a book of numbers, by Garry Somers

Some things that are not apparently quantifiable actually are. They don’t always leap out as such, with clarity and efficiency, and they don’t dredge up the voice of a teacher from long ago, saying that yes, you will use math when you grow up. They just exist in the mythos of culture until someone stubs their intellectual toe on a detail and then does a bit of digging.

For example, I recently found such a kernel of information. It was there, always had been, but I had never applied the calculations that gave it its gravitas. I therefore offer it to you as a piece of completed homework.

There are 52 weeks in the year, with a corresponding number of Sunday mornings during which I attend church (the church of my wife’s choice, because despite appearances I am occasionally a wise man) and each Sunday service has a sermon. There are two pastors at my church - I happen to be Lutheran of the Evangelical of America variety - and our congregation contains a fair number of retired pastors and a couple of chaplains who work in my locale in hospitals and hospice and a Deacon/Associate in ministry. Any one of these folks might give the sermon, when called upon to do so. It is my understanding that for the most part the subject matter is theirs, but they have a calendar to follow called the Lectionary, which plots according to the seasons of the church. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and around again, year after year. I have been going to church off and on for fifty-odd myself, and I know the drill.

A Sunday service is typically between 60 and 75 minutes long, during which there are five assigned hymns to sing (between 3 and 5 minutes long, each,) and 3 readings from the Bible, (between 3 and 6 minutes long, each,) including a selection from one of the Gospels, those 4 books of the New Testament which depict the life and words of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Prayers and Creeds (Lords, Apostle’s, Nicene, depending on the church season) are of fixed length, but the Prayer for the People can vary, depending on the current world, local and congregational mood and situation. The liturgy that stitches these pieces of the service together is also of somewhat fixed length and message, yet with alternative song-cycles, like the different stations on a radio. The styles are changed with similar intent, to try and please the different tastes held closely by congregation members. Somehow, cleverly or by happenstance, they each require the same quantity of time. I am familiar with all of them, and I often treat them as rote actions. One variable might be attendance, so that Offering (and the corresponding music attending it - an anthem) and Communion can last from 10 to fifteen minutes.

The subject of the sermon of the day is, for the most part, up to the preacher.

Timing: 12 to 15 minutes in length is typical. Homilies, for some reason are shorter. Longer sermons are, of course, possible, but actually frowned upon as being too much talking. I’ll never understand this, one would imagine that a good story is good and therefore worth hearing no matter how long it is, but I am not driven by my need for prompt Sunday luncheon, so I do not judge. The sermon is the minister’s opportunity to teach, to give a lesson, to get through to us in a quarter of an hour. And so, I try to pay attention to the sermon. Perhaps if I were a better student, or a better believer, there might be much for me to learn. Sometimes, however, it seems that I’ve heard it all before. And for what it’s worth, I am no biblical scholar. I know but two truths, this thought stolen shamelessly from the quintessential tearjerker guy-flick “Rudy;” that there is a God, and I’m not him. Or is it he? You see? I don’t even have the patience to be an exceptional editor, much less a dedicated seminary student. But I do try to find the patience to listen while the pastor recites his sermon, as I said with theme pulled from the church calendar (and the Gospel reading), laced with subject matter from the pastor’s own life experience, or from current events, or from suggestions provided from pastor to pastor via whatever social-media tools pastors utilize to do that which they do every week.

I listen to the weekly story, wait for the punchlines to touchingly-lame jokes or the modest reveals to mysteries. When, in the end, we are instructed to go in peace, I try to be a good person. Certainly more is expected from me. Still, depending on who is giving the sermon or what the subject, or even whether or not I had a cup of coffee before the service, my mind wanders a little or a lot. Why, I sometimes ask myself, isn’t this simpler? Why isn’t it all boiled down into “Love one another and knock off the crap”? I don’t know. That would make sense to me. But it seems we humans need more evidence in our faith, (and assistance with our understanding of logical fallacies.)

