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In the parable of the "ten virgins" in Matthew 25:1-13, they fall into two groups of five:

2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise.

I know that the numbers in Jewish culture have special meaning. Is there any special meaning in the proportion of virgins 5 to 5?

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This attempt to answer the question "Why 5:5?" falls into four parts: (1) number symbolism; (2) the Matthean context; (3) why ten?; and (4) why 5:5?

Number symbolism in Judaism

(OP) I know that the numbers in Jewish culture have special meaning.

While this is certainly true, it is difficult to see what particular symbolism the number five (or ten, for that matter) holds here in Matthew's gospel. Two convenient surveys of Jewish numerology prompt this observation:

  1. From the Jewish Encycopedia (1906): the article on "Numbers and Numerology" has nothing at all to say about either five or ten.
  2. The corresponding article in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (2006), "Numbers, Typical and Important", is more full, and does have an entry for both numbers. Yet in both cases it is only to describe their profiles in the Hebrew Bible; there is no suggestion that they have any wider symbolic significance.

This may not yet be the whole story (see the next section on "ten"), but there is at least no prominent symbolism in the numbers five or ten, or the 5:5 (= 1:1!) ratio. (Perhaps, though, this element of the question would get a much more informed response on Mi Yodeya.)

The Matthean context

Every study of this parable notes that it has many curious, puzzling, even disturbing features. It is also unique to Matthew, and deeply embedded in the "eschatological discourse" of Matthew 24-25. It's certainly worth asking the "why" and "how" questions about the numbers the gospel as a whole uses. Some observations about Matthew itself, then, might help.

The major thing to note here is that Matthew has five "discourses" or blocks of teaching (roughly as follows: 1. chs. 5-7, the "Sermon on the Mount"; 2. ch. 10, the missionary discourse; 3. ch. 13, the kingdom parables; 4. ch. 18, ethical teaching; 5. chs. 23/24-25, the eschatological discourse). Matthew has five uses of the formula "when Jesus had finished saying these things", at the boundaries of these discourses. It seems, then, a very deliberate structure. And one recalls that there were five books of Moses, five books in the Psalms, five "festival scrolls" ... it is very suggestive.

Matthew also likes things in pairs: two "Gerasene demoniacs" (Mark/Luke have one); two blind men by Jericho (Mark/Luke have one); two donkeys at the "Triumphal entry" (Mark/Luke have one, but this might be reflective of a different phenomenon: see R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans, 2007), p. 339). This inclination to "pairing" shows up in other ways in Matthew, too -- but this suffices for the moment.

So there is a certain "tidiness" and rhetorical balance in Matthew's presentation overall.

Why ten?

Here, I only report the suggestion(s) of J. Massingberd Ford, "The Parable of the Foolish Scholars (Matt. XXV 1-13)", Novum Testamentum 9 (1967): 107-123 (+see full PDF). Ford argues that the "parable" should rather be understood as "allegory", and in pursuit of this case he draws together a rich background of Jewish texts and practice to inform his interpretation. With this in mind, on pp. 115-6 he writes:

In this parable Our Lord appears to depict, not an ordinary marriage but men who apply themselves to the study of Torah hoping to be led into the bridal chamber, the chamber of instruction.

The symbols are apt. The number of the virgins is ten. Ten is the required number to make up a quorum for the synagogue; ten for the courts of ten in Temple law (Sanh. i. 3); but, most important of all, ten for the circles of study, for example, in the Qumran community (CD. [= Damascus Document] x. 4).

So, why ten? Because it symbolizes the size of group that could gather for Torah study. Ford may be right in making these associations, but this depends to a large degree on the success of applying his whole intepretative framework to the parable/allegory.

It might also be that the pattern of "fives" and "pairs" in Matthew is sufficient to generate "ten", but it would seem somewhat arbitrary. Perhaps the narrative setting of the wedding party makes this a sensible number; while wedding customs of the time must inform our understanding (also the marriage feast of Matt 22:1-14), the ten maidens is left unremarked in treatments I have seen.

Why 5:5?

