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I'm hoping to see facsimiles of the earliest manuscripts of Rev 13:18, where the number 600, 60 and 6 is mentioned.

There's a myriad of translations, but I'm interested in how the number was written in the earliest manuscripts, because of this statement:

Mr. Walid Shoebat, a purported former PLO terrorist now Christian evangelist, says that when he saw the Greek symbols for 666 in the original manuscripts, he immediately recognized these as the Arabic character “bismillah,” which means “in the name of Allah.”

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According to a video found here, Shoebat claims he saw this in the Codex Vaticanus, which dates to the 4th century and is one of the two oldest complete New Testament manuscripts still surviving. There are a couple of problems with this claim.

First, like all other known manuscripts from the 8th century and prior, Codex Vaticanus was written in all uppercase Greek letters. Shoebat's claim relies on lowercase letters, reversed and rotated. Second, Vaticanus does not include the book of Revelation, which at the time was still not universally accepted as Scripture.

However, the Codex Sinaiticus, the other surviving 4th century New Testament, does include Revelation. Codex Sinaiticus can be found online here. Here is the page with Revelation 13:18. You can locate the verse in the box on the right, highlight the word, and the manuscript will zoom in on that word. Not only does Codex Sinaiticus use all caps, it spells out the words six hundred sixty six: εξακοϲιαι εξηκοτα εξ.

There is one older manuscript--papyrus 47 (𝔓47), dating to the 3rd century--which includes some chapters in Revelation. 𝔓47 can be found online here. Revelation 13:18 can be found on this page. The number 666 is in the 9th row down, near the left side, the three letters with a bar over the top to indicate a numeral. Again, they are all uppercase.

I don't know what manuscripts Mr. Shoebat was looking at, but they certainly weren't the originals, they were not the oldest manuscripts available, and they likely were not even ancient.

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    The claim you linked seems to be primarily that John would have interpreted Arabic lettering (that he saw in a prophetic vision) as lowercase Greek, rather than that lowercase Greek was deliberately used to symbolize an Arabic concept. The manuscript with the lowercase Greek lettering was simply what caused Shoebat to notice this. So the real question was whether the modern lowercase Greek script, or letterforms sufficiently resembling it, existed at all contemporary to the writing of Revelation.
    – Random832
    Feb 6, 2015 at 13:56
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    @Random832: I can't find a definitive source, but Wikipedia says the miniscule style originated in the 9th and 10th centuries. That's well beyond the lifetime of John of Patmos. Feb 6, 2015 at 15:46
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    @Bruce Alderman: I wanted to confirm your claim that Codex Vaticanus does not include the book of Revelation. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but it appears that it does. I looked up the Vatican's digital copy of the Codex Vaticanus. And it does include a copy of Apocalypsis (Revelation). The codex can be found online here at the DigiVatLib. Revelation chapter 13 can be found on page 1530. The greek symbols for 666 are located in the third column (on the right hand side of the page). Specifically, on the 5th line down from the top of the page.
    – NHenderson
    Nov 17, 2023 at 16:48
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Bruce Alderman has given a very good answer to the question. It emerges clearly that Shoebat’s claim about the Vatican manuscript is a blatant fraud. Of course, if he knew anything about Greek he would know that all Greek manuscripts at the time of the composition of Revelation are written in majuscules (capital letters), so there is no way that the original text of Revelation would have used miniscules. But this does not bother Shoebat.

I would like to address a different aspect of the same question. Allāh is the name of God in the Arabic language. It is used not only by Muslims, but also by the many millions of Arabic-speaking Christians in Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq and other countries, and they write it exactly the same way as the Muslims: الله. Shoebat is thus actually claiming that the “number of the beast” is “God”. If I were a Christian I would surely say that this is an obscene blasphemy. Even as a non-Christian I need to say that in an age where the Christians in Syria, Iraq etc. are sorely pressed by their enemies it is enormously irresponsible to insinuate that the Arabic-speaking Christians are in fact worshipers of the beast.