All of which is a great deal of preface to my current thoughts.

No neatly couched parable teller, I.

Today our sermon is about the events that occur up to and at the crucifixion. I must assume (for time’s sake, I have already frittered away so much) that these are fairly common knowledge: Jesus goes to Jerusalem to preach. People receive him as an important guest to the city, lay palms before him, give him a colt to ride upon. He preaches. He meets with his disciples in the Upper Room, they share a meal and lessons and prayer. In conversation with them, he predicts that he will be betrayed to the city leaders as somehow dangerous instigator of disloyalty. And then he is brought before the authorities, punished and killed.

In no way do I blithely skirt over these events. They are the framework of our belief. I understand that each step, each specific aspect of what is called the Passion of the Christ, has purpose and effect in defining who Jesus is and what therefore is his reason for being. This is the story that tells Christians the point of being so, being followers of Jesus of Nazareth, because after his death - one apparently foretold by prophets and by himself as well - Jesus rises from his grave and ascends. Therein lies the center of all Christian thinking - that death is not the end for him, or us. And because death is not the end, many other pieces of our faith behaviors may begin to fall into place - love, compassion, mercy, kindness and grace. This is the catechism of my denomination within the Christian faith, one which I already well know.

Therefore, I am only less-than-half-listening to Pastor’s sermon when he comes to the part of that day’s Gospel lesson involving the casting of lots for the cloak of Jesus. The story is that the Roman soldiers who had performed the crucifixion of Jesus scourged him (lashed him with whips), made him shoulder his own cross (probably, say many historians, just the heavy cedar cross piece) out of the city and up the hill to the place where punishments of this manner were performed. They nailed him through the wrists with iron spikes (spikes through the palms would tear through the flesh under the body-weight of a full-grown man) to the cross-piece and hoisted him onto the post so he was suspended off the ground. Common practice says that his feet were nailed one over the other to the post. His knees were probably broken, so his legs could no longer support him ( a terrible kindness, actually, for this would accelerate his death). One of the soldiers, with time on his hands and a somewhat cruel sense of humor, made a wreath out of pliable vine, perhaps acacia twigs, and pressed it down over Jesus head;a crown of thorns. A sign scratched in a scrap of wood was nailed above his head declaring him (to whom? Most followers of Jesus - indeed, most people of the time were illiterate) Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. And with two other victims of the severity of Roman capital punishment, to the left and right of him, Jesus hung above the soldiers, dying, while they played dice for his last worldly goods.

And here, at this time and telling of the Passion, my ears perk up. I’ve heard it before, but something catches my interest. The cloak of Jesus. Wait. What about it?

In the Bible, in the Gospel of Matthew, the moment reads as such: And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots. Nothing seems unusual here. Again, similarly, in the Gospel of Mark: And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments, casting lots upon them, what every man should take.

At least, that’s what I thought, what I remember from many sermons, many Sunday school classes. Nothing untoward happening here. I look at the story in Luke: Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted his raiment, and cast lots.

The first three Gospels say that soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ possessions.

But today’s reading, is from the Gospel according to John.

The details are repeated by Pastor in his sermon.

A twist in the plot.

Something extra: Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments, and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also his coat: now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout.

They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be: that the scripture might be fulfilled, which saith, They parted my raiment among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots. These things therefore the soldiers did.

And so this morning, while my pastor continues on with his sermon, I ask myself what is the significance of the coat, the cloak, of Jesus Christ? Why bother to even ask? Because everything else in the Gospels has significance. Every story, every miracle, each sentence spoken by the Lord, the characters in each parable, the actions or inaction of the disciples, all are important, somehow. So, can it be that this description of clothing, not even mentioned in three of four Gospels, is pertinent to something? Is its mention an emphasis of some sort?

