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666 and Scribal Changes of the Text

I have received a number of queries about my post concerning the recently discovered papyrus P115 which indicates that the number of the Beast (the Antichrist) in Revelation 13 was 616 rather than 666.  Some of them I addressed in my post of yesterday.  But some readers have inquired about something slightly different: how do discoveries like this affect our translations of the New Testament?   Here is one of those questions and my respons.

 

QUESTION:

I thought the NIV Bible kept up-to-date with newer papyrus discoveries. Yet, it too shows 666 (and not 616) for REV 13:18. Why might that be?

 

RESPONSE:

Ah, good question.  When I indicated that the reading 616 is now found in an early manuscript, I did not mean to say that therefore it is more likely to be the reading that the author originally wrote.  That is a different question.

As is true for a lot of verses in the New Testament, different manuscripts have different wordings for this verse.  There are five different forms of the text known for the number of the Beast.  Three of them …

The rest of this post is for members only.  If you’re not a member, you’re dwelling in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Come inside, into the light!  It won’t cost much, and every penny goes to charity.

Three of them are simply different ways of writing 666 in Greek; one of them is 665 (kind of weird, but it’s found in only one manuscript of the 11th century, and must be just a mistake); and the other is the aforementioned 616.

Textual scholars who deal with this kind of situation – where different manuscripts read different things — are interested both in the question of what the author more likely write and why someone might have changed the text.   On the latter question, the vast (VAST!) majority of scribal changes are completely inconsequential and usually just accidental – for example, misspelled words, slips of the pen, or other sloppy mistakes.   Of the only meaningful and significant variations in this case, the choice is really between 666 and 616.

The alteration (whichever of the two numbers represents the scribal change) is meaningful because of what I discussed in the previous post.  It has long been thought by scholars of the Apocalypse that the Antichrist figure being discussed is the emperor Nero come back from the dead.  There was an ancient Christian tradition – found, for example, in those fascinating books called the Sybilline Oracles – that Nero, the first emperor to persecute Christians in a horrible way, would come back to life and wreak havoc on earth at the end of time (which was believed to be near).  It is striking, as I indicated in that post, that if you spell Caesar Nero in Hebrew letters, the letters add up to 666.  But there is an optional “n” at the end of his name, and if you take away the “n” the letters add up to 616.

So which did the author write?  So far as I know, there is not a huge debate about this among textual specialists.   Of all the manuscripts of Revelation, only two of them read 616 (our newly found papyrus and a manuscript of the fifth century).  All the others read 666:  except for that weird 11th century manuscript, and even *that* manuscript suggests that the scribe who made the mistake was copying a manuscript that said 666, since he more likely accidently changed just one letter – the final six – rather than two letters – the second letter and the third, both of them sixes.

666 is not only most widely attested by a large margin, it is the reading in our very oldest manuscript of Revelation, P47, from the 3rd century (older than the newly discovered P115).

Moreover, there is a kind of symbolism in 666 lacking in 616.  As you probably know, the number 7 is seen in the Bible as the perfect number, the number of God.  This is based on ancient appreciation of the number: there are 7 planets, 7 heavens, 7 days of the week, and so on.   The number 6, on the other hand, is a highly imperfect number, one less than 7, and is the number of humans (one step lower than the divine).  And what is 666?  Three sixes.  The culmination of inferior, imperfect, sinful humanity.

In all likelihood, then, the number of the Antichrist was originally given as 666, and some scribes, knowing that it referred to Nero, and thinking that his name would better be spelled without the final “n”, gave it instead as 616.


Why Do Translators Include Passages They Know Are Not Original?
More on 666: The Number of the Beast: A Blast from the Past

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Comments

  1. saeed319  November 7, 2017

    Would I be correct in believing the actual dating of P47 and P115 is DISPUTED between Biblical scholars. Therefore, today it is impossible to know whether REV 13:18 was originally “666” or “616”? Both are 50/50 equal possibilities?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      You’re right that it is impossible to know for an absolute, incontrovertible fact. But it’s not at all 50/50. There are lots of considerations that go into a textual decision, and in this case virtually all the indications point in one direction.

  2. rivercrowman  November 7, 2017

    Just pre-ordered Bart’s next book on Amazon “The Triumph of Christianity.” Can’t wait!

    • Wilusa  November 8, 2017

      Thanks for letting us know that’s possible now! I went directly there and pre-ordered it.

  3. saavoss  November 7, 2017

    When/how did the idea of the Antichrist go from being understood as Nero, Satan or the son of Satan (as Jesus is the son of God)? And is there a difference between Satan and Lucifer?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      Satan and Lucifer are different figures in the Bible. I’m not familiar with the idea that the AntiChrist is Satan (he’s clearly not in the Bible). And I don’t know when the idea of “son of Satan” appeared. So, basically, I’m of no use to you!