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    Speaking as Eastern Orthodox formerly at an Antiochian parish: My understanding is that the Divine Liturgy and the Bible in Arabic use "Allah" ("God"), but Arabic-speaking Christians use a word meaning "Lord" as the primary non-liturgical term for God. Feb 5, 2015 at 22:04
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    This would assume that Greek miniscule script and Arabic cursive script were both already in use in the first century (or slightly later, depending on how you date Revelation). In neither case is this true. Arabic script (as we know it) is not found before the 6th century.
    – fdb
    Feb 6, 2015 at 9:50
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    @JonathanHayward Thank you for this input. I think the usage differes from Church to Church and region to region. My experience is that Iraqi Christians, at least, say Allāh if speaking Arabic and the equivalent Alaha if speaking Neo-Aramaic.
    – fdb
    Feb 6, 2015 at 9:59
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I might comment that the mark of the beast has been notoriously difficult to interpret; my best understanding is that (as neither Hebrew nor Latin nor Greek have separate letters and digits as we have in English) the number 666 was the number of Caesar Neron (meaning "Caesar Nero"--without the final nu ('n') the number is 616, an existing and attended variant). The Orthodox Study Bible has a footnote saying that 7 is the number of perfection, 777 represents the Trinity, evil is represented as something less so 666 is an evil response to the Trinity, and 8 means one more and 888 represents the number someone would get from 'Jesus' (Ιησους), a suggestion I would find convincing if the idea of 'Jesus' being 888 was attested to anywhere in the Ante-Nicene Fathers besides authors summarizing claims they were attacking as heretical.

St. Irenaeos, 2nd century, disciple of St. Polycarp, disciple of St. John, quite directly stated he had no idea what 666 meant. That's as good a reading as any I've seen.

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The context for a proper answer

There is the old proverb (and sort of joke), that every person in the pew (especially in America) is very critical of the English translations they have in front of them...until—until they have to do their own translation. And, very quickly, the partners they used to have in criticizing English translations, then take their aim at that individual's translation. Translation is tough work. And, while there might be times when there is room for improvement. Our attitude should first start out with appreciation.

I use this example because the same is true for Textual Criticism. It is often tedious, detail-oriented, thankless work. And so much of this important work is often not read. People will buy and watch the expensive extended version of the Lord of the Rings. But will the same people buy and read expensive books on TC?

And when these books on TC are read, the topic of TC (like translation work) can be approached shallowly by those who might even be well-meaning. But they do not understand the minutia. And TC lives or dies on the minutia.

I mention this because what follows is minutia. It might be boring. But it is vital for us to understand in order to answer the question posed above.

The Historical context for Revelation

Concerning the Apocalypse, Nicklas writes:

While it seems to have had an important status for sedond and third-century Western writers like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyon, Hippolytus, and others, many Eastern fathers did not accept it as part of their canon... the Cappadocian fathers, did not quote it. So it is no surprise that Revelation did not find its way into the canon of the Syriac Peshitto.

These circumstances seem to have been at least one reason for the fact that—compared to other New Testament writings—we have only very few extant traces of an 'early text' of the book of Revelation.

Among the more than 300 manuscripts that contain Revelation only four can with some probability be dated earlier than (or at least around) the year 300 CE. None of these (𝔓18, 𝔓47, 𝔓98, 𝔓115) contain the whole text of Revelation: 𝔓18 and 𝔓98 have only a few words or sentences.

The only fourth-century manuscript containing the full text of Revelation is Codex Sinaiticus. Codex Vaticanus does not include it. Other fourth-century manuscripts are 𝔓24, 0169, and 0207, all of them fragmentary: Codex Alexandrinus, perhaps the most important witness of a full text of Revelation, originates from the fifth century.

(The Early Text of the New Testament, p. 226)

These opening paragraphs set the stage for us and give us the context. The Eastern church did not receive Revelation as part of its canon until much later on. Still today, the Syriac church does not include it in its canon. In this context Bruce adds this poignant comment (as he quotes Jerome):

“If the custom of the Latins does not receive [the letter to the Hebrews] among the canonical scriptures, neither, by the same liberty, do the churches of the Greeks accept John’s Apocalypse. Yet we accept both, not following the custom of the present time but the precedent of early writers, who generally make free use of testimonies from both works. And this they do, not as they are wont on occasion to quote from apocryphal writings, as indeed they use examples from pagan literature, but treating them as canonical and ecclesiastical works.” (F.F. Bruce, quoting Jerome)

John could look out from Patmos on a clear day and see the mainland of Asia Minor. But those churches in Asia Minor would be the last ones to receive the Apocalypse as canonical. This helps us understand the paucity of manuscripts that we have for the Apocalypse. It, like Hebrews (along with the rest of the Antilegomena) took a longer journey to make it into the canon.

