Monday, April 24, 2017

The Gradual Psalms and Acts - when God was a mathematician**Updated

Signorelli, Luca - Moses's Testament and Death - 1481-82.jpg
Death and Testament of Moses  (at the age of 120) by Luca Signorelli

I'm not quite ready to resume my notes on the Gradual psalms yet, but I thought I would share with you today some comments that I came across in the course of my lectio divina, in St Bede's commentary on Acts that I think relate to the Gradual Psalms.

It is one of those bits of mathematical symbolism in Scripture that we tend to downplay the significance of, but which the Fathers saw as pointing to the beautiful order of the universe, reflected in the mathematical properties programmed by God into both the natural law and history.

There is a bit of hard work involved in following the logic here, but bear with me and see what you think.

Acts 1:15

Verse 15 of Acts One says:


In diebus illis, exsurgens Petrus in medio fratrum, dixit (erat autem turba hominum simul, fere centum viginti):

In those days Peter rising up in the midst of the brethren, said: (now the number of persons together was about an hundred and twenty:)

Number properties

St Bede focuses in on the idea of a gradual growth in the number of believers, and points out that 120 can be seen as being 'built up' in fifteen stages:
These hundred and twenty, built up gradually by addition [of the numbers] from one to fifteen yields fifteen as the number of steps*
That is, 120 is a triangular number, made up of fifteen components, ie:


The psalter, the law, and grace

St Bede then uses this mathematical connection between 15 and 120 to make several spiritual connections between the two numbers, one of which is an allusion to the psalms:
By reason of the perfection of both laws, this [number 15] is mystically contained in the psalter...
The references to the perfection of the law comes from bringing together two different Patristic memes.

A common Patristic theme expounded most fully in St Augustine, is that the number 15 can be seen as made up of 7+8.  The number 7 in this case represents the Old Law (for the seven days of creation), while 8 represents the New, since Christ rose on the 'eighth day'.  But there is also a connection between 120 and the law, for, Bede points out, Moses, the Old Testament lawgiver, died at the age of 120.

Accordingly, the number 120 is both mathematically and symbolically linked to fifteen and the law, and to the number of psalms in the book of psalms (multiply fifteen by the Decalogue, the ten commandments given to Moses).

Gradual Psalms

But it probably makes most sense, in my view, given the wording of the Latin (per incrementa surgentes quidecim graduum numerum efficiunt) to see it more specifically as a reference to the fifteen Gradual Psalms, and the number of steps in the temple, in particular.

The Gradual Psalms (Psalm 119-133), I have previously noted, are often seen as being about the ascent of grace, building on the psalm that immediately precede them, the great psalm of the law , Psalm 118.  Bede makes this connection in part through a cross-reference to Galatians 1:18 (see my previous note on the significance of the number in that context), which refers to St Paul staying with St Peter for fifteen days in Jerusalem before beginning his first mission journey.  St Bede says:
By reason of the perfection of both laws, this is mystically contained in the psalter, and for this [number of days] the 'vessel of election' [St Paul] dwelled with Peter in Jerusalem. For it was necessary that the preachers of the new grace would designate by their number the sacramental sign which the lawgiver [Moses] exhibited [in the years of his life].
**And in fact I have now found St Bede's source for this comment (not noted in the edition of the commentary I am using) I think, in St Gregory the Great's On Job.  St Gregory implies a similar link (though he is more explicit about the connection to the psalter in general).  St Gregory provides an exposition of the symbolic meaning of seven and eight, and then adds them together saying:
Hence it is, that the Temple is ascended with fifteen steps, in order that it may be learned by its very ascent that by seven and eight our worldly doings may be carefully discharged, and an eternal dwelling may be providently sought for. Hence also it is that, by increasing a unit to ten, the Prophet uttered a hundred and fifty Psalms. For on account of this number ‘seven’ signifying temporal things, and the number ‘eight’ eternal things, the Holy Spirit was poured forth upon a hundred and twenty of the faithful, sitting in an upper room. For fifteen is made up of seven and eight, and if in counting from one to fifteen we mount up by adding the sums of the numbers together, we reach the number a hundred and twenty. By this effusion of the Holy Spirit they learned in truth both to pass through with endurance things temporal, and eagerly to seek after those that are eternal...(BK 35:17)
The growth of the Church depends on our growth in humility

What St Bede is getting at in all this then, I think, is something that in his later works he draws out much more clearly, namely that the expansion in the number of believers, the growth of the Church, is linked to each of our own growth in humility.

In the case of Acts 1, we see the Apostles transformed: chastened by their loss of faith at the Crucifixion, they are now reinvigorated by Christ's Resurrection and instruction during these days.  And their spiritual progress, their mystical ascent of the steps of the temple towards heaven, draws in new believers.

And of course, the principle applies to us as well: our spiritual progress in the pilgrimage of life represented by the Gradual Psalms helps builds up the Church, helps rebuild its broken walls...

Versification of Acts

Finally, as an aside, you would have to think the sixteenth century editor who added verse numbers to Scripture, Robert Estienne, must have been aware of the connection between the number one hundred and twenty to the number fifteen as well...

**The translations come from The Venerable Bede, Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Translated, with an introduction and Notes, by Lawrence T Martin, Cistercian Publications, 1989

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