
29 “Words of the same numerical value were associated and the persons, concepts or things to which
they pointed were often thought to possess a hidden relationship, e.g., 284 = Θεόϲ = ἅγιοϲ = ἀγαθόϲ;
781 = Παῦλοϲ = ϲοφία; 2443 = Ἰηϲοῦϲ ὁ Χρειϲτόϲ = γένουϲ Δαουίδ, οὐράνιοϲ κλάδοϲ” (S. R.
Llewelyn, “The Christian Symbol XMΓ, an Acrostic or an Isopsephism?,” in NewDocs 8:157 [§14]).
See also, more recently, Rodney Ast and Julia Lougovaya, “The Art of Isopsephism in the GrecoRoman World,” in Ägyptische Magie und ihre Umwelt, ed. Andrea Jördens (Wiesbaden:
Harrassowitz, 2015), 82–98.
30 Νέρων (50 + 5 + 100 + 800 + 50 = 1005); ἰδίαν (10 + 4 + 10 + 1 + 50 = 75) + µητέρα (40 + 8 +
300 + 5 + 100 + 1 = 454) + ἀπέκτεινε (1 + 80 + 5 + 20 + 300 + 5 + 10 + 50 + 5 = 476) = 1005. See T.
C. Skeat, “A Table of Isopsephisms (P. Oxy. XLV. 3239),” ZPE 31 (1978): 45–54 (45).
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Ἐµµ(ανουὴ)λ µάρτ(υϲ ?), | ϙ̅θ̅. (lns. 13–15; “I pray for your health in the Lord God.
Emmanuel is my witness. 99/Amen.”).
(3) P.Oxy. LVI 3857 (fourth cent.), letter of recommendation for Germania.
Before the final greeting, the body of letter concludes: Ἐµ(µανουή)λ. ϙ̅θ̅. (ln. 13).
(4) P.Oxy. LVI 3862 (fourth/fifth cent.), letter from Philoxenus to his family.
The first line begins: χµγ † ϙθ (ln. 1).31
(5) PSI XIII 1342 (fourth cent.), letter from two sitologoi (directors of a
granary) of the village Alabastrinus requesting money from “holy father” anchorite
Sabinus. Before the body of the letter, the first line begins: χµγ ϙθ (ln. 1).
(6) SB XVI 12304 (late third/early fourth cent.), letter of recommendation from
“Papas” π(α)π(ᾶϲ) Heraclitus on behalf of a “brother.” Before the final greeting, the
body of the letter concludes: µ̅ν̅η̅α̣̅ϙ̅θ̅(ln. 13; the meaning of µ̅ν̅η̅α̣̅here is uncertain).
(7) P.Mich. VI 378 (first half of fourth cent.), “List of Payments in Kind,” a
daybook of grain received at a public granary. The first line begins, † χµγ ϙθ (ln. 1).
(8) P.Oxy. VI 925 (fifth/sixth cent.), Christian prayer. The last line concludes:
γένοιτο, ϙθ (ln. 7; “So be it; 99/Amen.”).32
As noted in chapter 2, while scholars are agreed as to the definition of ϙ̅θ̅, its
intended function is debated. For example, in her study of private Christian letters
from Oxyrhynchus, AnneMarie Luijendijk sees the isopsephistic cipher as a mark of
piety:
31 The meaning of χµγ is not known for certain, but some scholars regard it as an acrostic: χ(ριϲτὸν)
µ(αρία) γ(εννᾷ) = “Mary begat Christ.” See Llewelyn, “The Christian Symbol XMΓ,” 156–68 (§14).
Further, the editor notes that the cross (†) might actually be a tau-rho monogram (⳨), but it is
obscured.
32 The numeral is used in a similar way in later inscriptions and graffiti in Egypt. See, for example,
SB IV 7429 (ln. 22), SB IV 7488 (ln. 4), SB IV 7494 (ln. 9), SB IV 7497 (ln. 5), and SB IV 7513 (ln.
5), many of which are prayers.
