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The Gospels are littered with literary devices and mechanisms that serve narrative purposes but leave the reader doubting the veracity of the claims. These may include deus ex machina plot devices, allusions, mimesis and other hallmarks intertextual links, numerology, and other such things. Numerology is certainly important, whether it be the number 12, the gematria of groups of 14 and 7 in the genealogies, the Pythagorean 153 fish caught, and 3. 3 is a big one that Matthew and John love.

Michael J. Alter, in his magisterial work The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry, documents Matthew and John’s usage of the number three in the various groupings that they contain:

SPECULATION #188 The Number Three – Fact or a Literary Device (Symbolism)

The number three plays an inordinate role in the John’s gospel narrative. This number also plays an important symbolic role in Matthew. However, especially in the last four chapters of John, the importance of the number three is significantly amplified. It is speculated that the number three has been deliberately embedded into John’s text to serve as a literary device.

TABLE 67. The Number Three in Matthew and John

 John 1:1—The Greek term logos (“word”) appeared three times.
Mt 1:1-17—The names of Abraham’s descendants were manipulated into three sets of fourteen individual male descendants. 
Mt 1:20-24—Three “people” were identified prior to Mary’s conception: (1) Joseph, (2) Mary, (3) and the angel. 
Mt 2:11—The Wise Men from the East presented three gifts to the infant Jesus: (1) gold, (2) frankincense, and (3) myrrh. 
Mt 2:12, 13 and 19—Three dreams were reported in the infancy stories. 
 Jn 2:1—A wedding at Cana was held on the third day.
 Jn 2:19-22—Jesus prophesied that he would be resurrected after three days.
Mt 4:4, 6 and 7—The statement “for it was written” was repeated three times. Mt 12:40—The sign of Jonah stated that “Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” 
Mt 16:21—Jesus predicted that he must be killed and on the third day he would be raised to life. 
Mt 17:1—Three disciples went with Jesus up a mountain and witnessed the Transfiguration: Peter, James, and John. 
Mt 17:23—Jesus predicted that he would be killed and on the third day he would be raised to life. 
Mt 20:19—Jesus predicted that on the third day he will be raised to life. 
Mt 26:34—Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny Jesus three times.Jn 18:17—Jesus prophesied that Peter would deny him three times.
Mt 26:37—It was reported that three disciples went with Jesus into the garden of Gethsemane: Peter and the two sons of Zebedee. 
Mt 26: 39-44—Jesus prayed three times at Gethsemane prior to his arrest.Jn 17:1-5, 6-19, and 20-26—Jesus prayed for three people or groups: (1) for himself, (2) prior to his for his disciples, arrest. and (3) for all . brethren.
Mt 26:40-45— Three times Jesus found his disciples asleep. 
 Jn 18:3—The arresting party consisted of: (1) a detachment of soldiers, (2) some officials from the chief priests, and (3) Pharisees.
 Jn 18:3—The arresting party carried: (1) torches, (2) lanterns, and (3) weapons.
 Jn 18:5, 6, and 8—Three times Jesus said, “I am he.”
Mt 26:61—Two witnesses declared that they heard Jesus say he was able to destroy and rebuild the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days. 
Mt 27:40—While on the cross, mockers taunted Jesus, saying, “Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself.” 
Mt 26:70, 72, and 74 75—Peter denied Jesus three times.Jn 18; 17, 25, and 27—Peter denied Jesus three times.
 Jn 18:13, 24, and 28—Jesus was sent to three people after his arrest: (1) Annas, (2) Caiaphas, and (3) Pilate.
 Jn 18:18—Three groups or people warmed themselves by a fire: (1) the servants, (2) the officers, and (3) Peter.
 Jn 18:29; 19:4, and 13—Three times Pilate came out of his palace and met the Jewish leadership during Jesus’s trial.
 Jn 18:38; 19:4, 6—Pilate declared three times that he found Jesus innocent.
 Jn 18:22; 19:1 and 3—Jesus was (1) struck, (2) scourged, and (3) smote.
Mt 27:38—Three people were crucified.Jn 19:18—Three people were crucified.
 Jn 19:20—A notice fastened to the cross was written in three languages: (1) Aramaic, (2) Latin, and (3) Greek.
Mt 27:45-6— Darkness was over the land for three hours during Jesus’s crucifixion: from the sixth hour to the ninth hour. 
 Jn 19:26; 21:7, 20—Three times the phrase “the disciple whom he/Jesus loved” was repeated.
 Jn 19:29 30—Three things were employed to provide Jesus with a drink: (1) vinegar, (2) a sponge, and (3) a stalk of hyssop.
 Jn 19:39- 40—Jesus’s body was prepared with: (1) myrrh, (2) aloes, and (3) linen.
Mt 27:62—Three groups met on the Sabbath: (1) the chief priests, (2) the Pharisees, and (3) Pilate. 
Mt 27:62-66; 28:4, and 11-15 —There were three appearances of the guard. 
Mt 27:63-4—The Jewish leadership recalled Jesus’s three-day prophecy. 
Mt 27:64- 66—Three times the word “secure” is employed. 
 Jn 20:2, 13 and 15—Three times Mary Magdalene reported words to the effect: “They have taken the Lord” or “she does not know where Jesus’s body is to be found [i.e., Mary Magdalene’s threefold inquiry where Jesus’s body was taken].”
 Jn 20:3—Three people were reported running: (1) Mary Magdalene, (2) Peter, and (3) the disciple whom Jesus loved.
 Jn 20:11, 13, and 15—Three times there was reference to Mary Magdalene crying or weeping.
 Jn 20:12—Mary Magdalene has a dialogue with two angels. Collective, there were three people carrying on a conversation.
 Jn 20:19, 21, and 26—Three times Jesus said, “Peace be with you.”
 Jn 21:2—Three disciples at the Sea of Tiberias were specifically named: (1) Simon Peter, (2) Thomas, and (3) Nathanael from Cana.
 Jn 21:11—Exactly 153 fish were caught, and this number is divisible by three.
 Jn 21:14, 17, 17—The phrase “the third time” was repeated three times.
 Jn 21:15, 16, and 17—Three times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?”
 Jn 21:15, 16 and 17—Three times Peter affirmed that he loved Jesus.
 Jn 21:15, 16, and 17—Three times Jesus recommissioned Peter by stating, “Feed my lambs” or “Take care of my sheep.”
Mt 28:19—The Great Commission required baptizing in the name of the three: (1) the Father, (2) the Son, and (3) of the Holy Ghost. 

Just another example of why we should doubt the claims made in the Gospels, since they seem to be fulfilling other functions and agendas than truth-telling.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...