  4. ardeare  November 7, 2017

    In other news, if any world leader is able to broker a peace deal between Israel and the Arabs…………………I hope it’s not a seven-year deal or two billion people are going to freak out.

  5. talmoore
    talmoore  November 7, 2017

    For a while I was trying to find a gematrial explanation for 666, but then recently the thought occured to me was this is the sum of the first six Roman numerals: I=1, V=5, X=10, L=50, C=100, and D=500. 1+5+10+50+100+500=666. Is this just a coincidence? Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think this is what 666 is refering to. I think it is a reference to the Roman Empire by way of their counting system. And, possibly, the reason the author of Revelation believes the reader would get this reference is that right around this period the Roman numerals became strongly associated with Roman rule. What would cause such an association? Maybe a Roman reform that forced Greeks to use Roman numerals — possibly in their financial records or government documents. So I skimmed the history from Vespasian to Hadrian — the time when Revelation was likely written — looking for reforms that may have involved Greeks being forced to adopt Roman numerals, but, alas, I have yet to find any recorded reforms that fit this theory. But I did notice that a couple Emperors are associated with important civil reforms; namely, Domitian and Hadrian. A more exhaustive search would probably be necessary, but who has time for that? If anyone were to find any such reform in the history of that period, however, that would probably pin-point, within only a few years, the year when Revelation was actually composed.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      I haven’t dug deeply into the various explanations over the years (as I indicated, there are probably 666 of them), but I don’t recall having heard that one. Interesting!

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 8, 2017

        Alas, I haven’t researched deeply enough into the Book of Revelation or that period in Roman History to adequately prove this hypothesis, but the little that I do know does point to this being a potential solution. If 666 is a reference to the Roman numeral system, it might explain why the author talks about everyone receiving the “charagma” of “the beast” on their palms and foreheads. They’re required to conduct all financial transactions using Roman numerals (no one can buy or sell without having the mark) and Roman coinage, having Roman letters, will imprint those marks on people’s palms as they hold them. Moreover, those Greeks forced to use Roman currency are compelled to use Roman coins in the tradition of Charon’s Obol, where coins are placed on or in the mouth of the recently deceased, to use as payment across the river Styx. The mark on the “forehead” may be a reference to this practice, possibly a reference to the same practice but with the coin placed over the eyes rather than in the mouth. Anyhow, as I said, I think there’s something to this hypothesis, but who has the time to really dig into it?

      • talmoore
        talmoore  November 9, 2017

        I went back and looked at my notes and I misremembered the Emperors that had major financial reforms. They were, rather, Domitian and Trajan. (Indeed, Hadrian’s reforms were directed toward greater Hellenization!) Domitian, in particular, was known to severely enforce the Fiscus Iudaicus, which, I presume, is one reason why many scholars think Revelation was written during his reign. But it was during Trajan’s reign that the Empire imposed the so-called Correctores, Roman officials whose job it was to “correct” the Greek city-states under Roman control. Part of this act of “correction,” apparently, involved monitoring and auditing the finances of these Greek cities, which may have involved forcing Greek treasurers to keep their records using Roman numerals. And if city officials had to keep records using Roman numerals, then so did local merchants. And if local merchants used Roman numerals, then so did their customers, and so on. This may be the reform that is alluded to in Revelation’s 666 line. Who knows? But if it is a reference to Trajan’s reforms, that might explain the reference to the first Beast ruling for 3 and a half years. Though Trajan’s predecessor Nerva was only Emperor for a little over a year, the author of Revelation may be misremembering how long (or short) Nerva actually ruled. Anyhow, like I said, who has the time to confirm this hypothesis?

  6. Wilusa  November 7, 2017

    What did the ancients take the “7 planets” to be? They presumably wouldn’t have defined “planet” as we do, or thought of Earth itself as being one. Would they have called the Sun and Moon “planets”? Along with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn?

  7. cheito
    cheito  November 7, 2017

    Hello DR Ehrman:

    I haven’t been online for over a month because I had no internet. I’m living in Puerto Rico. Thank God I’m okay. My home is OK. The hurricane, ‘Maria’, didn’t do as much damage in my area as it did in other parts of the Island. I didn’t have electricity for 37 days. Anyway just wanted to let you know.

    I have a lot of catching up to do here on your blog.

    ~Cheito-

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      We’re all so sorry about PR, and the ongoing, horrific difficulties. Keep safe and well.

