Gematria and John 21:11

Another Look at Ezekiel 47:10


Twenty-five years ago, two articles appeared in JTS which argued that the number 153 in Jn 21:11 ought to be interpreted symbolically. Both authors put forth the hypothesis that the Fourth Evangelist—employing the Rabbinic interpretative device, gematria—intended to recall two place names; [En-gedi and En-eglaim] in Ezekiel's visionary description of outpoured waters from the new temple [47:1, 8-10]. J. A. Emerton 'added up' the names 'gedi' and 'eglaim' to find numerical antecedents, and Peter Ackroyd produced the same type of 'interesting coincidence' looking at the LXX of Ezk 47:10. Subsequent treatments of the number 153 in this passage have, for the most part, resisted this somewhat complicated and tentative approach. Yet the case made by Emerton and Ackroyd might be set forth afresh in light of two significant motifs which were omitted or underplayed in their pioneering discussions.

1. The resurrected Christ fulfils the role of the new Temple in Ezk 47:1-12 and dispenses living water to a barren world. This understanding of the Johannine 'living water' motif is based on the Western punctuation of Jn 7:37-38:

If any man thirsts, let him come to me;
and let him drink, who believes in me.
As the scripture said, 'from his belly
shall flow rivers of living water'.

Punctuated in this fashion, Christ can be construed as the source of these eschatological rivers of living water, prophesied in the OT. From his side will flow rivers of living water [i.e., the Spirit] only after his glorification [i.e., his death]. This cryptic prediction transpires in the Johannine passion narrative where the release of the Spirit [19:30] and subsequent effluence of blood and water from the cross [19:34] are reported. Thereafter, the life-giving water is available for all who thirst; and, when dispensed through the disciples under the direction of the resurrected Christ, the outpoured waters result in eschatologically proportioned [153 in Jn 21:11 harvests of men.

Ezk 47:1-12 appears to be the most likely OT spawning ground for this Johannine development of the 'living water' theme in Jn 7:37-39. The original audience for this dramatic invitation from Christ would most naturally have interpreted his brief midrashic homily against this OT backdrop. For them, the daily water ceremony [see m.Sukk. 4.9-10] symbolically anticipated the eschatological outpouring of living water as depicted in Ezekiel's vision. In the third chapter of tractate Sukkah in the Tosefta [esp. halakoth 3-9] the naming of the Water Gate, through which the daily libations of the water ceremony passed, is analysed in terms of the prophetic role of the south gate in Ezk 47:1-9. Through this gate will trickle the eschatological waters issuing from the new temple—thus the water gate. Accordingly, as the religious pilgrims observed tabernacles' water ritual, comparisons with the voluntary streams in Ezk 47 were inevitable. They watched intently as a flask of living water from the pool of Siloam [i.e., water fit for a ritual immersion bath [see Pesiq.R. 16:6; Bem.R. xviii.21] passed through the water gate and eventually was poured out on the altar, to trickle forth from the temple. Significantly for Jn 7:38, the visionary river of Ezekiel is specifically construed in this Tosefta passage as a river of living water.

Jesus' audience, perhaps just having passed through the Water Gate and pondering the significance of the flask filled from the waters of Siloam, would quite naturally then have related the Nazarene's phrase, 'rivers of living water', to those eschatological waters foretold by Ezekiel. Jesus' presumption in claiming himself as the source of these waters would indeed have startled his original audience, the auditores Christi. However, the lector Johannis would have an awareness of the developing motif wherein Jesus is the new temple [Jn 2:21, 4:21-23, cf. Rev 21:22].1

2. The life-giving waters foretold by Ezekiel flow into the Sea of Tiberias. Both Ezekiel and the evangelist were describing extraordinary catches of fish; unfortunately, one transpired on the banks of the Dead Sea and the other near the margins of the Sea of Galilee. That these two bodies of water were quite distinct, both thematically and geographically, was simply left unexplained by Emerton and Ackroyd. However, this difficulty is considerably eased by consulting the midrashic expansion of the Ezekiel passage in Rabbinic exegesis. According to the rhetorical exchange in t.Sukk. 3:9 concerning the term 'Arabah' [Ezk 47:8], the tumbling eschatological streams of Ezekiel's vision flow north and enter the sea of Tiberias rather than flow east into the Dead Sea as the MT implies. Perhaps it is more than a coincidence of topographical idiosyncrasy that the Sea of Galilee is referred to as the Sea of Tiberias only twice in the NT: Jn 6:1 and here, 21:1. In any event, this striking tradition about the location of the sea in the Arabah very possibly predates the extant Johannine account [certainly the tradition about the peripatetic rock which followed the Israelites in the wilderness predates the Corinthian correspondence]. If this is the case, the proposal of thematic connexions between Jn 21 [a miraculous draught of fish in previously 'dead' water, pursuant to the command of the resurrected Christ] and Ezk 47 [a thriving fishing industry along the banks of a previously 'dead' sea, pursuant to the influx of oxygenated, life-giving water from the new temple] becomes even more persuasive.

Conclusion. By recording the number 153, the fourth evangelist very likely intended to recall the fishing villages of Ezekiel's vision through the interpretative device of gematria. The evangelist had already presented Christ's dramatic offer of living water—to be available only after his death—in a setting where both the auditores Christi and lectores Johannis would interpret Christ's words against the backdrop of Ezekiel's vision in 47:1-12. Furthermore, the evangelist had possibly encountered the Rabbinic tradition in which these same waters would flow from the new Temple into the Sea of Tiberias. Accordingly, the miraculous draught of fish could then quite easily have been construed by the evangelist as a profound realization, along Rabbinic lines, of Ezekiel's vision.



1 Actually, Ezekiel's prophecy refers to the effluence of water from underneath the temple, i.e., the rock, Mt Moriah. Thus it might be closer to the evangelist's intent to regard the crucified Christ as the eschatological reenactment of the 'struck' rock in the wilderness water miracle [Ex 17:1-17]. As Moses struck the rock to produce 'rivers of living water' [so the phraseology of t.Sukk. 3.11 and Tg. Ps 78:16], so too was Christ pierced with the same result. Tabernacles' water ceremony was also understood as a symbolic depiction of the water miracle in Exodus.

THE EXPOSITORY TIMES: MARCH 1984. VOL. 95. No. 6. pg. 177-178.