I ponder this for a moment. The other three Gospels march in lock-step stating that the soldiers cast lots for Jesus goods - his clothes. Only John tells us why; because of the existence of this seamless garment. And if Jesus did not have a seamless garment in the other three Gospels, well then why did the soldiers need to cast lots? Didn’t they just divide his other clothes into fair shares, as John also says? And anything that couldn’t be divided, was it then torn into evenly distributed shares? But John’s story says it is the cloak that causes the need to cast lots. It is a statement of finance. The cloak is worth more as a unit than torn into shares. Worse, it loses greater value when torn into parts. This distinction is noteworthy. But who cares?

Let let us surmise, the other three writers of the Gospels, by talking about casting lots, also know about the cloak, but don’t mention it.

(Why not? Let’s hold that question for later.)

So, what do we know? A seamless coat, something no soldiers want to tear up into pieces, is of more value as is than torn apart. Jesus had a wealthy man’s cloak. How did that happen? Where did it come from? Who gave it to him? Why is it important that it was “without seam?” Is it mentioned anywhere else in the Bible? And what does it say to us, the legacy looking to the sacred words for meaning?

I sneak my smartphone onto my lap, take it out of airplane-mode. Google “Jesus’ seamless robe.” I know that this is a heinous breach of church-sermon protocol and my wife is probably giving me the stink-eye, so I don’t look up and I pray that the volume is turned all the way down.

First of all - do not confuse the seamless cloak with the robe forced temporarily on Jesus by the Roman soldiers. Purple or scarlet, it was meant to mock him after he met with Herod: Then he (Herod) questioned Him with many words, but He answered him nothing. And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him. Then Herod, with his men of war, treated Him with contempt and mocked Him, arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate. (Luke 23: 9-11)

Here’s what that bastion of questionably accurate crowd-sourced knowledge - Wikipedia - has to say about it:

According to the Gospel of John, the soldiers who crucified Jesus did not divide his tunic after crucifying him, but cast lots to determine who would keep it because it was woven in one piece, without seam. A distinction is made in the New Testament Greek between the himatia (literally “over-garments”) and the seamless robe, which is chiton, (literally “tunic” or “coat”). “Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments (ta himatia) and divided them into four parts, to every soldier a part, and the coat (kai ton chitona). Now the coat was without seam, woven whole from the top down. Therefore, they said among themselves, let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, whose it will become. Thus the saying in Scripture was fulfilled: they divided My raiment (ta imatia) among them, and upon My vesture (epi ton himatismon) did they cast lots” (John 19:23-24; quoting Psalm 22:18).

So there we are - the dividing of clothes and the casting of lots for the rest is in the Old Testament as well. In the Psalms, in fact; the hymns and laments of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The poetry of our belief system. So perhaps this is why Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t find it necessary to explain themselves with regards to seamless cloak. Everybody already knows why.

Except for us. And to come full circle, I think it’s all in the numbers.

Sudden thought: can there be anything so mundane as talking about clothes? I’ve always found it so. And, yet in the final analysis, I will admit that I’ve been wrong.

Firstly, let’s evaluate the clothing of the average itinerant preacher of the 1st century. What did folks in the Roman province of Judaea wear? What was cloth made from? Answer: Silk. Linen. Wool.

Let us begin with silk. Silk is a natural fiber, a protein-based excreta of certain caterpillars used in creation of their cocoons, with a prismatic fiber that refracts light coming from different angles. Suffice to say, it is beautiful when dyed and woven into cloth. And long story short: in the 1st Century, silk is imported from the east: China, or India, through the Middle East. Logically, to be transported over such long distances, it must come in the form of unfinished bolts of cloth - not as finished clothing. Parenthetically, Eastern silk cloth was dissimilar to the cloth choice of Roman style, so skilled Roman weavers of silk unwove the Eastern cloth back onto spools and re-wove the thread into the more diaphanous cloth preferred in the Roman Empire Silk was one of the more expensive trade goods of the time - costing the Roman Empire the equivalent of 6 billion US per year in silver.

Fortunately, Roman silver mines, manned by slave labor, could produce such sums. The stockpile of silver in Rome at its peak was 10 thousand tons. One “denarius” of silver, a standard Roman coin of that time, contained about 4 grams, or approximately 1/100th of a pound of silver. It is difficult to correlate the value of Roman coins to their metal-weight, because they had a flat value (denarii is Latin for “containing ten” or being worth 10 copper sesterces, the common coin of the realm. We do, however, know the “value” of a Roman talent – think of Messala’s bet against Judah Ben-Hur in the chariot race – was about 71 pounds of silver and was considered by scholars to be worth nine man-years of a skilled work, so you can do the math on this one. In any case, silver had metal value to the East and could be used to barter for valuable goods. Therefore, let us just assume for the sake of argument that silk is the cloth of rich women.

Next, a bit about linen - a fabric made from the fiber of the flax plant. Flax was laboriously processed into thread, and woven into a cloth that had the ability to hold a dye. Anyone who has worn a linen shirt, trousers, suit or dress knows that it is comfortable, and particularly so in the heat of summer. But is it the practical, working-man’s cloth of a wandering preacher cum carpenter? Or even the following fellows, a collection of fishermen (Peter, Andrew, James, John, Thomas, Bartholomew); or those who were probably tradesmen (Philip, James, Jude)? The zealot, Simon the Canaanite spent his time arguing in markets and 1st century saloons; no money in that. Only the “white-collar worker” Matthew the publican might have had one or two linen tunics at some point in his life. But allow us the editorial aside that they wouldn’t have held up well, walking day after day in the heat, needing frequent washing and drying, constantly being re-worn. A man smart with his money would have relied on the everyday clothing of the age.

Well then, what did most people wear? Cloth made of sheep’s wool. Why? It was a renewable resource - sheep grow wool all of the time, and require but grass and water to do so. Unlike a crop (flax) sheep can be moved to their optimal growing environment - not enough food or water here? We move. Unlike a crop of flax, a herd of sheep can be managed by a couple of shepherds with a crook and a good dog. And unlike goat hair, sheep wool fiber is longer, making it easier to spin into thread/yarn and because wool is hollow and flexible, it is practical as cloth, being either warm or cool depending on the weave. Unlike flax, sheep wool is infused with lanolin, which is actually good for the skin of the person wearing the cloth - someone often relying on a rather loose description of the term “hygiene.”

What anecdotal evidence do we have of the importance of wool? Well, how about the Bible? Who do the very host of angels themselves notify that the newborn King is nigh? Shepherds watching their flocks by night. Or the liturgy of various Christian denominations, requesting forgiveness for sins of commission or omission: Christ, the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Or, as the hymnodist Sir Henry Baker wrote, The King of Love Our Shepherd Is.

Yes, it’s that important. And then some. Here are the numbers to back that up.

The three chief pieces of woolen clothing worn by Romans were the tunic, the toga and trouser-like garments, either long or short or even kilt-like, depending on the season or the climate in which the person lived. For the sake of relative brevity, we will limit our discussion to the Roman tunic. Specifically, the tunic of the Roman legionnaire.

According to the 18th century British author/historian, Edward Gibbon, there were seven million Roman citizens under Claudius, as determined by a census, just a few years after the death of Jesus of Nazareth), and 14 million women and children in the families of those Roman citizens. Additionally, there were 40 million other “classes” of people living in the borders of the Roman empire. Now hold onto your hat: Gibbon estimates, conservatively, that for every Roman citizen, family member and “other class” of person in Rome, there were equal numbers of slaves in the Empire.

Think about that for a moment. 60 Million slaves within Rome’s borders.

Hold that thought.

Correspondingly, there were, from the time of the late Republic to the early Empire, 24 standing Legions of Roman soldiers, charged with defending its borders and keeping the Roman pax within its borders. A legion contained between 5000 and 15000 troops, depending on a number of factors, including battles, location, illness and other depredation, and normal attrition. For our purposes, we’ll split the difference and say that there were 240,000 Roman soldiers. Each soldier requiring one tunic at the minimum. Two tunics was more likely, as one could be worn and the other cleaned to be used when the first was dirty.

