Saturday, January 3, 2009

666: What's in a Number?

This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666. (Revelation 13:18 ESV)

Many of you know that there are New Testament manuscript families. When the original New Testament letters and books were written, and gathered together, possibly around the end of the first century, it appears that copies went to different regions. In those regions, copies of those manuscripts were made with some distinctive variations. The variations were not major changes. Many were copiest mistakes. Some changes were made to correct perceived grammatical errors. Other changes were made to smooth-out the reading of hard passages. Out of these regions, copies were made of these manuscripts that incorporated the changes. An excellent book on the topic by a world renown expert is Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament.

Two of the major manuscript lines are the Alexandrian and the Byzantine. The Alexandrian family of manuscripts tends to be more polished than the Byzantine family. Scholars have made a discipline of trying to figure out what the original text was of the New Testament was. They have made tremendous contributions which are reflected in all our modern Bibles, from the Revised Standard, the NIV, New American Standard, New King James, ESV, etc. One of the rules of thumb when you have variant readings in two manuscript families, like we have with the Byzantine and Alexandrian families, is to take the more primitive style of text. Here is how Revelation 13:18 is preserved in these two families (taken from the Parallel Greek New Testament Website):

Byzantine Majority
wde h sofia estin o ecwn noun yhfisatw ton ariqmon tou qhriou ariqmoV gar anqrwpou estin [kai] o ariqmoV autou [estin] cxs

wde h sofia estin o ecwn noun yhfisatw ton ariqmon tou qhriou ariqmoV gar anqrwpou estin kai o ariqmoV autou exakosioi exhkonta ex

The number 666 is written differently in these two manuscript families.

Byzantine Majority

exakosioi exhkonta ex

The Byzantine follows the ancient Greek way of writing numbers (cxs -- where c is the letter for 600, x is the letter for 60, and s is letter for 6). For a good discussion of the Greek numbering system, see the Ancient Greek Mathematics website of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Go to the paragraph that has "second ancient Greek number system" towards the middle of the page. The Alexandrian family writes the number in a long form, exakosioi exhkonta ex, where exakosioi literally means 6-hundreds, exhkonta literally means 6-tens, and ex is 6.

The left image shows a photograph of the Sinaticus, a very important Alexandrian family manuscript that is currently on display in the British Library (I saw it when it was housed in the British Museum). I have retouched the image to show the long form of the 666.

The oldest existing fragment of Revelation 13:18 is shown on the right. It is the P115 manuscript fragment (the picture is taken from the Wikipedia article on Papyrus 115). It was collected in the early 20th century, but it was only examined and cataloged at the end of the 20th century. The interesting thing about the manuscript is the number of the beast is 616, shown next to the red arrow -- an interesting variant to 666 which is in the vast majority of the other ancient Revelation manuscripts. While 616 is in the earliest Revelation manuscript, it does not necessarily mean that 616 was written by John in the original manuscript of Revelation. Most of the other manuscripts have 666, which could have been copied correctly from previous copies that were accurate in their copying of 666. P115, while copied early, the scribe could have made a mistake.

Beale has an interesting theory on the variation from 666 in P115. If the scribe producing P115 was working with a "Byzantine" manuscript with the number written as cxs, the central "digit" x (ksi) could have been written sloppily in the manuscript the scribe was copying from, it could have looked straight to him, like i (iota). The scribe would write cis in his copy, which is literally 616.

One further note on P115. Scholars consider this fragment to be Alexandrian in style, even though it inserts the number in the Byzantine way.

