Lecture 25: Textual Criticism
Course: Why We Trust Our Bible
Lecture: Textual Criticism
I. What is textual criticism?
Textual Criticism is the combination of both foundational science and an art for the research of any ancient literature whose original is lost. When it comes to Greco-Roman literature, there are no originals. It was considered to be the scholarly task of all scholars who worked on any kind of ancient literary text to be the first task they should do. Now, we have textual critics who have been around for a long time and so normal exegesis scholars and even professors of Greek New Testament that just rely on these texts. The goal of textual criticism for any ancient literature is to try and get back to the original wording of a text whose original no longer exists or we don’t know where it is. And for the New Testament, it is for our New Testament. We don’t have the originals anymore, they disappears by the end of the 2nd century because they were copied so much. There is also a secondary goal of looking at the variants throughout history as kind of a social window on Christian communities that created the text for their own reasons. When you think about textual criticism, you think in terms of two divisions of evidence. One is called external evidence and the other is internal evidence. External evidence is the materials that are out there, which are broken into three different groups: Greek manuscripts, versions or translations of the text in other languages and quotations of the text by the Church Fathers. The Church Fathers wrote in Greek and Latin and some wrote in Syriac. These three groups give us a massive amount of evidence and this has been dubbed an embarrassment of riches when it comes to New Testament texts.
II. What are external criteria and what are some examples?
When you think about external evidence of these three groups, there are three ways to attack this evidence. The first way is in regards to the date and character of the manuscript; so we try to establish the age of the manuscript and generally speaking, the older the manuscript, the fewer copies between it and the original, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes manuscripts go back hundreds of years to a single copy. There is also the character of the manuscript; the question whether the scribe was careless or careful? The character also refers to the manuscript being copied from, whether the previous scribe was careless or careful. Two Germans, Kurt and Barbara Aland, wrote a book called, The Text of the New Testament. This has been a standard for many years now. In it, they distinguish between a careful tradition and a careful scribe. If you have a careful scribe in a careful tradition that is a winning situation and what we really like to see. So, that is date and character; then you look at genealogical solidarity which has to do with the manuscripts within a particular textual family and how much they agree on a particular variant?
III. What are text families, and what does it mean to weigh, not count, manuscripts?
You can see that these manuscripts fit into clusters that we might call families, they used to be called text types, but now that term is kind of passé. They go back to what may be called a regional original. It doesn’t mean that it was a recension or something like that. In different areas of the Mediterranean world, they would have certain ways of copying. And so, we see at least three different groups of manuscripts. The largest group is known as the Byzantine, and then there is the Alexandrian and finally, the Western. So when you are looking at genealogical solidarity, you are looking at the solidarity of those manuscripts that belong to the Western text form or the Alexandrian or the Byzantine. Since you don’t have the local originals of those, you are trying to determine the wording of that original. So for example, if you had ten manuscripts that talked about a football game between the L.A. Rams and the Dallas Cowboys and it said in nine of these manuscripts that the L.A. Rams beat the Dallas Cowboys forty-nine to nothing. But the tenth manuscript says the opposite and that tenth manuscript came from Dallas while the other nine was produced all over the country, you would think that you had some genealogical solidarity where one was motivated to change the text. This is genealogical solidarity within a group.
Then you have geographical distribution which is where it is spread out in a different region. Let say you had a Church Father from the 3rd century in Antioch or Alexandria and then you have a manuscript from the 3rd century from another part of the world. And then you have a version from Rome also from the 3rd century. You have this Mediterranean region, that is spread out and they all have the same wording. That tells us that this could not have happened by collusion because they are too distant. So they must go back to an earlier manuscript. The goal of textual criticism is to try to get back to the original text and the best way to do that is by the confluence of thinking through genealogical solidarity, geographical distribution and date and character of manuscripts. One of these readings is the original and the others are derived from that one either directly or indirectly. This brings us to internal evidence.
IV. What are internal criteria, what are some examples?
Internal criteria have two categories: intrinsic probability and transcriptional. Intrinsic evidence is not resting with the material itself but the text that is in the material, the wording of the material. Intrinsic evidence has to do with what the Biblical author has likely to have written. Transcriptional has to do with what the scribe has likely to have done. And we know what the scribes did by the errors they made in the text and the changes that they made. There is a whole catalogue of these and we’ve discussed a few of them unintentionally. There are fifteen to twenty different kinds of errors. One classical scholar said that the scribes could have made an unimaginable number of errors because scribes do. So there are some that we simply can’t explain which may be due to fatigue or some other reason. So, intrinsic evidence involves what the author would have likely written? And we are comparing what he says in one place, both with what he says elsewhere and this is compared to his vocabulary, his syntax, his style, his theological perspective and the context. Then we look at transcriptional probability and these sometimes go against each other. If the scribes knew the author well, they would sometimes want to change the wording of a manuscript, their exemplar, to conform to what they think the author said elsewhere. Let me give a simple illustration. In Mark’s Gospel, we have what is called the historical present. That is the used of the present indicative for a past tense; and with the most common verb which is legi, ‘he says’. We have one hundred and fifty one historical presents in the Gospel of Mark. Proportionally, it is far more than any other Gospel. So a scribe comes along and sees the ‘he said’ in the past tense. He may, subconsciously, well, Mark’s style is to put in legi and so he may even consciously do this. If he is copying several words at a time, he looks at his exemplar, holds it in memory while writing it out with very archaic pens where he must keep re-dipping the pen into ink, and so he may have forgotten the exact words.
So we have variants like that which conform to the author’s style but sometimes only found in a few manuscripts and so it maybe a scribal error. Transcription events often show us the same thing as the author’s style. But that is also an error which the scribes make. They do those things that are not quite so subtle but are much more frequent for the author’s style. Another illustration; in John 1:18, we read, ‘no one has seen God at any time. The unique one, himself God, has revealed him,’ or it says, ‘no one has seen God at any time. The one and only Son has revealed him.’ So, is it ‘the unique one, himself God,’ or ‘the one and only Son?’ In Greek the difference is only one word; both variants have monogenes which is the word ‘unique’ or ‘one and only’ and it can be used as a noun so it could be ‘the one and only one’ or ‘the unique one’ or it can be used as an adjective. Most manuscripts have ‘Son’ after that, some manuscripts have ‘God’ (as in, monogenes theos) after that. It can read, ‘the unique one, himself God’ or ‘the unique Son.’ Now the difference between those two words, God and Son is actually just two letters in Greek. But some manuscripts, in fact, some older manuscripts have a difference of one letter. This would be a sacred name that was abbreviated with a bar over it and they would typical just put the first and last letter. You would have beta, epsilon, sigma and epsilon sigma. So, it is possible that scribes could have made a mistake by seeing that. Yet, at the same time, we never see elsewhere in John’s Gospel, ‘the unique one, himself God.’ It is always monogenes uios (begotten Son), not just in John but we see this in 1st John as well. Scribes who knew John’s letters and his Gospel intimately would naturally change God to Son. This is the only place in his Gospel and his letters where you have that as a variant, but it is a very ancient variant. It is found in some of our oldest manuscripts. It is found in two early papyri and it is also found in codex Sinaiticus as well as in some Latin manuscripts and others. So it has the early evidence, and the date and character all seems to fit. It has evidence in many places in different regions, geographical distribution fits and when you look at the internal evidence, a scribe would be tempted to change it to Son, instead of God because they would do that elsewhere from John. And the intrinsic evidence argues that in the Johannes prologue which starts out by calling Jesus Christ, God, there is an inclusio where he starts out by saying one thing and ends by saying the same thing; ‘the unique one, himself God,’ really fits. Again, the very fact that you don’t have variants elsewhere for the unique Son tells us why scribes would create it here. This must go back to the original; this is how I would understand that.
In putting this all together, if one exemplar, a regional original is copied in a scriptorium, this is what they do for their living, and it has for example, twenty copies made directly from that manuscript. It then gets assimilated out to the Mediterranean world and another exemplar of the same age has two copies because it is in a poor scriptorium or maybe twenty copies were made but most of them were destroyed by the Muslim invasion which really happened or by fire or something else. Those twenty copies that exist from that one exemplar would not be worth twenty votes while the other one would only be worth two votes. Each of them is worth one vote, that regional original. And what we do know is that the Byzantine manuscripts look so much like each other, and they are the later manuscripts which are made up of eighty to ninety percent of the manuscripts. We know of a couple of periods where they edited them highly and it may go back to some kind of regional original or a transmission stream of regional originals. But that doesn’t mean that therefore if I have a thousand manuscripts that say one thing and then four manuscripts that say something different; that is a thousand votes is compared to four votes.
You weigh manuscripts, you don’t count them. You weigh it in terms of its date and character and how it fits into its text form and the internal evidence of, whether or not it looks like it has superior readings. This is one of the things that the scholars, Westcott and Hort, did back in 1881. They wrote a book that was a game-changer, Greek New Testament. Then they wrote another volume on the introduction and an appendix that fit this. Hort spent twenty-eight years of research on this project. What he discovered was that if you look at manuscripts and you see places where you have moral certainty as to what the original wording is, that this wording must have given rise to wording over here. Over and over, he would look at the manuscripts and be surprised every time. It happened to be both the codex Sinaiticus and codex Vaticanus that typically had those readings. He started by looking at the internal evidence and perhaps seven out of ten places, he said that this was what the original must have said and then he researched which manuscripts had that. That wasn’t exactly his method but you get the idea. So he says that these are the manuscripts that we know we have the original in this place. In three out of ten places it is much harder to tell what the original was. It could be this or it could be that; the internal evidence could go either way. So that is when you have to rely on the manuscripts that have a proven pedigree. And that is why manuscripts are weighed instead of counted.
V. What does the phrase ‘more difficult’ reading mean?
Let me give one other illustration. We have over ten thousand manuscripts in Latin from the handwritten time up until the time of the printing press. The vast majority of them are copies of the Vulgate that we know that Gerome produced in that late 4th and early 5th century. That means that they all go back to one manuscript. It is not ten thousand copies that go back to the earliest 2nd-century form of the Latin New Testament; most of these are copies of the late 4th or early 5th-century document. We see that about Jerome, but many people don’t seem to recognize that about the Byzantine text which go back to an earlier form. We don’t have evidence of the Byzantine text existing at all before the 4th century. One of the key criteria for determining what the original wording of the New Testament in any one given place is the more difficult reading being preferred to the easier reading; this has been a principle in place for hundreds of years now.
By ‘more difficult’, we mean that it is particularly more difficult in terms of the syntax; it might not be as explanatory or as clear, it may even be more ambiguous. Those are the issues that tell us that, but a reading can be more difficult in the sense that it looks like nonsense. That would be the most difficult reading. And so this principle implies that we are only dealing with readings where one variant is intentional changed from the other. So for example, when the New Testament authors quote from the Septuagint or the Old Testament, the more difficult reading would be the one that doesn’t quote it exactly as we have it in our Septuagint. Why would a scribe change it that way? Scribes would want to conform to that of the Septuagint. A more difficult reading when it comes to the Gospels would be those that don’t harmonize compared to those that do. Those are the kinds of things that constitute more difficult readings and they should be preferred unless you can come up with an unintentional reading for why it came about.
VI. Is it more likely that scribes added to or subtracted from the manuscripts? Why?
The Scribes did add things intentionally, but when they left things out, it was usually unintentionally, but not necessarily always. Consequently, if there was an intentional change, those are the ones that are the most difficult to detect because make sense. But when a scribe leaves something out, those don’t typically make sense as much as when you drop a word that was necessary for the context. So, we would say that scribes, as far as intentional variants are concerned, tented to add; scribes rarely tented to omit intentionally. A good place where that happened is in Matthew 27:16-17 where Pilate says, ‘whom shall I release to you, Barabbas or Jesus, the one who is called Christ?’ There are a few manuscripts, an important group of them, that says ‘whom shall I release to you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the one who is called Christ?’ And most manuscripts omit the name Jesus before Barabbas; there is an intentional reason for this; they don’t want that name associated with a criminal. And even Origen, a brilliant textual critic in the 3rd century, makes a stupid comment about this that no evil person was ever be named Jesus. So, in a place where scribes didn’t intentionally omitted material but instead typically intentionally added explanatory material; they will add whole verses; we have talked about John 5 verse 4 which was explanatorily based on the long version of the explanation of the crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda. But it wasn’t really what was going on at the Pool of Bethesda. They would sometimes add more than one version, and there are two places where they added twelve verses. This is the basic thing we see with these scribes.