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The use of the isopsephy in this letter [P.Oxy. XXXI 2601] strikes me as a
strong indication of the family’s piety. By writing “amen” at the end of his
letter, it appears as if Copres concludes a prayer or a part of a liturgy. “Names
and Numbers,” [François] Bovon concludes, “are a gift from God that
express an extralinguistic reality beyond what other words are capable of
transmitting.” In that light we should interpret koppa theta at the end of
Copres’s letter to his wife as a prayer, a sign of his faith, and a sign that he
had arrived safe and sound.33
Here Luijendijk alludes to the important essay by François Bovon already
mentioned above to propose that the cipher ϙ̅θ̅signifies a degree of Christian
devotion.34 Alternatively, it is possible that the number had an apotropaic function,
that is, for the purpose of warding off evil.35 On the other hand, Kurt Treu offers a
third view, namely that such isopsephisms functioned as covert signals of Christian
authenticity between author and addressee, or as “esoterisches
Legitimationszeichen.”
36 Treu argued this about P.Oxy. VIII 1162 in particular,
which is a letter of recommendation between churches endorsing a fellow Christian.
It is easy to envision how such a scenario would benefit from secretive codes of good
faith. By including cryptic Christian number-symbols, the author could ensure a
33 AnneMarie Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord: Early Christians and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, HTS
60 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 221 (see also 226), citing Bovon, “Names and
Numbers,” 288. Further, the editor of P.Oxy. XXXI 2601 called it a “sign of special zeal” (P.Oxy.
XXXI 2601.171)
34 “Names and Numbers in Early Christianity.”
35 See, for example, Lincoln H. Blumell, Lettered Christians: Christians, Letters, and Late Antique
Oxyrhynchus, NTTSD 39 (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 47: “Over time however, isopsephy became
somewhat common among Christians and all sorts of letter combinations were subsequently
developed and even came to be imbued with apotropaic power.”
36 Κurt Treu, “Christliche Empfehlungs-Schemabriefe auf Papyrus,” in Zetesis: Album amicorum
door vrienden en collega’s aangeboden aan Prof. Dr. E. de Strycker Gewoon Hoogleraar aan de
Universitaire Faculteiten Sint-Ignatius te Antwerpen ter gelegenheid van zijn vijfenzestigste
verjaardag, ed. Th. Lefevre et al. (Antwerp: Nederlandsche, 1973), 629–36 (634). This view seems to
be followed by S. R. Llewelyn, “Christian Letters of Recommendation,” in NewDocs 8:169–72 (172).
Similarly, Malcolm Choat seems to echo this view: “Most such codes fall into the realm of
legitimating devices, and indicate the shared beliefs and knowledge of writer and recipient in the case
of letters,” (Malcolm Choat, Belief and Cult in Fourth-Century Papyri, Studia Antiqua Australiensa 1
[Turnhout: Brepols, 2006], 116).
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degree of fidelity or trustworthiness to the recipient on behalf of the one being
recommended. Unfortunately, this does not seem to fit the context of some of the
other documents (e.g., letters between family members, a grain receipt, a personal
prayer). But, of course, ϙ̅θ̅may have served more than one function.
Whatever the intended purpose of such isopsephisms such as ϙ̅θ̅and χµγ
might have been, it is clear that they are distinctively Christian. Luijendijk, for
instance, refers to such uses of numerals in conjunction with nomina sacra as
“markers of Christian identity” and “specific Christian scribal practice.”37 Also, in
Lincoln Blumell’s 2012 study of Christian documentary evidence from
Oxyrhynchus, Lettered Christians, the following are listed as being “markers of
Christian identity within letters”: Christian names, crosses and monograms, nomina
sacra, monotheistic terminology and phraseology, familial language and the use of
ἀγαπητόϲ, and isopsephisms and acrostics.38 Others describe the use of ϙ̅θ̅as a
cryptogram “exclusive to Christians.”39 The symbolic usage of numerical
abbreviations by early believers was thus so common that it is now seen as indicative
of a document’s Christian authorship.
The link between the number ninety-nine and the word amen is not, however,
confined to Egyptian documentary papyri; as early as the second century, in fact,
Irenaeus knew of and disapprovingly commented on this specious interpretation of
Marcosian heretics, who tended to make much of numerical symbolism:
37 Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord, 107, 111, 149, and 219.
38 Blumell, Lettered Christians, 36–85 (esp. 46).
39 E. A. Judge and S. R. Pickering, “Papyrus Documentation of Church and Community in Egypt to
the Mid-Fourth Century,” JAC 20 (1977): 47–71 (69). See also Malcolm Choat: “Their [symbols,
isopsephisms, and acrostics] use provides an unquestionable indicator of a Christian presence in its
widest sense” (Choat, Belief and Cult, 114).
