As a professor of New Testament whose specialty is textual criticism, I was particularly interested in Chris Wattie’s piece, “Beast’s real mark devalued to ‘616’” (May 4, 2005). However, I noticed several errors in the essay, some of which I know from first-hand knowledge of the manuscript in question.
First, the papyrus fragment is not 1500 years old. It is closer to 1700+ years old.
Second, the fragment was not so badly discoloured that scholars could not make out the wording without sophisticated imaging equipment. Such equipment–such as multi-spectral imaging (MSI)–is often used on manuscripts that are in very bad shape.
This fragment, however, is part of a score of other fragments which span nine chapters in the book of Revelation. It is about the size of a postage stamp. No imaging equipment was needed to make out its wording.
I saw the fragment two years ago at the Ashmolean Museum of Oxford University. It was published over five years ago; just now it is making its way into popular literature as though it were a new discovery. When I looked at the fragment, the curator had to slice open its case because the verse in question (Revelation 13.18) was on the backside. He told me that no one had asked to see the fragment since it had been published. I looked at it under a microscope to make sure that the wording had not been tampered with. But even with the naked eye, it was quite legible.
Fourth, I don’t know who Ellen Aitken is, nor Elijah Dann, but it seems that Wattie did not interview textual critics for this piece. Aitken makes the astounding claim that “it now seems that 616 was the original number of the beast.”
Actually, the verdict is not in on this one yet. I am inclined to the view that the original wording here was 616, but a lot of work is needed to determine this. Although this is the earliest fragment for this portion of Revelation, the fragment’s textual affinities and general reliability still need to be examined fully.
Further, the number 616 was known in antiquity and was discarded in the second century. Irenaeus, the patristsic commentator, wrote a chapter on the number of the beast, arguing that in the better manuscripts of Revelation that he had seen the number was 666 instead of 616.
To be sure, his perspective was theologically motivated (he gave the interpretation of 666 as striving for perfection [represented by the number 7] but never able to achieve it). But the fact that he was writing in the second century tells us that BOTH numbers existed at that time.
It may well have been Irenaeus’ input that caused scribes to alter the text to 666 if 616 was in the exemplar that they used. But the point here is that one cannot simply appeal to the earliest manuscript and assume that the case is settled. Textual criticism is not done in such a simplistic manner. Date is indeed important, but there are several other factors involved.
We are currently conducting several tests to determine whether 616 is indeed the number of the beast. If so, it will certainly have interesting (though fairly benign) implications. But this is neither as sensational nor as certain as the article made it out to be. I would urge a bit more caution in representing this discipline.
Daniel B. Wallace, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts