Thursday 28 June 2018

The not-so-cryptic oracle of Delphi

The most famous story about an ancient oracle comes from Herodotus’ tale of Croesus, king of Lydia. First, he tested various oracles to see which ones were reliable. He narrowed his choices down to two, then asked both of them whether he should invade Persia. The answer was:

They foretold to Croesus that if he campaigned against the Persians, he would destroy a great empire.
Herodotus 1.53

Croesus decides that yes, he will go to war against the Persians. And he does indeed end up destroying a great empire ... his own. The Persian king wins, he takes Croesus prisoner, and Lydia (in what is now western Turkey) becomes part of the Persian empire.

Michelangelo, the Delphic Sibyl (Sistine Chapel, 1509)

Herodotus’ Delphic Oracle is enigmatic and ambiguous. He depicts the Oracle with its mythological hat on: when mythical figures like Oedipus or Xuthus consult the Oracle, they come away with responses that make no sense at the time and can only be interpreted in hindsight.

That sits very nicely with stories that the Pythia, the priestess who spoke for the god, was intoxicated or drugged, so as to create a kind of artificially induced enthousiasma or ‘divine inspiration’. These stories come from Plutarch, six hundred years later than Herodotus, but they’re such a neat match that the modern popular image treats them as one and the same.

Herodotus’ Oracle often speaks in hexameter verse. That’s the same rhythm as epic poetry, but it’s very different in terms of poetic style:

Pallas cannot appease Olympian Zeus,
even if she beseeches him with many words and dense cunning.
But I shall tell you another word, and bind it with adamant:
for though everything will be ravaged that Cecrops’ border
holds inside, and so will the glens of holy Cithaeron,
wide-browed Zeus grants a wooden wall to Tritogeneia
which alone will be unconquerable, an aid to you and your children.
Herodotus 7.141

According to Herodotus, this reponse supposedly means: 1. the gods are grumpy at Athens (represented by the goddess Athena: ‘Pallas’ and ‘Tritogeneia’ are her titles); 2. Athens is going to be sacked by an enemy; 3. a ‘wooden wall’ will save the day, and that’s the Athenian navy.

And, wonder of wonders, this turns out to be an accurate prediction of the naval battle at Salamis in 480 BCE, where the Athenian fleet crushed the Persians.

Some important things to observe here.

  1. The poem Herodotus quotes wasn’t a real prediction. We should take it as given that virtually all stories about foretelling the future are written in hindsight. The prophecies we hear about were either composed after the events they supposedly predicted, or were vague enough that they could be reinterpreted in light of actual events. This is not a prediction, and it isn’t an authentic oracular pronouncement.
  2. Real-life oracular responses were not normally predictions, but instructions or, alternatively, statements about the will of the gods or what is morally right.
  3. Real-life responses were not typically obscure.
  4. Real-life responses were never in verse, at least until the Roman era.
  5. Real-life responses were not ambiguous, but straightforward and transparent: yes or no, this or that. They did not have ‘if’ or ‘when’ conditions. The response that Croesus supposedly got — ‘if you make war on the Persians’ — is exactly opposite to the kinds of instructions that we hear about in records kept at the time the responses were actually given.

Our best evidence for actual oracular responses comes from official inscriptions about occasions when a government consulted the Oracle. We don’t have anything approaching a complete record — even in antiquity these inscriptions were only made occasionally, and they cover governmental decisions rather than historical events. Herodotus couldn’t base his history on that kind of evidence. Still, we have a fair number of them. And they are all, almost without exception, drastically different from the picture that Herodotus paints.

How to test an oracle (source: Oglaf, ‘Double blind’; NB: site is not safe for work)

Here’s the most detailed account we have of a real procedure for consulting the Oracle. It comes from an Athenian inscription dating to 352-351 BCE.

[It is decided] that the Secretary of the Council should write on two sheets of tin, equal and alike: on one,

whether it is more beneficial and better for the People of Athens that the [Archon] Basileus lease out those parts of the Sacred Meadow that are currently under cultivation, the parts outside the boundaries, to pay for the building of the portico and the repair of the sanctuary of the Two Goddesses;

on the other sheet of tin,

or it is more beneficial and better for the People of Athens that the parts of the Sacred Meadow now under cultivation, the parts outside the boundaries, be left untilled for the Two Goddesses.

