As you’ve no doubt been told by dozens of Facebook friends, people you follow on Twitter, co-workers, and bloggers, Tim Tebow threw for exactly 316 yards in the Broncos’ overtime playoff win over the Steelers on Sunday evening.
316 yards is a career high for Tebow, besting the 308 yards he passed for in a late-season win over Houston last year. And it’s fitting that America’s most popular Christian athlete, in the biggest win of his professional career so far, threw for 316 yards, bringing to mind John 3:16, perhaps the best known Bible verse and a verse Tebow referenced in his eyeblack during the 2009 BCS Championship Game.
In the hours following the Broncos-Steelers game, armchair numerologists and symbolists mobbed the Internet, presenting evidence of God’s presence in Tebow’s performance and identifying other 316s. It turns out that Tebow averaged 31.6 yards-per-completion and that one 15-minute block of the Broncos-Steelers game did a 31.6 rating.
Are these numbers proof of divine intervention, part of an eerie coincidence, or products of confirmation bias?
I’d say the latter.
For one, both numbers are 31.6, not 3.16. (12 books of the Bible have a 31:6.) Yards-per-completion is a football statistic, but it isn’t one that people use very often. The NFL passing stat sheet that you’ll find at NFL.com (or at Fox Sports or ESPN or Yahoo Sports or any number of other sites) doesn’t list yards-per-completion. Instead, it includes yards-per-attempt, which is a more telling statistic. As for the TV rating, when you cite the rating of a 15-minute segment of a 4-hour football game to prove your point, you’re trying too hard.
For that matter, 49 books of the (Protestant) Bible have a chapter 3, verse 16. Why should we assume that 316 refers to John 3:16 instead of, say, Nahum 3:16 (“You boasted more traders than the heavens have stars. The locust sheds its skin and flies away,” CEB)?
The easy answer is that John 3:16 is the only 3:16 or 31:6 that is so familiar that, when people see the numbers 3, 1, and 6 in succession, they think of a Bible verse.
Sports fans have encountered John 3:16 since the Rainbow Man, “Rockin” Rollen Stewart made the verse the focal point of his “Jumbotron evangelism” in the early 1980s. Since then “John 3:16″ signs and banners have popped up at all sorts of televised sporting events. Others have likely noticed the verse on billboards, bumper stickers, or the inside of the bottom rim of a soft-drink cup from In-N-Out Burger.
I doubt that Tebow’s 316 will start a trend of looking for biblical messages in yards-passing numbers. (After all, Aaron Rodgers passed for exactly 316 yards in a Week 6 win over the Rams and no one even noticed.) But if it does, here are some other passing numbers with scriptural implications.
Let’s start with Tebow himself.
John 1:43: Tim Tebow, 143 yards, Broncos at Chargers, November 27
The next day Jesus wanted to go into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”
—John 1:43 (CEB)
Some on Twitter (and elsewhere) have argued that Tebow’s 316 yards on Sunday referred specifically to John 3:16 because Tebow has two bosses named John: head coach John Fox and executive vice president of football operations John Elway. Well, Tebow has been playing for 2 guys named John all season. So maybe some of his other passing numbers point us to verses in John’s Gospel.
In a November 27 win over the San Diego Chargers, Tebow passed for 143 yards. In John 1:43 Jesus tells the disciple Philip to follow him. Philip just happens to be the first name of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. Is it just a coincidence that Rivers’s quarterback rating nearly doubled the following week?
John 6:9: Tim Tebow, 69 yards, Broncos at Chiefs, November 13
“A youth here has five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that for a crowd like this?”
—John 6:9 (CEB)
Here’s another one from John. Tebow threw for 69 yards against the Chiefs back in Week 10. John 6:9 is part of the story in which Jesus feeds a multitude of 5,000 (one of the few stories that appears in all four Gospels). Jesus’ disciple Andrew doubts that five barley loaves and two fish can feed such a large crowd. But Jesus makes it work.
Against the Chiefs on November 13, Tebow completed only two passes. Conventional wisdom says that a team can’t win an NFL game when its quarterback completes just two passes. But much as Jesus fed a crowd with two fish, Tim Tebow beat a division rival with two completions.
2 Timothy 1:2: Tim Tebow, 12 passing touchdowns in his 2nd season
While Tebow reports to men named John, his name is Timothy. There are two books of the Bible named Timothy: The First Letter to Timothy (1 Timothy) and the Second Letter to Timothy (2 Timothy). In his second season in the league, Timothy Tebow threw exactly 12 passing touchdowns. So what does 2 Timothy 1:2 say?
To Timothy, my dear child. Grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.
—2 Timothy 1:2 (CEB)
Well there you go.
Matthew 18:3: Matthew Stafford, 183 yards, Lions vs. Falcons, October 23
On October 23 the Lions lost 23-16 to the Atlanta Falcons. It was the team’s second consecutive loss after a 5-0 start. Quarterback Matthew Stafford threw for 183 yards, a season low. Stafford shares a name, Matthew, with a Gospel. Since there is no Matthew 1:83, let’s check out Matthew 18:3:
“I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
—Matthew 18:3 (CEB)
Clearly Stafford and the Lions had to turn things around if they were going to make their first Playoff appearance since the 1990s. But who is the “little child”? Maybe Stafford, in his third year in the league, needed to emulate the spirit and work ethic of a younger player, perhaps second-year defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh or first-year wide receiver Titus Young.
2 Kings 2:25: Eli Manning, 225 yards, Giants at Jets, December 24
From there Elisha went to Mount Carmel and then back to Samaria.
—2 Kings 2:25 (CEB)
On Christmas Eve the Jets and Giants faced off in Met Life Stadium, the facility that the two teams share. Met Life is the only stadium ruled by two different franchises, which brings to mind the book of 2 Kings.
No? Try this. The Jets are coached by Rex Ryan. Rex is Latin for “king.” Ryan may be derived from the Gaelic for “king.” There you go, 2 Kings.
In the Giants’ victory over the Jets, quarterback Elisha Manning threw for 225 yards. 2 Kings 2:25 just so happens to involve the prophet Elisha. The verse tells us that Elisha was on his way to Mount Carmel. Mount Carmel is best known as the site where Elijah faced off against the prophets of Baal to determine whose God was the true God. After his win over the Jets, Elisha Manning headed into a game against the Cowboys to determine which team was the true champion of the NFC East.
After going to Mount Carmel Elisha returned to Samaria, his home. After beating the Cowboys, Elisha Manning returned to his home stadium where the Giants hosted an opening round playoff game against the Falcons. Eerie, right?
I don’t want to discourage anyone who found Tebow’s 316 yards inspiring. I’m the sort of person who believes that God speaks to people in all sorts of ways and that we see glimpses of the divine in all sorts of unexpected places. But let’s not get carried away.
Sports give us an abundance of numbers to play with, and if we go looking for a hidden divine message, we’ll probably be able to find it.