  8. john76  November 7, 2017

    Note too that the Noble Lie in Book 2 of Plato’s “Laws” is told in section 666 (666 a-c). The New Testament writer may have been alluding to Plato’s idea of the pierced, just man (Republic 2, 362 a). It may be that Socrates was lying to get himself killed as a martyr for his ethical cause. Socrates’ last words were “Let us give a rooster to Aesclepius,” implying that the poison he took was a cure for life. Maybe the point of the Anti-Christ is to argue Jesus, like Socrates, wanted to die a martyr’s death. Maybe Jesus wanted to die a well known death so his disciples could immediately start telling the noble lie of his resurrection appearances in hopes of creating a better world. The question is, what did the New Testament writers think the Anti-Christ could say or do that would put the Jesus movement in jeopardy?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      666 in the Laws is simply the modern editorial editing. The Antichrist would oppose, persecute (and execute) Christians

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 8, 2017

      Wow, that is a really, really specific theory.

  9. dragonfly  November 7, 2017

    What is the significance of the beast being allowed to exercise authority for 42 months in v5?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      Symbolic number. Three and a half years, one half of the perfect number seven.

  10. maodell  November 8, 2017

    Hi Bart,
    I enjoyed your articles on the textual differences regarding 666, I wasn’t aware of the 616. I just wanted to query one small thing though. You mention seven planets. Strictly speaking only five planets were known in those times (not including Earth). I assume the other two are the Moon and Sun? I wasn’t aware that the ancients regarded them as planets.

  11. turbopro  November 8, 2017

    Prof, another couple of off-topic questions please:

    From E. P. Sanders’, “Paul: The apostle’s life, letters, and thought,” he posits the following understandings, where I wonder if these are widely held:

    1. that “many people who now accept body/soul dualism do not know that it is Greek rather than Jewish in origin[,]”

    and, that

    2. “[r]esurrection was originally a Persian (Zoroastrian) conception.”

    • turbopro  November 8, 2017

      Forgot to mention that for item 2, Sanders referenced Mary Boyce, “Persian Religion in the Achemenid Age,” in Cambridge History of Judaism, ed. W. D. Davis and Louis Finkelstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 1:301; Shaul Shaked, “Iranian Influence on Judaism: First Century b.c.e. to Second Century c.e.,” in Cambridge History of Judaism, 1:323.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      Both views are indeed widely held among scholars, though the second has been called into doubt in recent years.

  12. Tm3  November 8, 2017

    Is it possible that Jesus adopted his name when he started his ministry?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      Do you mean that he was originally called something other than Jesus? There is no evidence of this that I’m aware of.

      • Wilusa  November 8, 2017

        I certainly don’t have any evidence of it either! But I did use the idea in a piece of (fan) fiction, and it’s possible others have thought of it too.

        The idea I used: His original name was Hosea. But he and his followers knew Moses had supposedly told an earlier Hosea to change his name to Yehoshua (“Joshua”). So this Hosea, possibly at the urging of his followers, changed *his* name to the Aramaic equivalent, Yeshua (“Jesus”).

        Of course, I know Yeshua was an extremely common name!

  13. SidDhartha1953  November 8, 2017

    It’s easy to read a clear symbolism of imperfection in 666 (as opposed to 777) when numerals are written using decimal place value, but DCLXVI versus DCCLXXVII (I use the example of Roman numeration because I don’t know the Hebrew letters or their values) doesn’t say much, except 666 uses less ink and fits on smaller foreheads than 777. Are interpreters reading something back into the text that just isn’t there? Did the authors of the NT have a decimal system of any sort at their disposal?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      They are the same number of letters in the Greek. No, they did not use decimals.

      • SidDhartha1953  November 9, 2017

        But there is something about the representations of the two numbers that leads to a perception of repeated sixes and sevens?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 12, 2017

          Yes, one is a repetition of sixes and the other of sevens.

  14. jdh5879  November 8, 2017

    This discussion has touched on a pet peeve of mine. The term Antichrist does not appear in the book of Revelation. It is my understanding that Irenaeus combined the Beast from the Sea from Revelation, the Lawless Man from 2 Thessalonians and gave it (him) the name Antichrist from 1,2 John. He invented a character that is not really in the Bible. If my understanding is incorrect, I am sure Bart can set me straight.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      I doubt if Irenaeus himself came up with it. In any event, for the Johannine epistles “the” antichrist is actually a group of people. The word, of course, simply means “opposed to Christ.” It later came to be a technical term used in an eschatological sense.

  15. Eric  November 13, 2017

    Of course there were exactly seven planets, because there are seven holes in the human head.

    Paraphrasing a theologian in one of Eco’s books.

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