[There follows an elaborate set of procedures to put the tin sheets randomly into two jugs, one gold and one silver, without anyone being able to find out which sheet is in which jug.]

... the People shall choose three men, one from the Council and two from all Athenians, to go to Delphi and ask the god which of the inscriptions the Athenians should act on concerning the Sacred Meadow: the one from the gold jug, or the one from the silver.

Inscriptiones graecae ii3 1.292 = ii2 204, lines 23-47
(trans. Bowden 2005: 88-89, adjusted; Greek)

If you read the full inscription, you’ll see just how carefully the procedure is designed to make sure that there’s no human influence over the Oracle’s decision.

Inscriptions are the most reliable evidence, but we do get some seemingly trustworthy reports from literary sources too. It’s just that they have to be taken with a grain of salt. For example, Thucydides reports how Sparta established a colony in 426 BCE at Heracleia, a few kilometres to the west of Thermopylae. Step one was:

So first they inquired of the god at Delphi, and he gave the command ...
Thucydides 3.92.5

This is recent history, not a record of something that happened centuries earlier, so there’s a decent likelihood that this really happened as described. Thucydides doesn’t give us any details, but it’s a simple question with a simple answer, just like in the inscription quoted above.

Conversely, on another occasion when the Spartans consulted Delphi, the Oracle sounds more willing to make speeches:

... and they sent to Delphi and consulted the god as to whether it would be better if they made war. And he ordained, as it is said, that if they fought with all their might they would have victory, and he said that he himself would assist, whether asked or unasked.
Thucydides 1.118.3

That’s a lot more than a yes-or-no answer. It’s much more like the responses Herodotus and Pausanias tell us about, even if it is in prose. (An encyclopaedia from nearly 1400 years later claims to give the exact wording of the Oracle’s response: Suda α.899 ἄκλητον. It’s still prose.)

Now, the Spartans may actually have consulted the Oracle. The Oracle may have actually said yes. But unlike the situation with founding Heracleia, there are some solid reasons to be sceptical of the details:

  1. It’s cast as a foretelling, not an instruction. This is atypical for genuine oracular responses, but typical for Herodotean-literary-mythological ones.
  2. It’s effectively got an ‘if’ clause — you will win if you fight as hard as you can. (There’s no ‘if’ in the Greek: the use of a participle makes the prophecy’s conditional nature implicit.) Again, atypical for real responses, very typical for mythological ones.
  3. The timing is vague. Thucydides doesn’t put it into a linear chronology. Here’s how he frames it: ‘Not many years afterwards, there took place the events I described earlier at Corcyra and Potidaia ... All these events took place in a period of roughly fifty years ... In this period the Athenians consolidated their authority ... At this point, the Spartans regarded the situation as no longer tolerable’ and so they consulted the Oracle (Thuc. 1.118.1-2). Now, the Potidaian affair that he refers to was in 432 BCE, and the war began in 431, so you could argue that the consultation was in between. But this chapter is emphatically not a timeline of events between 432 and 431 BCE. It sounds much more like an anecdote that has been slotted into an appropriate free space.
  4. Thucydides distances himself from the story, inserting the phrase ‘as it is said’. This could be because he wasn’t totally satisfied about the story himself. It’s also possible that he’s reporting a secondary version of the oracle, designed specifically for public dissemination, and not necessarily what the priestess said on the day of the consultation.

This last point gets us to a core part of the problem. Even if we set aside mythological oracular responses, there’s a sharp distinction between the responses you get if you go to Delphi and go through the process of consulting the Pythia, and the responses that get published in literary texts. And, sometimes at least, the two had nothing to do with each other.

The biggest source of non-Oracular oracles in classical Greece was a group of poets known as ‘oracle collectors’ or chrēsmologoi. Most of them aren’t well-known names: it’s just possible you might have heard of Musaeus and Epimenides, but even trained classical scholars usually won’t know their way around Bacis, Onomacritus, Amphilytus, Abaris, Lysistratus, Lycus, and Euclus. (A few more appear in a list drawn up by Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.21.)

