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Graeco-Roman Antiquities & the New Testament
There are things you can tell about an entire ocean even if you have only one cup of water from it. Naturally a scientist would like to have as many cups and as broad a sampling as possible, but even a single cup is of some help. The same is true when investigating the world of the New Testament. You can learn something even from one ancient document, though the explorer of the ancient world would like to have as many documents as possible.
I hope once a week to present a small sample of information that mirrors some aspect of the ancient world surrounding nascent Christianity.
The book of Revelation is awash with numbers, both small numbers (1) and large numbers (200,000,000), but the number given in Rev. 13:18 is one of the most controversial numbers in the book. Although we conservative believers profess a loyalty to the fruits of Bible archaeology, the ambiguity caused by archaeology concerning the beastly number in Rev. 13:18 could be an unwelcome discovery because of the millenarianism of so many fundamentalist and conservative believers. I refer of course to the fascination with and exploitation of the number 666 in Rev. 13:18. For a long time this number has possessed occult powers among superstitious Christians, since they punctiliously desire to avoid its presence in their addresses, automobile tags, room numbers, and social security numbers [if one reads FAQs on www.socialsecurity.gov it is clear that the US government refuses to assign a SS# that begins with 666].
|Portion of P115 from the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford
University. Used here for educational purposes.
As the last millennium was drawing to a close an important papyrus kept in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford was finally published, generations after it had been discovered. Although fragmentary, this papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (P. Oxy., vol. 66, no. 4499) is a rich find for the study of the Greek text of the book of Revelation. It contains sections of chapters 2; 3; 5; 6; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12; 13; 14; and 15. For those familiar with textual criticism of the New Testament, this late 3rd century papyrus is numbered P115 by the Institute for New Testament Textual Research in Münster, Germany. The importance of this archaeological discovery is that it confirms the early existence of the number “616” in an actual Greek copy of the book of Revelation as an alternate reading of the number 666. The Church Father Irenaeus mentions the existence of the number 616 in some manuscripts (Against Heresies, Book 5.30.1-3) of his day (AD 180), but rejects those manuscripts because of his preference for 666 based upon his personal numerological beliefs. Those believers who accept 616 out of ignorance will be forgiven, Irenaeus states, but those who prefer 616 in order to help them identify the “Antichrist” will come under the curse of Rev. 22:19 as false prophets and for “taking away” from Scripture. This testimony of Irenaeus ironically supports the case for the antiquity of this reading of 616 since he knows of its existence approximately one century earlier than the evidence provided by P115 itself.
Turning to this newly published resource for the study of Revelation, this papyrological evidence certainly pre-dates many of the manuscripts that are the basis for the reading “666” in Rev. 13:18. Based upon the general character of P115, one needs to consider the possibility that P115 represents the reading closest to the original text in Rev. 13:18. This means that John would have written, “Let the one who has understanding do the math on the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. And his number is six hundred and sixteen.”