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Accordingly, when the numbers that are left over—namely, nine in reference to
the coins [Luke 15:8–10] and eleven in reference to the sheep [Luke 15:3–7]—
are multiplied by each other, the number ninety-nine is the result, because nine
multiplied by eleven makes ninety-nine. And for this reason, they say ‘Amen’
contains this same number.40
This interpretive connection, whether deemed by Irenaeus to be orthodox or not, can
thus be firmly placed in the second century.
The key point to be made here is the importance of the numerical
abbreviation as opposed to the longhand form of the number. Every time the value
ninety-nine occurs as a Christian greeting within the Oxyrhynchus documents, it is
written as an abbreviation (ϙ̅θ̅), not a longhand number-word (ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα).
This is unsurprising as the latter form does not easily lend itself to the exploits of
isopsephy, and was therefore not used for such.
Turning now to NT manuscripts, there are several that contain the numerical
abbreviation for ninety-nine, but only one demands our close attention. While both
P75 and D 05 employ the symbol in question, both contain many other abbreviated
numbers; this suggests that they were employed simply because the copyists
regularly used numerical shorthand, not out of a special treatment of this particular
number. But one manuscript in particular is worth a closer look. As we saw in
chapter 4, the text of Luke in Codex Washingtonianus is split in textual affinity: 1:1–
8:12 is Alexandrian in text-type and 8:13–24:53 is Byzantine.41 In the Byzantine
portion specifically, 150 numbers occur (both cardinal and ordinal), and all are
40 Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 1.16.1; trans. Unger, ACW, 1:69 (edits are Unger’s).
41 For the discussion of the variegated text of Washingtonianus, see Henry A. Sanders, ed., The
Washington Manuscript of the Four Gospels, part 1 of The New Testament Manuscripts in Freer
Collection, UMSHS 9/1 (New York: Macmillan, 1912), 133–39.
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longhand, except for the two instances of “ninety-nine” in Luke 15:4, 7.42 Moreover,
both of these abbreviations occur, incidentally, in the middle of their respective lines
of text. In other words, this portion of W shows a clear preference against the use of
abbreviations, the only two exceptions being ϙ̅θ̅in Luke 15:4, 7.
Is this an instance in which early Christian interest in the symbol ϙ̅θ̅has
influenced the scribal treatment of the number? It might easily be countered that the
number-word in question is rather lengthy, ἐνενήκοντα ἐννέα, a total of fifteen
letters, and the copyist is simply conserving valuable parchment. On the contrary,
however, many other numbers of comparable lengths are present in the text of Luke
and not any of those were abbreviated. For example, πεντακοϲια (7:41), πεντηκοντα
(7:41; 9:14; 16:6), πεντακειϲχειλιοι (9:14; sixteen letters), εβδοµηκοντα (10:1, 17),
δεκαοκτω (13:4, 11, 16), δεκα χειλιαϲιν (14:31), εικοϲι χειλιαδων (14:31; fifteen
letters), ογδοηκοντα (16:7), and εξηκοντα (24:13) are all written longhand. So, why
these two and no others?
There is in fact no way to determine if this use of numerical abbreviations
was theologically motivated. It is entirely possible that, at some point, early Christian
readers and manuscript-users who were aware of the custom of using ϙ̅θ̅as a cipher
for ἀµήν saw the number in Luke 15 and sought to highlight that connection by
intentionally using the abbreviated form.43 This simple orthographical change would
unlock a deeper meaning to the text that was already present but potentially obscured
42 Sanders does make note of these two abbreviations in Luke, but does not make any suggestions
about the possible isopsephism (Sanders, The Washington Manuscript, 10–11).
43 For instance (and admitting that this is purely speculative), this could have been taken to suggest
that, even in the perilous loss of one sheep, God’s providential oversight protected the safety of the
flock; the implicit presence of amen seems to confirm that both the single stray sheep as well as the
ninety-nine are secure even amidst apparent danger.
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by the longhand form. One benefit of this explanation is that it might to help explain
the reason for what appears to be scribal inconsistency. If a copyist regularly wrote
numbers in full within a manuscript and broke from that pattern only twice with the
same number, it is conceivable (though not necessary) that this was a conscious
decision rather than simple capriciousness. And when this exceptional departure
from an otherwise standard consistency occurs with a number that is known to have
been of theological interest, the chances seem to increase. This is, however, all that
can be said; for, without other evidence there is no way to verify that it is anything
more than a pragmatic abbreviation. And furthermore, Washingtonianus would be
the only NT manuscript that seems to contain this exceptional treatment. https://core.ac.uk/download/429733851.pdf
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