480,000 tunics, at any given moment, in the Roman army alone.

At some point in the Roman republic, tunic making stopped being a custom process, with each tunic made for the man. It is reasonable for us to decide that it was in the best interest of the soldiers themselves for tunic making to become a cottage industry. As Wikipedia states, “During the early and middle Republican era, conscripted soldiers and their officers were expected to provide or pay for all their personal equipment. From the late republic onwards, they were salaried professionals, and bought their own clothing from legionary stores, quartermasters or civilian contractors. Military needs were prioritized. Clothing was expensive to start with, and the military demand was high; this inevitably pushed up prices, and a common soldier's clothing expenses could be more than a third of his annual pay. In the rampant inflation of the later Imperial era, as currency and salaries were devalued, deductions from military salaries for clothing and other staples were replaced by payments in kind, leaving common soldiers adequately clothed but with little cash for their dependents, or eventual retirement.”

How does one make something less expensively? In pieces. The tunic became an eight-piece article of clothing, with each part exactly the same as the others. Four standard squares of cloth in front, four squares in back. Sewn together into two squares of four, the front with a neck placket. Then sewn together into one piece, leaving a neck-hole and two arm holes. One size fit all. If a soldier needed a tighter fit, he “customized” his own clothing.

And why eight pieces of cloth? Think of floor covering in an office. If one location gets more wear and tear, floor covering is made in squares so that the worn place can be pulled up and replaced without having to buy a whole new floor or carpet. The same practical, expense conscious, logic applies here. If a soldier tore part of his tunic, or stained it beyond use as a uniform, he could have a “tailor” remove the damaged piece and replace it. Or, frankly, if a soldier died in battle, his clothes - spear-rent or sword-slashed - might be repaired for someone else to use.

That piece of tunic, that square, could be made by the most minimally skilled weaver. A simple 24-inch square frame - what is called today a “lap loom” - was the only requirement. That and a steady supply of wool thread.

How hard is that? Firstly, to turn raw wool into thread requires the following steps:

Shearing/cleaning raw wool fleece - Sheep are sheared once a year, usually before lambing, so that they will be clean for that event. Sheared wool requires cleaning - called “scouring” using baking soda - sodium carbonate decahydrate (called Natron - discovered by the ancient Egyptians) to remove some of the “greasiness” of the lanolin, and the dirt from the fleece. It also prepares the wool for dyeing. Wool can be kept in its natural color, of course.

Making thread from fleece: The wool is carded - combed into aligned fibers. The aligned wool groups are then roved - divided into even strips - the thicker the roving, the thicker the wool thread or yarn. Then the roves are spun into thread on a spinning wheel. Note: if the thread is not thick or strong enough for the purpose of the cloth being woven, two separately spun threads may then be spun together to create “two-ply” wool thread, what is either called S or Z ply, depending on how the threads are respun.

One sheep fleece of 5 pounds of wool, cleaned, carded and spun, creates 3200 yards of practical, what we now call “worsted” weight thread/yarn, for weaving, in “hanks” of 550 yards. It required approximately 2500 yards of wool thread to make a tunic, or 625 yards per square. For our purposes, we’re going to say that 1 “hank” of thread = one square of cloth. Because all of the manual processes for turning sheep-wool into thread would have had similar efficiencies of the time: shearing, cleaning, carding and spinning a hank of thread would have required an estimated 4 man-hours of work, based chiefly on the labor-intensive requirements of spinning and creating two-ply worsted thread.

Now, the weaver received the thread for turning into squares of cloth. Based on observation of a weaver working a simple loom with modern yarn, I am conservatively estimating that a two-foot square of worsted wool required 2 hours of labor to weave. Each square, therefore, required 6 man-hours of labor (a man-hour being the amount of work that can be accomplished during an hour, be it spinning, weaving, etc.)

