When we care about something, we say it “counts,” and indeed we count it. Every married couple can tell you exactly how many years they have been married. If you truly care about losing weight, you must count calories. Good examinations of conscience involve assigning numbers (how many times did I remember Mary today?), at least the binary pair, 1 = yes and 0 = no.
We have it on good authority that the being who loves us the most keeps count of the number of hairs on our heads.
Numbers count because nothing can be real without being countable. In science, quantification is necessary for mathematical modeling and precision, yes, but ultimately to separate out what is true (“empirical reality”), from what we might think is true (“mere theory”). Likewise, in the spiritual life, a number implies that a reality is impinging upon us, which we haven’t invented or constructed.
This is surely one reason why the Fathers when they interpret the Bible care a lot about numbers. Consider as an example the miraculous catch of fish in the last chapter of John’s Gospel. Peter goes fishing with other disciples. You know that – but do you know how many disciples? The Fathers were keen to note that they were 7 altogether.
They see someone standing on the shore, who tells them to lower their net. You know that too, but do you remember that he tells them specifically to lower it on the right side of the boat? Why? They try to pull up the large catch but cannot. Only once on shore can they drag it in, and John writes that it consisted of exactly 153 large fish.
Why does John say there were 153 fish? A famous Bible scholar, once asked that question, replied, “Perhaps because there were 153 fish.” Funny, but he had a deeper point, namely, that John likes to emphasize that he was an eyewitness, and, in giving this number, he conveys what it was like to be there, to handle those fish, and (as fishermen would) to count them one-by-one.
But that would be the use of 153 merely as a “brute fact.” The Fathers also recognized that numbers had composition and relationships with other numbers, which gave them an interesting intelligibility. The classical view, which they shared, was that each number had its own essence, which you might get at by saying how you could generate the number, or what you could do with the number. (Odd numbers are not divisible by 2; prime numbers cannot be generated from other factors; and so on.)
God is a rational being, the supremely rational being: this same John who was an eyewitness first refers to God in his Gospel as the Logos. Rational beings are not arbitrary; therefore, there was a reason why God so designed it that the disciples caught 153 fish and not some other number – just as there was a reason why they were seven, and were told to cast on the right side of the boat specifically, and, unlike other catches in the New Testament, they were not able to draw the catch into the boat.
Then too God is Our Father, and fathers love to test their children with riddles, and to hide things, to delight their children in looking for them, though perhaps never finding. (In the history of households, not every hidden Easter egg has been found.)
St. Augustine, writing in this spirit, has probably the most famous and (I think) the best account of that number 153 (see his Tractate on the Gospel of John, cxxii ).
There are parables in word, he says, and parables in fact. A parable in fact is when the Lord does or arranges something that is meant to have a meaning beyond itself. In this appearance after the Resurrection, he says, the Lord wanted to tell us something about the resurrection at the end of the world.
That’s why he stands on the shore, which is the limit of the boundless sea, which stands for time; and that’s why the net cannot be dragged into the boat – because, although the dragnet which the Church now pulls into itself encompasses both good and bad, at the end of time, only the just will rise to life with the Lord (that’s why it is drawn from the “right” side of the boat).
Yet we are justified, the saint comments, only by following God’s Law, through the sanctification of the Spirit. The Law on its own kills; none can keep it. But the Spirit helps us observe the fullness of the Law in love. Now the Law is represented by 10, which is the number of the Commandments. And the Spirit is represented by 7, which is the number of gifts of the Spirit (as enumerated first by the prophet Isaiah). And 10 added to 7 is 17. But what is the essence of this number? Consider how it is generated, and what you can do with it: if you take this sequence, 1, 2, 3. . .17, and add all the numbers together, you get the sum 153.
In this parable of fact, then, the large fish represent the saints at the end of the world, in the fullness of their number, pulled out of the troubled waters of the world, and the sleep of death, by the Lord on the last day. The power of this interpretation, St. Augustine says, is confirmed by the fact of 7 disciples, since 7 stands for sanctification, as God created the world in six days but sanctified it on the seventh, when he made the Sabbath holy.
“This is a great mystery in the great Gospel of John,” Augustine tells us. That it is mysterious does not detract from its importance. Indeed, he says, “to commend it the more forcibly to our attention, the last chapter has been made its place of record.”
That’s how faith counted, at least for St. Augustine and the Fathers.
*Image: The Appearance of Christ on Lake Tiberias and the Miraculous Draught of Fishes by Duccio (di Buoninsegna), c. 1308-11 [Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana, Siena, Italy]