Saturday, July 14, 2007

One Way to Waste a Saturday

I find it very easy, some days, to get totally bogged down in the minutest of details about something that, frankly, means very little.

Today's rabbit trail involved how the various early manuscripts handled Revelation 13:18. Yes, this is the nefarious "number of the beast" passage. The NIV interprets the verse as, "This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666." The Arabic (more properly, Hindu-Arabic) number 666 is an interpretation of the Greek representation of that number.

But how is the Greek represented? Well, that's where the rabbit trail started. My interlinear Greek New Testament uses the United Bible Societies' Fourth, Corrected edition and has:
εξακοσιοι εξηκοντα εξ

which is literally translated "six hundred sixty six" (sorry, no accents; getting them to show up correctly in this blog is another rabbit trail for another day). Well, that's great, but what do the earliest manuscripts say? Time to travel down the rabbit trail a bit more and learn a bit about biblical textual criticism. The link here did a credible job, I'd say, given my lack of knowledge in the area. Using that page as a starting point, I started looking for digital images of the various manuscripts or codices (or is it codexes here?) that could answer my question.

I believe the Codex Vaticanus has the same word-for-word phrase as above, and it is one of the main sources used for the Bible today. But the Codex Sinaiticus Petropolitanus, on page 131 in the third column, has something different:

And for purposes of simplification, I have used an ending sigma when in fact the character is a stigma, which is supposed to be a combined sigma and tau and quite archaic. Representing numbers using letter abbreviations is quite common; I learned about it when I studied writing utensils for a term paper in college. So this doesn't surprise me. I believe both ancient Hebrew and Greek languages used this technique; perhaps more Semitic languages did as well.

But someone brought up an idea on a blog that sent me further down the trail. This page presents an interesting idea: what if John wasn't trying to get across a number, but a set of characters he had never seen before?

Here's the thought process, hopefully put in a way that gives credit to the blog mentioned. John traveled to the future or saw a vision (yes, I believe one of these happened; for now, I'm leaning toward the former) and saw many things that were too awesome and incredible for him to comprehend. Yet Jesus instructed him to "write what you see... " (Rev. 1:11). As the languages that are spoken and written now did not exist in their present forms in the first century, John would not recognize anything that was written down as they would involve characters he would not recognize. So what if this mark of the best was a set of characters? Using the word "mark" in v. 16 and v. 17 seems kind of silly if in fact it was just a number. He could have written "number." (To be honest, I hate arguing from what an inspired author would have done, but bear with me here.)

Now the author of the web page mentioned above then goes on to show how the Arabic version of Allah could be mistaken for those three Greek characters, especially if your brain is wired to think in Greek. But he misunderstands something: the original manuscripts weren't written using minuscule writing (aka lowercase Greek), but uncial, or uppercase Greek. In order for our web author's premise to work, it would have to be the case that the original texts were written in minuscule--and that would them require that the students be taught the minuscule forms. But they weren't. Uncial was the order of the day.

But the author depended on the Textus Receptus (written in minuscule), and not the papyri or uncials. So his hypothesis is, in the end, shown to be bogus.

Now while the end point of the author's post is bogus, I think he may have something in his starting point--maybe, potentially. Possibly. But here's the thing: it doesn't really matter in the end. While I don't think God is upset that I spent a day looking into this and understanding where our Scriptures came from, the bigger question is: how did I treat my family today? My neighbor? Did I share the gospel or live out the gospel today and showed that my faith has meaning?

Allow me to quote from the NRSV for 1 Corinthians 13:2:

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.

Time for me to do something for the Kingdom.