Their poetry survives only in quotations found in other authors. The best represented is Bacis. Herodotus quotes three pieces of Bacis’ poetry, Pausanias quotes four, and there are another two or three of doubtful authorship. Here’s a sample, which Pausanias specifically assigns to Bacis:

But one day, when a Tithorean man pours libations
and offerings of prayer on the earth to Amphion and Zethus;
when Taurus is warmed by the might of the glorious sun;
at that time, beware of disaster for the city, no small one.
For the fruit of the harvest wastes away in it
when people divide the earth and bring it to Phocus’ grave.
Pausanias 9.17.5

It’s pretty obvious which kind of Delphic response this corresponds to, isn’t it?

  • Obscure: check. (What’s all this about ‘the harvest’?)
  • Ambiguous: check. (Which city? Where is Phocus’ grave?)
  • In verse: check.
  • Starts with a condition: check. (An indefinite ‘when’ clause with ὁπόταν + subjunctive.)

There’s a pretty good argument to be made that the Herodotean stereotype of the enigmatic Oracle is actually based on the poetry of oracle collectors and other similar concoctions.

Oracle collectors had a mixed reputation. Bacis gets brutally satirised in some of Aristophanes’ plays and by the Roman-era essayist Lucian; but Herodotus was a fan. In the Peloponnesian War, when the Athenians heard of the failure of the Sicilian expedition, they blamed the oracle collectors for misleading them (the Sicilian expedition: Thuc. 8.1.1); but when they lost the battle of Aegospotami, they took that as confirming prophecies made by a Sibyl and Musaeus (Paus. 10.9.11).

Oracle collectors aren’t the only possible source for oracles that are more than just yes-no answers. We don’t know what relationship, if any, existed between oracle collectors and the institutional oracles like that of Delphi. But we have so many responses attributed to the Oracles of Delphi, Dodona, Didyma, and other places, which are an exact match for the style of what we see in the oracle collectors, that it’s hard to avoid thinking there was at least some cross-influence between the Oracles and the oracle collectors.

Remains of the 3rd century BCE temple of Apollo at Didyma

In particular, there is some (sparse) evidence of individuals attached to the institutional Oracles who may have acted as a kind of publishing wing. Two inscriptions from Didyma refer to a building there called the Oracle Writing Office (chrēsmographion: McCabe, Didyma 107, 108 = Did. Inschr. 31, 32), present in the temple complex from around 300 BCE onwards. This sounds awfully like some officials were taking spoken oracular responses and turning them into something more literary — something closer to what we see in the oracle collectors.

Several inscriptions refer to an official called the hypochrēstēs. This person’s role isn’t made explicit, but the prefix hypo- regularly means someone who does work interpreting something: for example, hypokritēs meant ‘interpreter’ before it meant ‘hypocrite’, and the verb hypokrinomai means ‘to interpret a dream’ in Homer. So hypochrēstēs ought to mean Oracle Interpreter.

We don’t have evidence of an Oracle Writing Office at other oracular sites — as far as I can find out — but we do have someone called a hypophētēs at the Oracle of Dodona (Homer, Iliad 16.235-236). If a hypochrēstēs is an oracle (chrēst-) interpreter (hypo-), a hypophētēs ought to be an interpreter (hypo-) of the god’s speech (phēt-). And that’s exactly how an ancient commentary explains it (scholion A on Iliad 16.235).

Now, there’s room for debate over the meanings of these words. The foremost 20th century scholar on the institutional Oracles of ancient Greece, Joseph Fontenrose, thinks the Oracle Interpreter at Didyma was an attendant who was present at consultations. Personally I find it more tempting to link the Oracle Interpreter to the Oracle Writing Office.

Note. See Fontenrose 1988: 78-85 on the process of consulting the Oracle of Didyma and possible roles of the Oracle Interpreter; 1988: 43 on the Oracle Writing Office.

Be that as it may, there appears to be a distinction between a priestess giving an oral response, and an Oracle Writing Office disseminating a written version. It’s not unreasonable to imagine a comparable division of labour at other institutional Oracles, like Delphi and Lebadeia and Dodona.

The point is that if we’ve got an oracular response that is cryptic or ambiguous; if the response is in verse; if it uses conditionals, metaphors, or animal imagery; in other words, if it isn’t a straightforward yes-or-no answer — then it’s not likely to be an authentic response. But it could come from an oracle collector like Bacis or Euclus. Or it could be produced by a publicity office, like the Oracle Writing Office of Didyma.

