Wednesday, June 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.