You say Epiphany, I say Apophany

I’m currently helping facilitate a session of the Great Adventure Bible Timeline Bible study. This is a great Bible study, based on Jeff Cavins’ Bible timeline. It takes you through the books of the Bible as an historical narrative of salvation history.

Right now we are learning about the three kings of Israel prior to the north/south split that occurred  around 930 BC. One of our students noted that each of the three kings (Saul, David and Solomon) were tested and found wanting. In fact, their tests were the same three tests Israel failed in their desert wanderings, and the same three tests Jesus passed in the desert.

Saul put God to the test, and when Samuel didn’t arrive on time went ahead against His instructions. David gave in to bodily appetites with Bathsheba, and wound up committing murder to cover it up. Solomon amassed great wealth and power and worshiped other gods.

He also noted that David and Solomon each ruled 40 years. Forty is a number that represents testing. Moses spent 40 days on the mountain, Israel spent 40 years in the desert, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert. What about King Saul? We don’t know how many years his reign was. Perhaps it was 40 as well?

It would certainly fit the symbolism of testing, but in the absence of evidence, what should we assume? It is believed that the number of years written in scripture probably ended in a “2”. I don’t know how they know, but that’s what I’ve read. That would seem to rule out “40” and ruins the pattern of 40 year reigns. Or does it?

Non-believers, and even some Christians are quick to point out places in the Bible where they claim the author “cooked” the numbers, or changed events slightly to fit a pattern that they wished to use to “prove” something about God. And yet what are they doing, except changing the written record to match up with what they believe?

They have no evidence to contradict scripture – merely their own beliefs which they wish to “prove.” Many of the so-called Biblical documentaries on TV do just that – how few changes can I make to the events described in the Bible to take God entirely out of the picture.

On the other hand, there are instances of people trying too hard to see a symbolic connection in scripture. In John 21:11 we are told:

So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn.
What does the 153 mean? Given that the author is John it is likely that there is some symbolism involved, but what it is is a mystery. St Jerome noted that Oppian’s Halieutica identifies 153 species of fish, so perhaps John is suggesting that the Gospel is to be preached to all nations. Of course John didn’t say that the fish involved were of different species, only that there 153 of them (they could have all been one specie of fish).
St Augustine noted that 153 is the sum of the first 17 integers and 17 is 10 + 7, which could represent the 10 Commandments and the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Others have noted that the Tetragrammaton (the name of God) appears 153 times in the book of Genesis. I’m not sure what that has to do with fish, though.
It seems to me that all of these are cases of apophenia – seeing connections where none exist. Not that I think the number 153 has no symbolism – I think it does – I just think that the proposed connections are all a bit too far fetched to be the correct symbolism.
I love looking to scriptural “mysteries” and connections, and they exist aplenty. Just look at commentary on the rest of John 21 if you want some doozies. But going too far can make you look foolish, and such insistence on tenuous connections and mysticism does not make for good evangelization.

As Mark twain wrote “We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

Admittedly that’s a hard job when it comes to scripture, but there are plenty of authentic guides out there if we stick with the only authoritative interpreter out there, the Catholic Church.

Copyright 2015, Michael Lindner


Michael Lindner

Michael Lindner

Mike is a scouter, a science geek, a dad, a husband and a Catholic. He earns a living as a software engineer in beautiful New Jersey. In his spare time (ha ha) he muses at his blog What Does Mike Think? He is not a writer (which will be painfully obvious after reading his posts) but feels called to apologetics and evangelization anyway. You have been warned.

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