So what are we to make out of the 666? Here are some possibilities:

  1. The beast is Roman Emperor Nero. R.C. Sproul writes in The Last Days According to Jesus (pp. 186-189) that during the first century there was a game of making numbers out of people's names by summing up the digits associated with the letters in their name. We saw this above in how the number 666 was written in the short Byzantine style using the Greek letters. The same kind of number was practiced in Hebrew. Nero was known to be a brutal tyrant who killed many Christians in Rome. If you transliterate Emperor Nero from Greek into Hebrew, there is no clean fit because Hebrew does not have vowels. There are a variety of ways to fudge the name. One documented way that was found from the first century was "Nrwn Qsr" (pronounced Neron Kaiser). If you add the numbers represented by the letters Nrwn Qsr you get 666. The argument is that many first century Hebrew readers would have made that connection and identified the beast as Nero. However, according to G.K. Beale, Charles Hill, Vernon Poythress, it is not a slam dunk that the original readers associated Nero with the number of the beast. Many of the original audience of Revelation spoke Greek or Latin as their first language, and many did not know Hebrew. Further, Nrwn Qsr is just one of several "fudged" ways to transliterate the Greek Nero into Hebrew, and those other variations do not add up to 666. G.K. Beale writes: "None of the many solutions using gematria is ultimately satisfactory because there are so many names, ancient and modern, that come to 666. There are so many proposals because it is easy to turn a name into a number but hard to deduce the right name from a number." (G.K. Beale: The Book of Revelation, A Commentary on the Greek Text, Eerdmans, 1999, p. 721)

    R.C. Sproul also wrote about a possible other reason that 616 showed up in some manuscripts, which he got from the very respected scholar Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton (Sproul: The Last Days According to Jesus, p. 188): "Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Neron Caesar written in Hebrew characters (nrwn qsr) is equivalent to 666, whereas the Latin form Nero Caesar (nrw qsr) is equivalent to 616." In other words, the scribe copying the manuscript "updated" the text to his audience who were no longer Greek speaking, but spoke Latin instead. By transliterating the Latin Caesar Nero into Hebrew you get a spelling change that results in 616. An interesting theory, but I wonder why the scribe who created P115, copying a manuscript in Greek for obviously Greek readers, would use this kind of reasoning. Beale's reasoning above about how one letter can be mistaken for another is a simpler and more reasonable explanation.

  2. The number is symbolic of an unholy trinity. We can see this easily with our modern numbering system: 666. It is three sixes. Three in Revelation often was a symbolic reference to the Trinity. Seven is symbolic of perfection and completion (e.g. the seven spirits refers to the perfect Holy Spirit, seven days in a week). Six falls short of completion or perfection. In this section of Revelation John reveals a trinity of evil beings, the Dragon, the sea beast, and the false prophet. The 666 can play on that unholy trinity idea. The problem with this view is that 666 is a modern representation of the number. We can see in the short way of writing 666 in Greek is cxs. There is no repeated digits of six in this. This would seem to rule out this possible interpretation of 666.

    However, Irenaeus, in the second century, noted that cxs was 6 hundereds, 6 tens, and 6 ones -- which is similar to our view today. While cxs is not just thee sixes strung together, there is enough commonality in their viewpoint in looking at the number for them in the long "polished literary" way (exakosioi exhkonta ex) to see three sixes strung together, in much the same way we would today. So, it is very possible they could have seen that pattern. How were the Dragon, the sea beast, and the earth beast (the false prophet) counterfeits to the Trinity?

    • The Dragon wears crowns, claiming authority that does not belong to him.

    • The Dragon summons the Sea Beast in a way that mimics the Father calling the Son.

    • The Sea Beast has a fatal wound that mimics Christ's death and resurrection.

    • The Sea Beast summons the Earth Beast in a distorted imitation of Christ and the Father calling the Holy Spirit.

    • The Earth Beast causes people to worship the Sea Beast, in a distorted way that the Holy Spirit causes believers to worship Christ.

  3. 666 is visually a corrupted Christ Type. Tony Sisk wrote this as a comment in one of my blog entries in MetaSchema in a blog series where I was initially exploring the idea of 666 (It's All Greek to Me):

    I have enough knowledge of Greek to make me a danger to myself and the rest of Christendom, so to that I will not appeal.

    I would like to offer the view of my NT professor, Dr. Maurice Robinson, from seminary who holds to Byzantine priority. (This view certainly is not original!)