However, let me add this as well; the New Testament is a very conservatively copied book. Because over the fourteen hundred years of copying before the time of the printing press, it has grown in the Greek New Testament approximately by two percent. That is how much more material that has been added to it. If you take a snowball and role it down a hill, it will become larger. So, what we are trying to do with the New Testament is to burn off the dross to get to the gold and that means that we are getting rid of these extra verses that were added, but it is only two percent more material over a period of fourteen hundred years. No economist would say that is a good investment. It hasn’t changed that much but it has changed. There are two passages that quite likely involve textual variance. One is at the ending of Mark’s Gospel. It either ends at Mark 16 verse 8 or at Mark 16 verse 20. That is a difference of twelve verses. There are actually five different endings that have been used to end Mark’s Gospel. If it ends at verse 8, then what we have is that the angel told the women to go and tell the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee and they did nothing because they were afraid. So, if this is correct, the Gospel seems to end somewhat incomplete or negatively as some would think. Mark’s Gospel is the only Gospel, if this is the case, that doesn’t have a resurrection appearance by Jesus. In all four Gospels, he is raised from the dead but in Mark’s Gospel at verse 8 we don’t yet have him witnessed by any of the other disciples. So, I would say that it was a natural development for scribes to want to add some kind of resurrection appearance. And so there were different endings that were added to this. But the ending that finally made it, which was produced very early in the 2nd or 3rd decade of the 2nd century, is the one that had these twelve verses. And the vast majority of manuscripts today have verses 9-20. We only have two Greek manuscripts that don’t. But when you look at other ancient versions, you see that a number of them don’t have that long ending or they have the short ending before the long ending. They usually don’t show this short ending and especially if they have the longer ending put in.
We have Church Fathers like Eusebius and Gerome and Victor of Antioch who tell us something about the development of the text. In the early 4th century, Eusebius was producing these Bibles for Constantine and he talked about the end of Mark’s Gospel. He says, ‘I have found virtually no manuscripts that have anything after verse 8.’ (Obviously he didn’t say verse 8 as the numbering system had not been used at that time.) There are few manuscripts later, but Eusebius canonized the Gospel of Mark to this point, that is at verse 8. They will put it into the margin, but they will say that others have this. So, even a lot of manuscripts that have the longer ending will refer to Eusebius’s canonization up to verse 8. So, in his day, and he has the wealth of Constantinople behind him while he was producing these Bibles and he had Origen’s library which in itself was incredible; he couldn’t find manuscripts that had anything after verse 8. Now, later, toward the end of the 4th century, you have Gerome writing almost the same thing but he adds one key point. He said that he had not found any Greek manuscripts which may suggest that the variant came from a non-Greek text. I don’t know. But Gerome is saying something different; he is not just mimicking Eusebius, and Gerome has the support of the Vatican behind him. You have these two ancient scholars who have the greatest backing in terms of having access to manuscripts of any ancient patristic writers. And both of them say that they can hardly find that longer ending.
Now, a little bit later toward the end of the 5th century, beginning of the 6th century, Victor of Antioch who wrote the only commentary on Mark’s Gospel in the 1st Millennium. This became the most popular commentary on Mark until the time of the printing press. And so he says, ‘I have found this long ending in about half the manuscripts and the short ending in the other half, but I prefer the long ending.’ So by the 6th century, the long ending was growing in popularity then and also much later. You can see through the patristic writers what is going on with the ending of Mark’s Gospel. That longer ending doesn’t fit Mark’s style; it doesn’t fit his vocabulary or his syntax. The Church Fathers were against it, the earliest manuscripts don’t have it; we have already shown you the codex Vaticanus where it has aforementioned gap; it was not a gap to say to put this ending in there. It would not have fit in that gap, but that gap only indicated a difference in genre. The evidence is overwhelmingly against that longer ending being authentic.
The other long passage is John 7:53-8:11. This is the story of the woman caught in adultery. I would say that this is my favorite passage that is not in the Bible. It is a variant that is also twelve verses long and it is one that everybody loves. I have heard preachers preach on it, saying they know that it may not be authentic but they preach on it anyway. The problem with this passage, it is found in only one or two Greek manuscripts before the 9th century. About twenty percent of all our manuscripts don’t have it. The early manuscripts don’t have it. We have early papyri that don’t have it and no papyri that do. Most of our Greek manuscripts through the 8th century don’t have it. The vocabulary and the syntax aren’t of John, nor is the style from John. There is no patristic commentary on it for a thousand years and it is a floating text as it is found in at least six different places in the New Testament. It is the kind of a passage that some scribes wanted to put into the Bible, but wasn’t sure where it should go. There are three different places: in John 7, in between Luke and John and at the end of the four Gospels. It occurs after Luke 21:38 in a whole family of manuscripts. Recently, a man by the name of Kyle Hues published an article in ‘Know the New Testament’, one of the great New Testament journals. And he argued that there were two different forms of this story of the woman who was caught in adultery. There was a form that Luke had access to where he stripped out the non-Lukan features and found the form that Luke had and said it wasn’t a woman caught in adultery but instead she was caught in some kind of sin. It didn’t include the elders leaving from the oldest to the youngest. But they picked up stones to stone her and Jesus wrote in the dirt. These features would have fit Luke’s Gospel. And he said that it would have gone in after Luke 21:38. He happens to be a former student of mine; he wrote two papers on this that I urged him to do. So, I believe it comes from Luke’s Gospel, but it wasn’t that interesting and so it was changed. Given a choice, people would choose the story of the woman caught in adultery. The problem is with the evidence; it is against it far greater than the evidence against the long ending of Mark.
