MTV is reporting that legions of metalheads might have to switch up their number of the beast – from 666 to 616 – according to a recently found manuscript of Revelation. According to the article
The recent 616 discovery, which was found in a collection of documents recovered in Egypt, isn’t exactly a whole new revelation. While it dates back the furthest, other ancient manuscripts of the Book of Revelation have the number as 616 instead of 666, provoking some debate in the past as to which were the original digits. Both Greek and Hebrew letters have numeric values that can be added up to arrive at a total. One common explanation of 666 is that it comes from the numerical value of “Nero” transliterated into Hebrew letters. A small change in the transliteration can result in 616.
Many scholars believe that 666 won out because it is derived from a more complex formula and also because it’s simply more catchy. “Six hundred sixty-six looks like a more memorable number than 616,” said David Parker, a New Testament professor at the University of Birmingham in England. “Six hundred sixty-six steadily took over, and the alternative was forgotten until modern scholars in the past 200 years started to look at more manuscripts and to find ones that had been lost.”
Exactly – we’ve known about 616 for awhile now. In fact, there was a great essay about it back in 1999 in Bible Review called Why 2K? The Biblical Roots of Millennialism where author James Tabor explains:<
In Hebrew, each of the 22 letters of the alphabet has a numerical value. A code called gematria, developed in Jewish apocalyptic and mystical circles, draws connections between two otherwise unrelated words based on the total numerical value of the letters in each word.*** Nero’s name or title in Hebrew looks like this: (NRON QSR), meaning Nero Caesar. Taking the value of the Hebrew letters, N=50, R=200, O=6, N=50, Q=100, S=60, R=200, one comes up with the sum of 666. To make this identification of the beast with Nero even more convincing, it should be noted that some Greek manuscripts of Revelation give the number 616 rather than 666 – probably due to an alternative spelling of Nero as NRO rather than NRON (666 minus the final N [=50] gives 616).
A similar system of gematria was common in Greek.**** For example, a bit of graffiti at Pompeii reads, “I love her whose number is 545” (letters phi-mu-epsilon in Greek, probably someone’s initials).
If we write Nero’s title in Greek, it looks like this:-NERO CAESAR. The value of the Greek letters totals 1,332, which seems to lack significance-until one realizes that 1,332 is in fact 666 times 2. The author of Revelation is apparently signaling to the astute reader that Nero is the model of the Antichrist; since he has come and gone, however, a second “Nero” is to come-in his mind, very possibly the emperor Domitian-who will also persecute Christians. It is probably not coincidental that the Roman numerals-I (1), V (5), X (10), L (50), C (100), D (500)-also add up to 666! Rome and its most wicked emperors seem to be stamped all over these beasts of Revelation 13. In contrast, it was certainly not lost on early Christians that the gematria for the name and title “Jesus Christ” in Greek-IESOUS-adds up to 888, which in this system of thought signifies something beyond seven, or completion.
Biblioblogger, Ed Cook, at Ralph the Sacred River adds
For laypeople, I want to emphasize these points: (1) the most likely reading of the number in Revelation 13:18 is still “666”; (2) the reading “616” has in fact been known for many years, and even the new papyrus has been known since the 1990’s; (3) the variation between “666” and “616” does not materially affect the interpretation of the book of Revelation. In short, the reading “616” is mainly interesting to textual critics of the New Testament and is unlikely to make a change in anyone’s Bible or beliefs.
It’s not that uncommon for older manuscripts to have different wording – see Lost Christianities or In the Beginning: Story of the King James Bible for some examples of how what we know as the “Bible” has evolved over time.