Which brings us, finally, to the question of proportions. This seems most readily explained not by number symbolism, but the structure of eschatological judgment as expressed through this discourse:

  1. 24:29 = [sun + moon] + [stars + "powers"]
  2. 24:40-41, two in the field, one taken and one left (= 1:1); two grinding, one taken and one left (= 1:1);
  3. => "you must also be ready" (v. 44);
  4. 24:45-51 = a "faithful/wise" servant vs. a "wicked" servant (= 1:1);
  5. 25:1-13 "our" parable, the ten maidens, two groups of five (= 1:1);
  6. 25:14-30 = three servants: first, has 5 talents, makes 5 talents; second, has 2 talents, makes 2 talents; contrasted with third who has 1 talent, and makes none; the first two are rewarded, the third "cast out";
  7. 25:31-46 = "all nations" separated into two groups, "sheep" to reward, "goats" to punishment (= 1:1).

The "odd one out" here, it seems to me, is #6 where the structure (two servants v. one servant) is not the 1:1 ratio seen otherwise so consistently. But even here, the pattern of 5+5, 2+2, and the implicit expectation that 1+1 is surely within the grasp of Servant Three, yields a similar sense of balance.

Conclusion

The "eschatological discourse" of Matthew 24-25 culminates in a sequence of descriptions of discriminating those who are "ready" (24:44) from those who are not when the "end" comes. This "bifurcation" -- splitting of humanity into the faithful to be blessed, and the wicked to be cursed -- is recounted in a long sequence of vignettes: figures of speech, parable, allegory, from the pithy to the extended.

In this sequence the "ten maidens" story takes its place with its 1:1 split of the ten women into two groups of five, much like the other "splits" in the surrounding context. Perhaps it figures as part of a move from "set pairs" in ch. 24 (two labourers, two grinders, two servants) to larger groups that culminate in the whole of humanity. Ford's suggestion that "ten" signals a group who would gather to study Torah has some appeal, but cannot be taken in isolation from the larger case he attempts to build.


Further Reading (aside from the commentaries)

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Re Q asked quote "The Parable Of The Ten Virgins - proportion 5 to 5" Marcin also asked Q quote "Is there any special meaning in proportion of 5 to 5". Answer: 10 virgins ( Christians)( See REVELATION chapter 14 verse 4 and 5,these two verses are lovely scriptures to absorb.Please Read & Study them as told in 2 TIMOTHY 2:15 "Study to ---Rev 14:4 "These are they which were not defiled with women;(symbolic please note),for they are VIRGINS .These are they which follow the Lamb (who is Jesus) the Lamb represents Jesus here,note."whithersoever he goeth.These are Christians.And note "they followed Him.And note not just followed Him but follows Him whithersoever.Can you see here the parable of the Ten Virgins here too. When the call comes.Which it will do at a future time 5 x Christians were ready to go.As were the Christans in Jerusalem in AD 66 and escaped to the mountains and escaped AD70 and death. We too as Christians need to heed the signs. 5 in "Bible Numerics " is the number for "GRACE".Noah found Grace in the eyes of the Lord. see GENESIS 6:8 "But Noah found Grace in the eyes of the LORD " And the 5 wise Christians also found Grace in the eyes of the LORD. We too living in our day need to find Grace in the eyes of our LORD. Whilst 5 missed the boat it is important that they did not lose their salvation.They were not discrimated against. No stress. They will be in God's Kingdom.No problem.And will be as they are Christians. However they missed a reward on offer.And there is scripture that says that no eye has seen nor the mind of man so to speak has conceived of the things that God has prepared for him.Now that is beautiful. NOTE GENESIS 7:5 "And Noah did according unto all that the LORD commanded him." Q do we.? That will be my first question on this site as I am only new. It's going to come back to 2 TIMOTHY 2 :15 Study---too As a sheep (and God calls us sheep) we need to be chewing so to speak like a sheep on THE WORD.And daily. 10 = completeness of order. A wonderful loving beautiful friendly local church.Complete.See REVELATION 3:14 "And unto --church (our day) v15 I know thy works-- Note works wont'save.See EPHESIANS 2:9 "Not of works, lest any man should boast."The LORD "did not come down the last shower" Read REVELATION 3:15 -16 &-17 Here we see 5 x foolish virgins/Christians. Imagine a Church Service.Which is all good.But then Jesus comes along in the middle of the service and knocks at the door.(of our hearts) REVELATION 3:20 Behold I stand at tbe door,: if any man hear my voice , and open the door ,I will come in to him,and will sup with him ,and he with me."note to hear means to obey ,ie keep.See Rev 1:3. HE longs to come in and fellowship.HE wants fellowship GENESIS 3:8a read "And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day -"Q Do we ? And IN LIFE THERE IS ALWAYS BALANCE. Here is the 5 to 5 balance. 'One could say that life is a numbers game.'And the 10 = a nice complete Church.Number for COMPLETENESS and note here is the 5 + 5 =10 if you like . 5 = "grace " In the parable 5 found it whilst 5 originally found Grace/yes.And were saved , however the other 5 wise went on in there walk with the LORD.Paul was "pressing on " See PHILIPPIANS 3:14 "I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.( hello!! What there is a "prize."How come no one told me.My Pastor didn't.My Priest didn't. My Sunday school teacher didn't. I have never heard that before.Then the LORD answers "my son did not you have a lamp unto your feet? See Matthew 25 :1 --which took their lamps --THE BIBLE see Psalm 119:105 "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet ,and a light unto my path. And the "virgin /Christian says :"yes Jesus.Then Jesus says but did you have 'oil' in them? Read Matthew 25 :3 says it all. "They that were foolish took their lamps ,but took no oil with them.Now we read just now lamp = BIBLE / WORD (Read JOHN 1:1 too. when you get a moment.OIL = Is SYMBOLIC of the Holy Spirit.This pure oil also called 'virgin' or 'Golden olive oil was extracted by pressure without heat .When we are under pressure from evil, we have the presence of the Comforter.see JOHN 14:16 "And I will-- (note that it is God's will to give the Comforter)-- to help us through it .We must have the guidance of the HOLY SPIRIT if we are to benefit from study of the Word. John 14116 says "And I will pray the Father ,and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever."Also v26 in JOHN and verse 17. As an encouragement let me say that The LORD won't try us to where there isn't His sufficient Grace.

And may the LORD bless the reading of this His Word to your heart.

User: 32276 ps I'm learning.

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Though certainty regarding particular numerical formulations is rarely in the offing, it can help heuristically to refer to other "puzzling" numerical formulations, canonical or extracanonical.

Here's one I'd suggest considering in conjunction with this from the Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said, "Now the sower went out, took a handful (of seeds), and scattered them. Some fell on the road; the birds came and gathered them up. Others fell on the rock, did not take root in the soil, and did not produce ears. And others fell on thorns; they choked the seed(s) and worms ate them. And others fell on the good soil and it produced good fruit: it bore sixty per measure and a hundred and twenty per measure." (Saying 9)

This is not a case of Jesus simply being very poor at math. Rather, I'd suggest projecting out your personal mental timeline, and you might find a rather interesting response to the "Problem of Evil" among the possible insights.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics Stack Exchange aeropage, thanks for contributing! Be sure to take our site tour to learn more about us. We're a little different from other sites. – Steve Taylor Dec 14 '16 at 8:37
  • (-1) As this is a hermeneutics site, I'd encourage you to consider the importance of things like authorial intention. Supplying a later text does not usually help us to interpret the intention of an earlier text. For that matter, I find it bizarre that you would choose to quote the parable of the sower from the Gospel of Thomas rather than Mark 4 or Matthew 13. – Steve Taylor Dec 14 '16 at 8:39
  • I see Stack Exchange is still far worse than even Wikipedia for goalless pedantry and discouragement of participation. That's a practical site problem, yes, but the wider problem is I know (in the gnosis sense), you do not, and never will, given your overarching commitment to your ego. – aeropage Dec 14 '16 at 8:44
  • On Stack Exchange, the primary purpose of voting is to help sort answers by their usefulness in regards to the question - if you use more hermeneutical techniques in answers, they'll get more upvotes. This SE site sets academic standards for its answers, and so a degree of pedantry is good, so long as it's also fair and kind. I'd suggest taking the site tour and consider the help centre to get a better feel for what we're looking for. – Steve Taylor Dec 14 '16 at 8:54
  • Rather significant mandates for what you're getting for free. Though, neither I nor God care about your "votes". Ah well, you can be among the other 60. – aeropage Dec 14 '16 at 9:01

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