The other huge detail that Nicklas highlights is that, when it comes to TC we look for ancient texts. But we also look for the best texts—ones that were copied with the most care and diligence. There is the often-quoted guideline of TC, "manuscripts are weighed, not counted."

Look at the paucity of manuscripts we have. One of the advantages of having a continual text for an entire book is that we can compare the scribal habits throughout the entire book to get enough data.

When it comes to data, we have Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and a few Papyri. Notice what is not on the list. Vaticanus is not on the list. The scribal hand in Hebrews 9 changes from uncial to minuscule. And the textual basis for what follows is much, much later (1400's+) than the texts closer to the 300's. For that reason, it is largely irrelevant to the work of TC in Revelation. For it was copied in the 1400's. And it does not retain a text that can be traced back to the early centuries. For this reason the picture taken above does not show us a mysterious vision from John. Instead, it shows us a scribal habit from a scribe removed from the source by more than a millenium.

The state of the text

If we do actually look at the manuscripts and the variants therein, this is what we find:

  • ⲉⲝⲁⲕⲟⲥⲓⲟⲓⲉⲝⲏⲕⲟⲛⲧⲁⲉⲝ: 02 (Alexandrinus)
  • χ ξ ς: P47
  • ⲉⲝⲁⲕⲟⲥⲓⲁⲓⲉⲝⲏⲕⲟⲛⲧⲁⲉⲝ: 01 (Sinaiticus)
  • εξακοσιαι δεκα εξ: (Codex Ephraemi)
  • η χ ι ν: P115*
  • χ ι ν: P115c

Again, notice what is not on the list: Vaticanus is not on the list because it is not viable in determining the source text.

As we pile up the data though, we have two options:

  • 666 (as found in 𝔓47 (ℵ) A P Maj)
  • 616 (as found in 𝔓115 C)

And just so that we're clear, the three letters are clearly numbers because they have the supralinear strokes above them (ⲭ̅ⲝ̅ϛ). That's how we know that they are numbers. 𝔓47 contains the abbrevation. Alexandrinus and Sinaiticus gives us the number plene (in full): ⲉⲝⲁⲕⲟⲥⲓⲟⲓⲉⲝⲏⲕⲟⲛⲧⲁⲉⲝ. There is no room for this to be some sort of glyph/symbol/character that John mysteriously wrote down and the scribes had no idea what to do with.

Which variant is correct?

There is an argument and case to be made for 616. But most text critics (and all published editions that I know of) go with 666 as the proper/better reading. 616 is usually noted in the margin or as a footnote.

The Difficulty of Minuscules

In about the 700's the script moved away from Uncials (all capital letters) to lowercase letters. Today, we learn the Greek letters that are familiar to us in the NA/UBS texts. But, when you actually look at minuscules and actually try and read them, they are not as pretty as our printed UBS/NA text. Garrick Allen provides an example from GA 1932:

GA 1932

While the hand-drawn pictures are interesting, what we focus in on is the text on the right. Very often it is difficult to figure out what the words even are. This is due to...

  • Changing glyphs (combinations of letters)
  • inferior writing material
  • inferior writing instrument
  • Decay over time
  • Strange manuscript hand
  • Errors
  • et. al.

Of the above considered "difficult to read" factors, the one that best fits the hand of Vaticanus is "mistake/error." (In Rev. 13:18) This is why it is not listed in the apparatus of NT editions.

Implications

All of the preceding I'm writing as a sort of addendum to what Bruce Alderman has already so-ably written. But what fdb writes is also worthy of consideration. In Hebrew, the most-used name for God is אֱלֹהִים. But there were versions that the Hebrew was translated into. One of those is Aramaic/Syriac. Their word for "el/elohim" is: ܐܰܠܳܗܳܐ. This is directly related to "allah." Allah is the generic name for God. So it is used both within the Koran and in the few Arabic versions of the bible we have. FDB rightly cautions that...