Now for the post-weaving labor. Fulling - The woven cloth wass soaked and “roughed up” to make it wearable (similar to pre-shrinking it). Stretching - putting the newly fulled woven cloth on “tenterhooks” to stretch and dry (which is, coincidentally, where the term “tense” comes from.) Last, but not least, finishing - scraping or shaving the nap of the cloth to make it look neater. Our labor estimate per piece of cloth? 1 man-hour.

Total man-hours of labor per cloth square, 7 hours. Multiply by 8 squares for the tunic-total. We won’t even add the labor for stitching the cloth pieces together to make the actual garment.

56 labor hours total per tunic.

That’s a grand total of 26,880,000 man-hours of labor for all of the tunics currently on soldiers in the Roman Empire. Let’s break that down for perspective.

The average life span 2000 years ago was 35 years. That’s a misleading statistic, however. If you lived past 10, it was more likely that you would live into your 40s or 50s. Let’s pick a halfway point of 45. That’s 30 years of productivity, or 360 man-months per laborer (again, laboring at spinning, weaving, fulling, finishing, etc.)

Add to our equation that a legionnaire would, our best guess, use at least 10 tunics over his 20 years of soldiering, that span being the required time to retire on a “pension.”

480,000 current tunics (2 per soldier) becomes 2,400,000 tunics over 20 years.

We’ll call it a requirement for Rome to manufacture 120,000 tunics per year. That’s 80,000 people working full time, their entire lives, just making tunics for the Roman army. That’s about the enrollment of both the Ohio State University and University of Michigan, combined.

So here’s what I think is the rub. In order to keep this product affordable, it had to be made by slaves. The average soldier earned one silver denarius per day, and had other pieces of clothing to pay for, too, not to mention weapons.) Slave laborers were taught at a young age to do the weaving, spinning, and other tasks for the woolen cloth industry, making money for their masters.

And let us not forget that slave shepherds, sheep-shearers, fleece-cleaners, spinners, weavers, fullers, stretchers, finishers and stitchers were needed to make blankets, handkerchiefs, table-cloths, dresses, scarves, head-coverings, togas, curtains, gowns, draperies and awnings. And, of course, tunics for everyone else in the empire.

When the Bible talks about sheep, about shepherds watching their flocks by night, it is speaking in clear context to people who know about sheep, about wool, about weaving. People who understand the effort required to accomplish a day’s work. Slaves and laborers got this message: the kingdom of heaven shall be theirs.

Finally, let us return to that cloak, that soldiers valued so in its seamless, untorn state. It was a work of artisanry, not just a mass-produced consumer good. A shepherd would know what such a thing in the possession of the Messiah meant. All of the spinners and weavers and fullers would know. But the existence of such a cloak would also be a message to a different audience, to someone who also understood the value of things, and the relevance that Jesus wore it. I like to think of it as being an Easter Egg – an important, almost hidden detail in a story or movie – but when you find it, you get to smile to yourself. Maybe it’s the first Easter Egg. I think that we might conclude that Jesus was given this cloak, perhaps by someone who was his friend, one of his wealthier followers, perhaps one who’d heard all of the messages in Jesus’ sermons about the meek inheriting the earth and how the widow whose two-penny sacrifice was giving more than anyone and how we are called to give away all of our treasure and follow him. Someone, it doesn’t matter whom, had heard those stories, measured the difficulty of giving up worldly possessions against the value of their souls and had done their own math. They got it. And they began by offering Jesus a thing of value, to keep him warm, to keep the weather off of him. The cloak, there at the moment of glory, became an example to others following the path. Down the two-thousand-year long road, it is a piece of evidence that “thy will (can) be done, on Earth,” and whose existence in scripture, albeit brief and clear, confirms quite quantifiably that the message of Christ is not only for the poor.