    The number '666' when written in Greek letters is Chi+Xi+Final Sigma, with a bar drawn over it to indicate it is a numeral. Elsewhere, certain “sacred names” like God, Jesus, Christ, Spirit, etc. are also abbreviated by their first and last letters with a bar over them.

    So Christ is abbreviated Chi+Final sigma. The only difference between the number abbreviation '666' and the abbreviation for Christ is the presence of Xi in the middle, and Xi is the most twisted and convoluted letter in the Greek alphabet, thus within the numeral '666' picturing someone who appears to be Christ outwardly, but who within is a serpent, thus the Antichrist in league with the devil.

    So, rather than a name of the beast that has to be calculated, the concept of “the number of his name” more accurately reflects his character.

    You can go here, scroll down to the eighteenth verse, and look under the heading "Byzantine Majority", though the line indicating it is an abbreviation of a sacred name is not present, it does plainly show the order of the letters.

    It is a compelling argument and one I have provided as I have taught through Revelation as a viable explanation. Just something else to chew on!

  4. Nero was a prototype of the Beast. In this view, it is recognized that Nero fit the 666 pattern in the ears and minds of the first audience to hear Revelation being read. But as many prophecies in the Old Testament spoke of a particular event and was echoed in other following events (such as some of the prophecies which ultimately referred to Christ but were initially fulfilled by a prior event), so this description of Nero sets the pattern of the type of person (or the government and state he ran) of the beasts to come.

  5. 666 refers to a beast in the future. Many Premillennialists, including many Historical Premillennialists (to be defined in a future entry) and all Dispensational Premillennialists (also to be defined in a future entry) believe this passage refers to a time a great future persecution by an entity or person in the future.

  6. All of the above. There is some truth to all of the above observations.

The last option is what I prefer. Revelation is a vastly rich book full of deep imagery inspired by the Holy Spirit for all of the age the church. To identify Nero as the period of the great persecution with no others to follow is to insult the Christians in the 20th century who were martyred in numbers much greater than ever before.

Trying to find a particular name that adds up to 666 and identify that person as the Beast misses what the text of Revelation is saying. Revelation is using symbolism. The number 666 itself is very suggestive as shown above.

Searching for the one Anti-Christ beast sometime in the future, or even in the past, misses that the spirit of Beast is present among us now. We live in a fallen world and the culture of this world is not to be identified with God's precepts. Sometimes the situation is very obvious. Hitler in Nazi Germany was very much a beast, an anti-Christ, as was Stalin. These people took the honor and glory reserved only for God. Each reflected the beast in some form, and Revelation is referring to these kind of people and oppressive governments. However, that is not the only story. Revelation 13:17 says, "no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark." We, in our Western culture, often sell ourselves to the consumer mentality. We desire more and more stuff and get addicted to buying and going into debt. How many people, Christians and otherwise, have huge credit card debt? How many foolishly borrow on cars, homes (with crazy sub-prime loans)? People who borrow become slaves to the lender. Perhaps the credit number is the mark of the beast for these people.

Looking for one person to be the 666 beast, either in the future, or in the past, is closing the eyes to the anti-Christs that are around us today. Anything that draws your heart away from fully serving Christ is a form of the anti-Christ. It can be blatant, like the Islamic countries that persecute and kill those who convert to Christianity. It can be much more subtle as not wanting to be thought of as an "intolerant" fundamentalist Christian. It can be allowing yourself to be enslaved to consumerism, debt, and not using your resources for advancing God's kingdom. As Revelation says, "Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus." (Revelation 14:12, ESV).

But also know this, if you are in Christ, you have been sealed by God. God's name is written on your forehead. You will be singing a new song before the throne of God that no one can learn except God's redeemed and elect. Because of that, you will heed the call to endure, not to enslave yourselves to the Beast, in whatever form it takes, and keep the commandments of God and your faith in Jesus.


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