Shoebat is thus actually claiming that the “number of the beast” is “God”. If I were a Christian I would surely say that this is an obscene blasphemy.

Bad hermeneutics leads to bad consequences. For all of these reasons I urge the reader to do the patient, tedious homework and not watch Youtube videos like the one posted. I imagine that the people who produced it are well-meaning. But there is exceedingly little data to support what they are promoting.

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    Thank you! (This answer started from comments. Many times, a full answer does more justice, a good lesson for all of us on the site.)
    – Jesse
    Jan 14 at 19:18
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    Now this is an excellent answer, + 1. The hand drawn picture is not so much interesting but is very much disturbing..... Jan 20 at 2:25
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It is usual for modest people to confess, "Greek manuscripts are not my field of expertise", but I have to abase myself to the lowest level and confess, "Greek manuscripts are not my field of anything." This means that everything I mention about Greek manuscripts with regard to this question does not come from me, but I make bold to suggest (as does Wallid Shoebat in the document he produced) that the need is to consider Arabic script, not Greek.

Secondly, I have not viewed the video but had a printed-out document given to me many years ago, with photographs of what Mr. Shoebat was on about photocopied into the article. I avoid YouTube and the likes like the plague, sticking to books and articles ("How quaint!" I hear you cry.) This is what I gleaned about the significance of the Arabic symbols in question.

Former Muslim Wallid Shoebat, upon seeing the Greek at Revelation 13:18 in Hinds & Nobel's Greek Interlinear of Revelation, noticed how similar it was to Arabic. The similarity of the Arabic for 'in the name of Allah' to the Greek for six hundred and sixty-six is interesting. That Interlinear displayed the Greek, which Shoebat could 'read' as the Arabic for Allah written sideways, along with the symbol for Islam - two crossed swords.

His idea was this; at Rev. 13:18, what if John was shown Arabic, only at the last part of that verse? John wrote the vision in Greek, but when it came to that part, he had to write Arabic letters, which he likely did not understand, but, being faithful to the vision, he wrote down what he had seen. However, when later scribes came to copy his manuscript, they would have been puzzled at that bit, thinking John's writing had become indistinct. So they figured it out to actually be the very similar Greek, 'Chi Xi Stigma' - which in English is six hundred and sixty-six. Bear in mind that the Islamic slogan, 'In the name of Allah' was not known till hundreds of years after John's vision.

Further, the Greek 'aithmos', translated 'number' can ALSO mean 'multitude' (as in peoples of a nation). So the Greek might have said, "...its multitude is..." and not, "...its number is..."

Also, the Greek 'charagma' in verse 17, which is usually translated 'mark', means a badge of servitude. And the Greek 'psephizo' in verse 18, usually translated 'calculate', can also mean reckon or decide. So we could get v. 18 reading: "Here is wisdom. Let him that has understanding decide the multitude of the beast, for it is the multitude of a man, and his multitude is..." - not a number, but an Arabic phrase, 'in the name of Allah'.

Jihadists often wear either an armband or a forehead band with this declaration printed on it - their badge of servitude to Allah. For centuries they have used the sword to do it, which remains symbolic for any means of violence employed.

That is the gist of Mr. Shoebat's written article, and I hope it helps clear up some misunderstandings. This is not to say that he is correct. It is simply to try to make clearer what he was actually flagging up for our attention.

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    Thank you! It makes me think: The question is not so much whether a Greek manuscript scholar recognizes it as much as whether someone who speaks Arabic can decipher it.
    – Jesse
    Jan 14 at 19:56
  • Nicely done here, + 1. Interesting take on the alternative meanings to Greek words. Jan 20 at 2:40
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This is an addendum more than an answer, but intended to be helpful. Parts of this matter comes up in another answer here.

This is the text that we debate whether means 666 or 616 or in the name of [some one]. (IMHO, I don't believe it will be either, but that it will be a logo—largely yet to be seen as of 2024—which may imply some combination of both, but doesn't fully represent either. The yet unveiled meaning that this would represent will be both convincing and controversial to both Christians and Muslims and many others, as the broader text of chs 11, 13, and 17 suggest.)

