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History of Interpretation
Throughout most of church history, the large numbers in the Hebrew Bible were ignored. With increased emphasis on scripture leading up to the Reformation, scholars began to accept the numbers at face value, as did Martin Luther and John Calvin.18 Thereafter, the claims of the biblical narratives were largely unquestioned until the nineteenth century, when scholars such as Wilhelm de Wette (ca. 1806) and John Colenso (ca. 1862) began to dispute the entire account of the history of Israel, specifically its foundation in the Pentateuch.19 Various scholars have since proposed that the numbers are purely fictitious (George Gray 1903),20 symbolic and based on gematria (Heinrich Holzinger, 1903),21 represent the population in a later era (William Albright 1925; George Mendenhall 1958, 1976),22 are based on astronomy and Babylonian calendars (Michel Barnouin 1977),23 or are hyperbolic to serve theological purposes (Eryl Davies1995; Gary Rendsburg 2001; Rüdiger Heinzerling 1998; David Fouts 2003).24
18 David M. Fouts, “A Defense of the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Large Numbers in the Old Testament,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 40, no. 3 (September 1, 1997): 379–80.
19 John William Colenso, The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined (London, UK: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1862).
20 George Buchanan Gray, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Numbers (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1903), 12–4.
21 Heinrich Holzinger, Numeri (KHAT; Tübingen-Leipzig: Mohr-Siebeck, 1903), 5–6, 134, discussed by Eryl W. Davies, “A Mathematical Conundrum : The Problem of the Large Numbers in Numbers I and Xxvi,” Vetus Testamentum 45, no. 4 (October 1, 1995): 452–3.
22 W. F. Albright, “The Administrative Divisions of Israel and Judah,” Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society 5 (1925): 20–1; George E. Mendenhall, “The Census Lists of Numbers 1 and 26,” Journal of Biblical Literature 77, no. 1 (March 1, 1958): 60; George E. Mendenhall, “Social Organisation in Early Israel,” in Magnalia Dei, the Mighty Acts of God : Essays on the Bible and Archaeology in Memory of G. Ernest Wright, ed. Frank Moore Cross (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1976), 20–1.
23 M. Barnouin, “Les Recensements Du Livre Des Nombres et L’astronomie Babylonienne,” Vetus Testamentum, no. 27 (1977): 280–303, discussed by Davies, “Mathematical Conundrum,” 457–8 and Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester, UK: Inter-Varsity, 1981), 64–6.
24 Davies, “Mathematical Conundrum,” 466–9; Gary A. Rendsburg, “An Additional Note to Two Recent Articles on the Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt and the Large Numbers in Numbers I and Xxvi,” Vetus Testamentum 51, no. 3 (July 2001): 393, doi:10.1163/15685330152913666; Rüdiger Heinzerling, “Review: ‘The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding Mathematically the Very Large Numbers in Numbers I and Xxvi, by Colin J. Humphreys,’” Homepage of Rüdiger Heinzerling, 1998, http://www.ruediger-heinzerling.de/rezensen.htm#Colin+J.+Humphreys; David M. Fouts, “The Incredible Numbers of the Hebrew Kings,” in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, ed. David M. Jr. Howard and Michael A. Grisanti (Leicester: Apollos, 2003), 290. The existence of other ANE hyperbolic numbers indicates this theory to be a reasonable one. The original figure, however, was probably six ‘something’.