All Greek To Me

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On Slashdot recently we had an article about recently discovered Greek New Testament manuscripts, and how they were able to be decoded. And so many people made such grand sweeping statements about what this could mean. I want to call them amateurs, but they are not even knowledgable enough to be amateurs. I'm an amateur, they are just completely full of it.

I came across a nice example of this recently, when someone sent me this brief article, which reads:

A newly discovered fragment of the oldest surviving copy of the New Testament indicates that, as far as the Antichrist goes, theologians, scholars, heavy metal groups, and television evangelists have got the wrong number. Instead of 666, it's actually the far less ominous 616.

A more complete article goes into greater detail. But many details are missing.

For example, it says what the more traditional versions say ("six hundred threescore and six"), but not what this version, Oxyrhynchus, says (actually given in numerals). It also doesn't say why Oxyrhynchus should be considered more authoritative: any first-year student of textual criticism can tell you age is not the only factor.

And perhaps worst of all, it quotes someone who has a certain theological bent, who doesn't think of Revelations as prophecy about the end times, who is therefore predisposed to want it to say something other than what more traditional theologians think it says. And they don't quote any alternative view.

But the real story is more interesting, and less sensational. And it is not new. An article in Tyndale Bulletin by Peter Head from five years ago mentions that Oxyrhynchus uses the 616 number, and actually gives us some background.

First, we know that 616 is not a new variant. Ephraemi Rescriptus ("C", from the fifth century) had it, though it was written differently. And predating any of these manuscripts is St. Irenaeus of the second century, who dismissed the various copies containing "616" as transcription errors. If age is the most important thing, we have records of Irenaeus older than this manuscript using "666" as the number.

Head notes that a Hebrew transliteration of Nero's name from Greek to Hebrew actually changes the calculus from "666" to "616," which might also explain why in Oxyrhynchus the number is in Roman numerals instead of written out in letters, like the more traditional version; perhaps someone redid the math to match the name of the assumed referent, and then wrote it out in numbers because it was simpler.

Codex Sinaiticus is considered by many to be the most authoritative text we have. It has the "666" rendering. P100, the manuscript from Oxyrhynchus, is maybe 100 years older. But age is not everything, and sometimes, it is nothing. We've been studying Sinaiticus for 146 years, and Oxyrhynchus for less than 10.

P100 has a long way to go if it is to be given primacy merely because it is older, especially considering the lack of historical support (e.g., via Irenaeus) and textual support (the variant is quite uncommon). This discovery does grant more credence to the "616" rendering than it had before, but only very slightly, and not nearly enough to overthrow the historical and textual support "666" has.

Again, I am an amateur at this, so I could be totally wrong. But if nothing else, it's not hard to see why so many people who have comments on this topic really shouldn't be saying anything at all, because they have no clue about any of it.

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<pudge/*> (pronounced "PudgeGlob") is thousands of posts over many years by Pudge.

"It is the common fate of the indolent to see their rights become a prey to the active. The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance; which condition if he break, servitude is at once the consequence of his crime and the punishment of his guilt."

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This page contains a single entry by pudge published on May 6, 2005 10:11 AM.

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