Remember the ‘wooden wall’ prophecy I quoted near the start? Herodotus says that came from the Delphic Oracle. It appears in a few other places too. In one, the Historiae written by the 12th century Byzantine scholar Ioannes Tzetzes, it’s attributed to the oracle collector Bacis (Hist. 9.796-805). Now, Tzetzes is very very late, and he’s probably not right ... but it’s still a good example of how the different potential sources for oracular declaration could end up obscuring their real origins.

A consultation of the Delphic Oracle as depicted in the video game Titan Quest (2006), complete with the priestess suspended over chasms oozing psychoactive gases

What of the stories of chasms with psychoactive gases, inspiring the priestess with a divine ecstasy? Well, these stories are late too. By the Roman era, things had changed a lot at Delphi. To take one metric: from the 6th century BCE to the 1st century CE, according to Joseph Fontenrose, we hear of exactly one authentic historical response that was given in verse. From the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE, we hear of six. And even with the one earlier response that he classifies as authentic, I wouldn’t be at all confident that it’s the Pythia’s own wording.

Note. For stories of psychoactive gases, see especially Diodorus 16.26.2-5; Plutarch On the decline of oracles 432c-438b; also Pliny NH 2.208; ps.-Aristotle On the universe 395b; Pausanias 10.5.7; Strabo 9.3.5; ps.-Longinus On the sublime 13.2; etc. Note that these sources refer to gas emissions at other sites too: the H₂CO₃ and H₂S emissions at Ampsanctus and the CO₂ at Hierapolis (Pliny) are real, the gases at Lebadeia (ps.-Aristotle) are not. See Fontenrose 1978: 197-203 for more sources and discussion.

On the seven surviving authentic oracular responses given in verse see Fontenrose 1978: 186-195. The only pre-2nd century CE one, H28 in Fontenrose’s catalogue, dates to the 300s BCE (quoted in Dem. Against Meidias 52). Even there, we are almost certainly looking at the product of an Oracle Writing Office or somesuch, rather than of the Pythia herself.

To judge from the description of the Oracle that we find in Plutarch, it appears that the Oracle had changed the way it worked in order to match the Herodotean stereotype more closely. Life imitated art.

The notion of real chasms and real psychoactive gases still enjoys wide circulation, thanks to the efforts of geologists like Jelle de Boer and Luigi Piccardi. But it’s a solution looking for a problem. The problem is how to explain the obscurity of the Oracle’s utterances. But that problem didn’t exist for the first 800 years of the Oracle’s recorded history.


  • Bowden, Hugh 2005. Classical Athens and the Delphic Oracle. Divination and Democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Fontenrose, Joseph 1978. The Delphic Oracle. Its Responses and Operations with a Catalogue of Responses. Berkeley, etc.: University of California Press.
  • Fontenrose, Joseph 1988. Didyma. Apollo’s Oracle, Cult, and Companions. Berkeley, etc.: University of California Press.

Thursday 14 June 2018

The number of the beast

The Christian bible reports ‘the number of the beast’ as follows:

This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.
Revelation 13.18 (NRSV translation)

This number is a tremendously popular icon in modern culture — and in popular religion, too. Its popularity owes a lot to the repeating sixes: ‘6-6-6’. This snippet from Doctor Who relies on it, for example:

Doctor. To generate that gravity field, and the funnel, you’d need a power source with an inverted self-extrapolating reflex force of 6 to the power of 6 every 6 seconds.
Rose. That’s a lot of sixes.
The Doctor, about to encounter the Devil (Doctor Who, ‘The impossible planet’, 2006)

This six-ishness depends on a decimal counting system. And not just that: it has to be a Hindu-Arabic-style decimal system. You have to take a very specific kind of notation for granted.

Not enough of a myth for you? Well, how about this one. A fairly popular story floating around these days is that the number of the beast wasn’t actually 666, but 616. This is supposedly proved by the earliest papyrus of Revelation, which was published in 1999; the idea was popularised in a 2003 BBC documentary.

Well, none of that’s true. Not quite true, anyway. So, yes, there are some catches.