There is a lot of fascinating textual variance that we have in the Greek New Testament and a lot of them are very significant. Mark 1:41 has only recently been wrestled with in terms of what the original readings might be. There has been a kind of consensus against it for a long time and now some scholars are moving in the other direction. This is the story of the healing of a leper in Galilee. And my Greek New Testament says that after the leper comes to Jesus; You see, Jesus had been preaching in Synagogues and so this leper comes to him and says, if you will, you can heal me. Verse 41 says, ‘and showing compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him and said I am willing, be healed.’ And immediately the leprosy left him. Where it says in showing compassion, he stretched out his hand. The words showing compassion is one word in Greek; there is a variant which is ‘becoming indigent’ or
‘becoming angry’, he stretched out his hand. This is found in codex D which is our most eccentric manuscript, but it has very early readings and it is found in the diatessaron, a harmony of the four Gospels, created in the 2nd century, and attributed to Tatian; and it is also found in other ancient documents going back to the 2nd century. It has some minimal evidence but yet it is very significant evidence on its behalf. But when you look at the internal evidence, what is significant here is why would scribes change Jesus showing compassion to Jesus being angry? There is no reason for them to do that intentionally. Someone has suggested that they did it unintentionally for if the ending for both words are similar, they may have been mistaken. No scribe that would be worth anything would be confused about those and say Jesus was angry. But he might say that Jesus was compassionate. But it would not go in the other direction. So one could argue from this that Mark 1:41 originally read σπλαγχνισθεὶς and it was changed to ὀργίσθεις for harmonization.
In Mark’s Gospel we have two other places where Jesus gets angry, Mark 3:5 and Mark 10:14 and in both places Matthew and Luke don’t say that he is angry. Now what is interesting here is the parallels, with Matthew and Luke having the same passage; they don’t say that Jesus was compassionate. If Mark
originally said that Jesus was compassionate, we would expect Matthew at least or Luke to also say that. If Mark originally said that Jesus was angry, we would expect that both Matthew and Luke not to say that. The fact that they said nothing about his compassion indicates that perhaps Mark’s original said Jesus was angry. There is another reason to argue that his anger is what is seen here, and why he was angry is difficult to determine; Bart Ehrman gives a dozen different suggestions but there is one that he doesn’t suggest. Yet it is ambiguous, Mark’s style of writing at times is frustrating because we don’t know what he means and this may be one of them. But Jesus has been preaching in the synagogue in Galilee and then all of a sudden this leper comes to see him. So where was this leper? He may well have been in one of those synagogues. If so, he was in violation of the law and he would have been defiling other people. So he comes to Jesus in the synagogue asking to be healed, and Jesus would have been angry at the leper. So, this may well be what is going on here. We just don’t know but Ehrman wants to spin this in the direction, this is the human Jesus, very human and not divine and he gets mad at people and that is why he does his miracles. The NIV 2011 has this reading now because of Gordon Fees influence. I suggested that the new reading of the Net Bible should go with this reading as well. This is a fascinating textual problem and I would say still that most scholars don’t think this is the case that Jesus was angry, but most commentators who wrestle with this text say that yeah, it really happened.
Another significant one is in Matthew 24:36. It says, ‘now concerning that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, except the Father alone.’ That is in my Greek New Testament. I think that ‘nor the Son’ are not authentic. They are not found in a number of manuscripts, they are not
found in the majority of manuscripts, as well in a few early manuscripts. They have a sufficient pedigree that it could go back to the original of having that omission. When you compare this to the parallel in Mark 13:32, I think what is really interesting is what Mark has to say. He says, ‘now concerning that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven nor the Son, except the Father.’ ‘Nor the Son’ is found in virtually all the manuscripts. We know of two late manuscripts that don’t have it; one in Greek and one in Latin. Does Matthew have ‘nor the Son’ like Mark? What Matthew does with his Christology is almost always, I believe, that he is using Mark’s Gospel and almost always where Mark is asking a question Matthew makes a statement. And so you have got in Mark’s Gospel, we have this rich young ruler who comes to Jesus and asks, ‘good teacher, what must I do to be saved?’ And Jesus says, ‘why do you call me good?’ In the parallel in Matthew, he says, ‘teacher, what good thing must I do to be saved?’ ‘Why do you ask me about the good?’ Mark is getting his readers to decide whether Jesus is really good.
