Fun with numbers: theology and puns by that Bede chap

A slightly unusual departure from my usual fare of ‘light’ reading lately has been the Liverpool Translated Texts for Historians rendition of Bede’s On the Temple, translated by Seán Connolly.1 An acquaintance who worked on Bede gave it me because they had two copies somehow, and thought I might want it. I wasn’t at all sure I did, given how little I do of intellectual history, especially in England, but I thought I ought to at least skim-read it to see what was actually in it. As a result I’ve wound up firstly remembering more than I did about how early medieval scholars approached theology and holy knowledge generally (and why I have trouble with it at the same time as being fascinated), secondly being impressed anew with Bede’s personal connection to a wider world of learning, and thirdly catching him cracking a dry pun that the translation almost utterly defuses.

A scribe at work in a library or scriptorium, representing Ezra, from the Codex Amiatinus (image from Wikimedia Commons)

A scribe at work in a library or scriptorium, probably a representation of Ezra, from the Codex Amiatinus (image from Wikimedia Commons)

De Templo is a Biblical commentary, which type of work forms I think the bulk of Bede’s prolific output and that of most scholars of his age. The basic premise behind it (and I know this is obvious to some of you but I keep finding that interested laypersons read this and sometimes I forget to address them) is that Scripture functions on two levels, the literal and the allegorical. In this set-up everything in the Bible has an obvious meaning and a deeper one that is hidden, and truer, because it’s about eternal things not passing ones like, you know, the world and that. This is especially true of the Old Testament because it’s an important exercise for Christians to show that, as the Gospel of John appears to claim, Jesus is referred to throughout it, because it prefigures the coming of the Messiah.2 So the Old Testament’s allegorical meanings are almost always references to Christ, at least as explicated by our theologians.

Depiction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem

Depiction of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem

This is essentially a zero-sum game: the answer (“Christ”) to the question (“What is this about?”) is already known, so the task for the scholar is merely to successfully make the link between text and deeper truth. It doesn’t matter how strained or stretched the link is, as long as there is one, because the axiom is that there is a link to be discovered. Numerals are particularly fruitful, because they turn up everywhere and all the small ones are easily linked to something: one for the faith, two (here) for love of God and love of neighbour as an inseparable pair (because “he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”3), three for the Trinity, Faith, Hope and Charity or the grades of continence, four for the Evangelists or Gospels, five for the senses, ten for the commandments, and so on. Since almost all numbers have one or more of these as factors, it’s a quick way to find significance without having to strain for obscure references. And with Solomon’s Temple, which is the subject of this commentary, the links are more obvious than usual: the Temple prefigures the Church, not the building but the community of the faithful, both those already saved (in the sanctuary within, the Holy of Holies which prefigures heaven) and those in the world now, stuck outside in the Courts. The Church is a living Temple, so everything known about the Temple can be paralleled in it, and of course it, the Church, is the whole human world and more so there’s plenty to use. And between III Kings and I Numbers there’s a wealth of detail about the architecture of the Temple, with lots of numbers. So you get things like this, an extract that pretty much exemplifies Bede at work in this text in a nutshell:

… It is properly recorded that both pillars are eighteen cubits high. For three sixes make eighteen. But the three refers to faith on account of the holy Trinity, and the six to works, because the fact that the world was made in that number of days is clearer than daylight. And three is multiplied by six when the righteous person who lives by faith acquires knowledge of pious belief by the performance of good works. For the pillar before the temple doors is eighteen cubits high when each eminent preacher openly intimates to all, that it is only through faith and the works of righteousness we can attain the joys of the heavenly life. Although this can also be understood in the more profound sense that the name of Jesus begins from the number among the Greeks. With them the first letter of this name means ten and the second eight. And fittingly are the pillars of the house of God eighteen cubits high because holy teachers, indeed all of the elect, pursue this objective by living well that they may merit to see their creator face to face, for they will have nothing further to seek when they reach him who is above all things.4

This may seem contrived to a modern secular brain, but it’s a powerful way into Bede’s thoughtworld, if you want one. Firstly, for him, the Bible, or at least the Old Testament, is a coded message which if rightly decoded gives the keys to a properly holy life through which one may be saved. The figures of Salvation are repeated throughout it, and, by extension, throughout Creation itself wherever threes, sixes, or whatever non-numerical parallel can be found in real buildings and nature. You and I know that the human brain is very good at finding patterns which don’t have any real existence, but for Bede and his contemporaries, they have every real existence, because Creation is an impression of the Creator and His mark can be found in everything if you can just crack the code. Compared to that, it’s really a no-brainer that He can be found in His own Scriptures! So the task is merely to make explicit what was hidden. Secondly, all answers are true. It doesn’t matter that he can think of two explanations for the figure eighteen, it doesn’t mean that one must be wrong; they can both be right because of the ineffable wonder of God, and because if it is possible then God can do it, and so almost certainly did do it, because it is very unlikely conceptually that man did something creative that God hadn’t already, seeing as He created everything. There is buried in this, of course, a basic departure from rational process, or a never having had truck with it, that is a key part of medieval faith, or perhaps any faith. You have to accept the axiom, but if you do, and therefore know that the world has a pattern, this is the kind of scintillating all-sense it can make, and when you get a writer who can really get his head into it, like Bede or Eriguena, it can really be quite giddying to soak in for a while before returning to twenty-first century empirical secularism in order to earn our daily bread (sorry).

Map of the World from a twelfth-century French manuscript of the <i>Etymologiae</i> of Isidore of Seville, one of Bede's sources

Map of the World from a twelfth-century French manuscript of the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, one of Bede's sources

Throughout this work Bede’s breadth of knowledge astounds me. Above he gives a Greek numerology; he probably got it from Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, which was sort of what the early Middle ages had for an encyclopædia, but he has the knowledge handy. Because he knew that the Temple genuinely did exist, he was happy to fill out his explanation of its structure and its deeper meaning from non-Scriptural sources, including the Antiquities of Josephus, which he presumably knew in Latin if at all, and to borrow his intepretations widely, from Cassiodorus, Eusebius, Jerome, and once he quotes Virgil. But there’s also the scientific knowledge, as we know see it; he gives explanations based on weather, on heat and cold, really a lot of detailed architectural terms, and information on plants and animals that he can never have seen. Again, much must be coming from Isidore, but I was only being told a little while ago that Bede was not above correcting Isidore when he knew different. One of the things that also rings through all this is that although he uses many authorities and is always humble about it, Bede clearly considered himself an authority too; he had no problem with giving a new view if he thought it was founded. The impression of encyclopædism is so strong that it is weirdly incongruous to find him getting something wrong, for example giving an explanation of silk production that clearly originally related to cotton.5 So again, if you want a sense of what intellectuals in the early Middle Ages knew and understood about their world, this is a way in.

Inside the abandoned marble quarries of Paros

Inside the abandoned marble quarries of Paros

It may of course seem more than a bit dry, and even if it doesn’t, by the time you’ve seen the techniques in play for a few chapters, you may not really need to go through all 25 books of it to see the tropes repeated for the whole of III Kings 5-7 if technique is all you picked it up for. But if you do read it, at least get as far as 4.6 where I do believe his Venerable self (actually sanctified since 1935, but `Saint Bede’ is just less memorable) cracks a pun. He is talking about the Parian marble used to build the Temple, which is mentioned in 1 Numbers but which Bede tells us about from Virgil and Josephus too, and which as he tells it is brilliant white. He goes on, as Connolly translates, “Nor is the meaning of the mystery obscure…” at which point I went, internally, ‘no, neither is that pun you sly old fox’. It may not be obvious to you, but coming right after a passage about shining white stone I think the use of what would have been the Latin obscura, which means literally ‘dark’, even ‘black’, as well as its derived meaning of ‘hidden, difficult to perceive’, was 100% deliberate. I’m not saying Bede thought that was a belly laugh, just that when he saw the sentence forming up he’d have picked that word with a particularly amused satisfaction. Because Bede liked words, and I like words, and I would have done so, and I feel a bit closer to thinking and enjoying words as Bede did for coming across that. I might keep this book yet, you know.


