Unlucky Numbers

Flying with Alitalia recently I was interested to see that there was no thirteenth seat row — and no row seventeen either. I’m told seventeen is the unlucky number in Italy (in China it’s four). Of course if you did have the misfortune to be in row thirteen or seventeen on a BA flight, where no such superstitions are observed, so far as a plane disaster is concerned you are unlikely to be singled out from the other passengers.

This being the thirteenth Learn Italy newsletter, I did wonder whether to jump straight on to number fourteen, but decided to stick with thirteen.

One explanation often advanced for the unluckiness of thirteen is that there were thirteen participants at the Last Supper (twelve apostles, plus Jesus). Early in Acts (1: 12–14) we are told who the remaining eleven are after the death of Judas Iscariot: ‘Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.’ This Judas — not Judas Iscariot — is also known as Jude, or Thaddeus.

Just before the Pentecost Peter decides that a substitute for Judas Iscariot must be chosen from those who had witnessed Christ’s resurrection.

Two names were put forward: Joseph, who was known as Barsabbas, and bore the added name of Justus; and Matthias… They drew lots and the lot fell upon Matthias, who was then assigned a place among the twelve apostles. (Acts 1: 23–26)

Neither of these characters appears again in the New Testament, though there are various stories about St Matthias from other sources, and his feast day is celebrated variously in different churches on 24 February or 14 May. Perhaps Joseph Barsabbas should be the patron saint of rejected candidates, and Matthias of also-rans, and people, like most of us, who make little impression on history. Later on, various more active members of the early church — Paul, Barnabas and Silas — are often also numbered among the apostles.

Bringing the total up to twelve apostles seems to have been necessary to Peter. Jesus himself had chosen twelve disciples (the same as are listed in Acts) and names them Apostles (Luke 6: 12–16).  

Perhaps twelve has a further significance. When Peter questions Jesus about the future of the disciples — ‘What will be for us?’ — Jesus replies: ‘I tell you this: in the world that is to be, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne in heavenly splendour, you my followers will have thrones of your own, where you will sit as judges on the twelve tribes of Israel.’ (Matthew 19: 27–28)

These thrones appear as a motif in early Christian art — strangely empty chairs — for example in the Orthodox baptistery in Ravenna.