I think Matthew changed the text in order to not raise the question of Jesus’ deity, instead of what he is teaching. He is not essentially changing it, why would he ask a bad teacher what is good? Jesus goes on and says that only one is good. So Matthew has changed it to clarify the Christology that they should believe in. And Mark leaves it as a question, because he wants these disciples who are being persecuted to really own their belief in Christ. That’s why he ends it in Mark 16:8 with the women being afraid of not sharing the Gospel. But earlier, Jesus says that you have to pick up your cross and follow me daily. It is this pattern of true discipleship that means to sacrifice your life, consider it to be dead and follow Jesus, profoundly and deeply. In Matthew 24:36 if ‘nor the Son’ is authentic, we have a real problem. Because Matthew adds one word that is not found in Mark and that is the word ‘only’ with the Father where Mark has ‘except the Father alone.’ This would be the only place in the whole of Matthew’s Gospel where his Christology is more explicitly at a lower level. It is saying doubly that Jesus doesn’t know; but if ‘nor the Son’ is not there, then Matthew is saying something implicitly that Mark is saying explicitly. Matthew says ‘not even the angels except the Father alone; Mark is saying neither the angels nor the Son, except the Father.’ That would fit with Matthew’s style of writing everywhere else we see. And so I would say, ‘nor the Son’ is not authentic in Matthew and by the way, this is Bart Ethman’s number one proof text of early orthodox corruption. He says it is where they took out, ‘nor the Son’ and yet the style fits Matthew, not to have it. It fits for him to have a higher Christology or more explicitly a higher Christology or to soften the statement where it looks confusing everywhere in his Gospel. And so I think Ehrman got this wrong, ‘nor the Son’ is not authentic in Matthew.
Just a last one, Revelation 13:18, the number of the beast. Is the beast 666? Everybody knows that the anti-Christ is 666. Well, not so fast, in the 2nd century era, Irenaeus talked about the number of the beast. I have seen this in older manuscripts, but some manuscripts have 616. This is in the 2nd century, within a hundred years, probably within seventy-five or eighty years of when John wrote Revelation. Both kinds of readings existed. Up until 1998, we only knew of one manuscript that had 616 and that was codex Ephraemi Rescriptus in Paris, an early 5th-century manuscript that Constantine Tischendorf deciphered back in 1843 and 44; he spent two years working on this manuscript, one hundred and fifty-seven leaves and somebody had scraped off the under text, it’s a parchment manuscript where you can’t read it; somebody wrote out Ephraem sermons on top of the original writings. So the undertext is very difficult to read. In the 1830’s the library had a chemical bath given to the manuscript using potassium ferricyanide to bring out the faded or eradicated ink. So every page is blue. Tischendorf is the first one to ever read virtually all of that under text. He read ninety-nine percent of it, and clearly in Revelation 13:18, the number of the beast is written as 616. That happens to be one of our most important manuscripts of Revelation now, one of the best texts. Then in 1998, seventeen New Testament Papyri were published that from Oxford University and one of these happened to be the oldest manuscript of Revelation 13:18 and it had 616 as the number of the beast.
I had the privilege of looking at that manuscript back in 2002 and also the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus in 2009. I can affirm that there were no changes or erasers; it is what is said in each of those manuscripts. Our oldest manuscript and our most important manuscript have 616. You can see why scribes would want to have the number of the beast as 666. In that he never gets to perfection. So, this may be a reason why scribes have it. It also seems to fit with a number of other things, but 616 fits better with what is called gematria where these numbers have a letter equivalent and it is equivalent of Nero’s name or I should say that Nero and Keizar has the equivalent of 666 but spelled without an ‘n’ on the end. Nero Keizar would be the normal spellings, equaling to 616. So, I can see why early scribes would want to have 616 here because it fits with a myth that, ‘Nero would rise from the dead,’ but that myth went away in the 2nd century. Why would scribes after the 2nd century want to have that? I go back and forth, we don’t know; it could be 666 or 616. Most scholars, however, would say that the number of the beast is 666. I can’t say that we have in our hands today in every single respect the original Word of God. This is the Word of God. So this is a favorite variant people wrestle with of which I don’t know the answer to.