A recent Greek fragment discovery has brought an old issue back into focus.
You may have seen in the news recently that a fragment of the "oldest NT manuscript" was found to say in Revelation 13:18 that the number of the beast was 616 instead of 666. Since several people have asked me about this topic, I'd like to comment on it.
Report: 616, Not 666 The Real Number of the Beast
First, here's an excerpt of the report of the discovery:
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.
The new fragment from the Book of Revelation, written in ancient Greek and dating from the late third century, is part of a hoard of previously unintelligible manuscripts discovered in historic dumps outside Oxyrhynchus in Egypt. Now a team of expert classicists, using new photographic techniques, are finally deciphering the original writing.
Professor David Parker, Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism and Paleography at the University of Birmingham, thinks that 616, although less memorable than 666, is the original. He said: "This is an example of gematria, where numbers are based on the numerical values of letters in people's names. Early Christians would use numbers to hide the identity of people who they were attacking: 616 refers to the Emperor Caligula."
The Book of Revelation is traditionally considered to be written by John, a disciple of Jesus; it identifies 666 as the mark of the Antichrist. In America, the fundamentalist Christian right often use the number in sermons about the coming Apocalypse.
They and satanists responded coolly to the new "Revelation". Peter Gilmore, High Priest of the Church of Satan, based in New York, said: "By using 666 we're using something that the Christians fear. Mind you, if they do switch to 616 being the number of the beast then we'll start using that."
Don't Write 616 over 666 In Your Bible Just Yet!
So, if you did not know better, you might already be heading to your Bible with a red marker to cross out the 666 and write in 616. After all, we have an textual critic of the New Testament telling us 666 is wrong. But not so fast!
I have a few reasons to keep this one on the shelf, and even to doubt it. Note that none of these are proofs that 616 is wrong. They are just my thinking on why I believe 666 is correct still at this point.
Reasons To Still Prefer 666 over 616
1. The article cites just one man's conclusion. But I'm the type of person who likes to check things out for himself, rather than trust someone else to do my thinking. I want to see the data and reasoning he used to conclude 616 is correct, even though it's in the minority of manuscripts. For example, when I decided that Yehovah was probably the correct transliteration for God's name in the Old Testament, I did not do so because Nehemia Gordon  said so. I did so after looking through the Old Testament manuscripts myself, looking at the vowel points and carefully reasoning out what they likely were telling us were the original vowels. Until I see the proof myself for 616, I'm not likely to switch from 666 based on one man's opinion.
2. One thing that would settle this question would be if a man appeared on the scene fulfilling everything else for the "First Beast from the Sea" in Revelation 13 and other prophecies related to what is (erroneously) called "the Antichrist". If we "calculated" the "number of his name" as instructed and it came to either 616 or 666 we would have our answer. There is such a man. Prince Charles of Wales' heraldic achievement (coat-of-arms) literally consists of the very beasts described in Rev 13 and Dan 7 , he is a prince (Dan 9:27) and he is from the old Roman Empire that destroyed the Temple (Dan 9:27). So what does his name add up to? Rather than 616, his name adds up to 666 using the ancient gematria system. And not only does this work in the English, but also in the official Hebrew transliteration (Nasich Charles Mem Wales). What are the odds anyone would have a name that calculates to the same number in two languages (without tampering with the transliteration like is done to Javier Solana's name to make it equal 666 in Hebrew)?
3. The Book of Revelation introduces very little that is new and tends to mostly expand on concepts or symbols that have already been used elsewhere in the Bible. You must use the rest of the Bible to decipher much of Revelation. It is noteworthy therefore that 616 appears nowhere else in the Bible while 666 appears four times. It very interestingly appears in this verse related to another exalted and adored king, one whom no doubt the coming Antichrist will want to emulate in many ways.
1 Kings 10:14 -- The weight of the gold that Solomon received yearly was 666 talents,
If anyone gets a good textual criticism report on 616 vs 666 please let me know as I'd like to get to see why someone would conclude 616 is the original.
4. Irenaeus in the second century, a century before the manuscript Parker relies on, already knew of the 616 variation and discounted it as an error:
Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; while reason also leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six; that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units (for that number which [expresses] the digit six being adhered to throughout, indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which shall take place at the end), - I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one. [I am inclined to think that this occurred through the fault of the copyists, as is wont to happen, since numbers also are expressed by letters; so that the Greek letter which expresses the number sixty was easily expanded into the letter Iota of the Greeks.] - Adv. haer. 5.30
In this rather obscurely expressed passage, Irenaeus was proposing (even in the second century - a century BEFORE this oldest surviving copy!) that old, Greek copies of Revelation contained an error of copying in which the Greek letter xi with gematraic value 60 was wrongly copied into the Greek letter iota with number value 10.
Meanwhile, I hope this helps you keep this one on the shelf as well.