1. Bede, On the Temple, transl. Seán Connolly with introduction by Jennifer Reilly, Translated Texts for Historians 21 (Liverpool 1995).

2. 1 Corinthians 10:11: “all these things happened… by way of example, and they were recorded in writing to be a lesson for us”, quoted by Bede in De templo, 2.1.

3. 1 John 4:20, quoted by Bede in De Templo 16.5.

4. Ibid., 18.6.

5. Ibid., 16.5: “Silk which is produced from a seed which springs green from the earth and which, as a result of a lengthy process applied by silk-workers, sheds its natural greenness and is given a bleached appearance…”. I’m sure this must be cotton in reality, but I’m open to any other opinions, since what I know about cotton preparation could be very rapidly summarised as: ‘less than that’.

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12 responses to “Fun with numbers: theology and puns by that Bede chap

  1. No comments? Seriously? Bede is fabulous, and great post.

  2. Great post indeed!

    A brief note on cotton and silk:

    To me the description sounds more like the processing fibres from a green plant like flax [Linum usitatissimum]…

    Says Pliny the Elder (around AD 77) of flax processing in Egypt:

    “The stalks themselves are immersed in water, warmed by the heat of the sun, and are kept down by weights placed upon them, for nothing is lighter than flax. The membrane, or rind, becoming loose is a sign of their being sufficiently macerated. They are then taken out and repeatedly turned over in the sun until perfectly dried, and afterwards beaten by mallets on stone slabs. That which is nearest the rind is called stupa [tow], inferior to the inner fibres, and fit only for the wicks of lamps. It is combed out with iron hooks until the rind is all removed. The inner part is of a whiter and finer quality. Men are not ashamed to prepare it” (Pliny, Historia Naturalis, 19:1).

    Truly ‘a lengthy process’! Even though Pliny confuses cotton and flax at some point, I am absolutely sure that Bede can in no way be describing cotton here, because the cotton-bolls are plucked from the tree and can be spun to thread virtually without further processing.

    Bede might not have known the finer details of cotton processing, of course, but he will have known the locus classicus describing the wool-bearing tree [idem est: cotton] in Herodotus, writing (5th c.BC) about India in his Historia:

    “…and there also the trees which grow wild produce wool which surpasses in beauty and excellence that from sheep, and the Indians wear clothing obtained from these trees” (Herodotus, Historia, 3:106).

    This story in Herodotus is probably the origin of the very popular (mis-)conception in medieval Europe that the cotton plant sprouts small, real, live sheep at the end of its branches from which the ‘tree-wool’ is then obtained. (wikipedia has some striking illustrations of this happening from later sources, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton )

    Although I haven’t read the passage in Beda, I would suggest that our venerable scribe is leaning on Pliny (and flax) rather than on Herodotus (and cotton) in his description of silk manufacture.

  3. Larry, thankyou, but the writing of that one was its own reward really :-) Henrik, fascinating stuff, and thankyou. The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary should be a mascot for someone somewhere! But it strikes me as an odd thing for Bede to get confused, because whereas I could understand him not being conversant with cotton (Larry will know better than me if he had any access to Herodotus) he must have known about flax manufacture, so it seems less likely to me that he’d have given that process for silk. However, as you say, it’s a much better match so maybe he didn’t know flaxworking after all. It’s an odd gap though isn’t it? It’s not as if linen was unknown in England, after all!

  4. Exactly! It’s quite confusing…

  5. Great post. Thanks!

  6. I am one of those laypersons you mentioned, and I appreciated your short explanation at the beginning of the article. As someone who likes to dabble in a bit of history now and then, I found your article interesting and, yes, amusing. :-) Thanks – Mary

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  9. I really want that pun to be true, but it turns out that the Latin is not “obscurus” (obscure / dark), but “in abdito” (concealed). Too bad.

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