The Gospel Comfort of Galilean Mathematics
By Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D.
Mathematics is thought to be the most perfect science. The precision of mathematics seems to hold the key for unlocking the secrets of the universe. Galilean mathematics is different than other kinds of math. Only Galilean mathematics truly brings to light the mystery of our existence.
One might think that Galilean mathematics is named for Galileo, a sixteenth-century father of the scientific revolution. After all, it was Galileo who said that God wrote the Book of Nature in the language of mathematics. Galileo discovered, for example, that in God’s universe free-falling bodies, balls rolling down an inclined plane, and pendula all move in a way described by the same formula: s = 1/2 at2.
But it is not Galileo’s mathematics that concerns us here. The “Galilean” mathematics that truly holds the secret to life’s deepest mysteries comes not from Galileo but from Galilee. More precisely, this special sort of Galilean mathematics comes from Jesus of Nazareth, who grew up in Galilee and devoted much of His earthly ministry to serving the people of Galilee.
Galilee is located in the northern part of Israel. The Sea of Galilee, which measures about nine by twelve miles, was a source of livelihood for Jewish fishermen during the first century A.D. The much larger Dead Sea, located about 100 miles to the south, has a salt content that exceeds 30%. Not even bacteria survive there. The Sea of Galilee, by contrast, is a freshwater lake that supports an abundance of fish, which in turn helped to support the first-century communities in Galilee.
This is not to say that fishing in the Sea of Galilee was always productive. One night in particular, a fisherman named Simon complained, “We worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything.” (Luke 5:5a). Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth who recently had begun teaching people about the Kingdom of God and healing their sicknesses, came aboard Simon’s boat that morning (see the photo of a replica of a first-century Galilean fishing boat). Jesus directed Simon, “Put out into deep water, and lie down the nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4)
Simon was not too confident this would work, but he gave in, saying, “Because you say so, I will let down the nets.” (Luke 5:5b) Luke the evangelist records the amazing events that followed:
When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ For he and his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners. (Luke 5:6–10a)
Jesus then called Simon, James, and John to leave their boats and become “fishers of men” — disciples who would become the first Christian evangelists. During the next three years, Jesus traveled with these and the other nine disciples throughout Galilee and Judea. He taught in parables, welcomed the meek, cast out demons, healed the sick, and proclaimed the forgiveness of sins to everyone who, like Simon Peter, confessed, “Lord, I am a sinful man!” He also taught them something about the compassion of Galilean mathematics.
A tax collector named Matthew Levi repeatedly summarized the ministry of Jesus by writing time and again that Jesus “had compassion” on people. One day, for example, a large crowd followed by foot along the shore as they saw Jesus sail across the Sea of Galilee, and what does Matthew report? “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, He had compassion on them and healed their sick.” (Matthew 14:14) Then evening came.
But the Lord’s work for that day was not over. Matthew notes that the disciples were concerned because the people did not have any food. They urged Jesus, “send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” (Matthew 14:15) Luke also reports the events of that evening, when Jesus taught a lesson in Galilean mathematics. According to Luke, Jesus replied to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Then:
They answered, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish — unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” (About five thousand men were there.) But He said to His disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, He gave thanks and broke them. Then He gave them to the disciples to set before the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. (Luke 9:14b–17)
The disciples did not think that five loaves of bread and two fish would be enough to feed five thousand men. But Jesus performed a miracle to show them the compassion of Galilean mathematics: 5 loaves + 2 fish = food enough for 5,000 men + 12 basketfuls left over.
This equation becomes even more amazing when Matthew’s account is compared with Luke’s. Luke mentions only the five thousand men, but Matthew specifies that “the number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children,” perhaps over 20,000 total! (Matthew 14:21) Galilean mathematics means that God can make what seems like very little go a very long way. According to Galileo, nature is written in the language of mathematics, but according to Jesus of Galilee, God has compassion enough to re-write nature in a language that transcends our ordinary understanding of what is mathematically possible.
By His almighty word, Jesus multiplied bread and fish to feed the crowd on shore of the Sea of Galilee. On the cross of Calvary, He subtracted the sins of the entire world and divided His own holy life to be distributed for all people. As that fisherman-turned-evangelist John later wrote, “He [Jesus] is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)
Jesus was more than just a carpenter and Jesus provided more than just an earthly meal of miraculously multiplied bread and fish. He was the Son of God who baffled everyone accustomed to earthly mathematics. Neither the Galilean mathematics on the sea shore nor the Galilean mathematics on the cross makes any sense to our human calculations; both equations remind us that the “peace of God ... transcends all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7)
So, does mathematics really hold the key to understanding the secrets of the universe? Only if it is “Galilean” mathematics, the miraculous mathematics that Jesus taught in Galilee. Galilean mathematics is the only kind of mathematics that holds the key to heaven’s gate, which Christ has unlocked to bring all of us inside:
one forgiving Savior Jesus Christ
one repentant sinner like me
Jesus and I together forever in heaven