Below is an image capture from the Rev 13:18 the text in question:

enter image description here

The image is misleading because the greater manuscript of Codex Vaticanus was from about 350 AD, but this portion of text was not added until the 1400s.

From Wikipedia:

...[Codex Vaticanus] is lacking 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, and Revelation. The missing part of Hebrews and Revelation were supplemented by a 15th-century minuscule hand (folios 760–768)...

The original Codex Vaticanus (from mid 4th century) was all caps, as original Koine Greek was first autographed, and it did not contain Revelation, part of a larger missing portion.

If this was what John wrote, the manuscript would be something like:

...MANUSCRIPT IN ALL CAPS EXCEPT FOR ONE lowercase WORD...

We don't have anything like that.

But, in evaluating questions about textual criticism, we must also see that these letters were terribly written.

This supposedly comes from the 1400s, but I find it difficult to expect anyone to believe that the letters in this image should be:

χξς

This image just isn't how those letters were written in lower-case.

Consider the strange curves on the bottom of the Chi, heavy ink at the end, indicating an intentional stopping point. Also, the Xi has a very intentional extra curl, which makes it wrong. And, the trailing Sigma is just weird while well controlled. This is not a sloppy writing error because there is too much fine motor control reflected in other curves in the letters. If it is slop, then where are the images of Chi, Xi, and Sigma being written this way elsewhere in the manuscript? They aren't.

The "writing errors" were as intentional as they were improper. It's the kind of "silly scribble" we'd expect from Nostradamus that we see on a billboard 700 years later. Today we know it resembles something else, which doesn't happen by slop anymore than a smudge would explain a fingerprint match.

Hence, we have this remaining unanswered question:

How on earth did these badly written, out of place, Greek letters that look so much like something else make their way into a manuscript?

The best explanation is that John tried to write something he didn't recognize, and it somehow survived being copied from an all uppercase to an all lowercase manuscript.

Then, at some point, even for Sinaiticus, some scribe decided it was badly written lower-case Greek and changed it into Greek we understand.

...We humans do that all the time, re-imagine what we don't understand into what we do understand. This is one of the biggest dilemmas in hermeneutics as much as in communication and relationships, which we moderators try to mitigate all the time. Ancient scribe work would not have been immune.

Regardless of how we interpret this, all explanations of this text must address this question: How did it get there?


As an afterthought, and on a hermeneutical note...

If we were to argue that it means "in the name of [someone]", then that would need to have been written in the Greek. As presented, this is a graphic.

Consider Rev 9:11 (NASB)

...his name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in the Greek he has the name Apollyon.

John didn't do that in 13:18. So, if it has a textual meaning, then that would be modern application, not hermeneutical interpretation. The Bible text does not literally mean "...in the name of [someone]" all by itself.

The meaning of this text is left to post-Biblical study:

From Rev 13:18 (NASB)

...Let him who understands...

Whatever we come up with is a "maybe".

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  • You evidently haven't done much transcription work with minuscules, have you? Hard-to-decipher ligatures, an inconsistent hand, poor writing material or instruments, scribal errors—all of these can lead to an end product that is difficult to decipher. Of all the explanations out there, "John tried to write something he didn't recognize" is the least likely explanation.
    – Epimanes
    Jan 14 at 0:05
  • @Epimanes Please post an answer of your own that elaborates on all that. Your insight is needed for healthy discussion. Thank you for raising our attention to this information. Do it justice by not limiting it to a comment.
    – Jesse
    Jan 14 at 3:28
  • ...On the note of my experience, while I do not have experience working with textual minuscules in particular, my undergraduate was in Greek, and I spent the last 15 years in Taiwan, writing Chinese characters accurately enough for phones, banks, and legal courts to recognize, and teaching my own English handwriting curriculum with documented results to be 4x faster than students in American schools of the same age. I am familiar with handwriting, and I know the difference between "bad handwriting" in L1 vs L2. To me, this looks like "bad handwriting in L2 early learner". ...For the record.
    – Jesse
    Jan 14 at 3:40
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    Nicely done here too. That's for sure. + 1. Jan 20 at 2:42

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