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.
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?
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 …
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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.