  1. Hindu numerals started to appear in the 7th century in India; Revelation was written about 600 years earlier in the eastern Mediterranean. Now, some ancient Mediterranean cultures did have decimal numerals — Greek Ionic numerals, and Hebrew numerals — but they were place-dependent. They had different symbols for 6, 60, and 600. You used different symbols depending on whether you were writing a number in the ones column, the tens column, or the hundreds column. The Greek notation for 666 is χξϛ, not ϛϛϛ; in Hebrew it’s םסו‬, not ‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬ו‬ו‬ו‬. Repeating the symbol for ‘6’, ϛϛϛ or ‬‬‬ו‬ו‬ו‬, would be meaningless.
    A spectrogram: the computer game Doom (2016), premised on a demon invasion from hell, has the numerals ‘666’ embedded in part of the soundtrack. This wouldn’t work in any ancient numeral system.
  2. A prophetic interpretation, which sees the text as a genuine prophecy of a specific later time, is never going to have as much staying power as a historical-critical interpretation. This is an ancient Greek text which tells us explicitly that it contains a coded message: you’d need some very powerful and specific reason to imagine that the message should work just as well for, say, a 21st century American (who doesn’t speak ancient Greek) as for a 1st century Christian (who did). That way lies madness. But in a 1st century Greco-Jewish context, as we’ll see, the number is meaningful and based on well-attested practices.
  3. The 616 variant is certainly ancient: Irenaeus knew about it in the late 2nd century, though he strongly preferred 666. As we’ll see below, both readings are based on the same reasoning. But, so far as we can tell, neither number is older than the other. 616 is moderately well supported, but it definitely doesn’t have earlier support than 666.

The text

Here’s what the number of the beast looks like in two early manuscripts of Revelation:

Left: codex Sinaiticus, quire 90 fol. 6r (4th century). Right: Chester Beatty Library P. Bibl. 3 (= P47 Gregory-Aland), fol. 7r (3rd century).

The left-hand image is from one of the most important manuscripts of the New Testament, the famous codex Sinaiticus, written in the 4th century. Its version of verse 18 reads:

ὧδε ἡ σοφία ἐστίν· ὁ ἔχων [[ουσ]] 'νοῦν' ψηφισάτω τὸν ἀριθμ'ὸ(ν)' τοῦ θηρίου, ἀριθμ'ὸς' γὰρ ἀν(θρώπ)ου ἐστίν· ἑξακόσιαι ἑξήκ'ο(ν)'τα ἕξ.

Here’s a bit of cleverness. Let someone who has sense calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person: six hundred and sixty-six.

(Key: [[...]] = crossed out by the scribe, '...' = inserted above the line, (...) = abbreviation.)

There are a few differences from the modern critical text. The scribe has made one error, crossed it out, and written νοῦν (‘understanding’) in the margin. The phrase ‘and its number is’ (καὶ ὁ ἀριθμὸς αὐτοῦ) is missing here. And most importantly, the number itself is written out as words, ἑξακόσιαι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ (‘six hundred and sixty-six’), not as the numeral χξϛ (‘666’).

The right-hand image is the earliest known copy of the passage: a fragmentary papyrus written in the mid-3rd century and currently held in Dublin, Ireland. Here verse 18 reads:

ὧδε ἡ σοφία ἐστίν· ὁ ἔχων νοῦν ψηφισάτω τὸν ἀριθμὸν τοῦ θηρίου, ἀριθμὸς γὰρ ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν· ἐστὶν δὲ χξϛ.

Here’s a bit of cleverness. Let someone who has sense calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person: and it is 666.

This is a closer match to the modern text. But again, the words immediately before the number are different — ἐστὶν δὲ (‘and it is’), rather than the modern critical text καὶ ὁ ἀριθμὸς αὐτοῦ (‘and its number (is)’) —; and this time, the number is written with numerals, χξϛ (‘666’).

‘The number of a person’

It’s fairly widely known that the number was designed as a reference to the Roman emperor Nero.

1. Isopsephy. The most specific point is that the number 666 is plainly a case of isopsephy. Ancient Greek and Hebrew used letters of the alphabet as numerals: nine letters for 1 to 9, nine for 10 to 90, and nine for 100 to 900, for a total of 27 numerals. In isopsephy, the number of a name or phrase is obtained by treating its letters as numerals and adding up their values. In a Jewish context, this practice is known as gematria.

We have independent evidence of isopsephy in relation to Nero. Suetonius (Nero 39) quotes a Greek epigram where Nero’s name, transliterated into Greek,

Νέρων = Nerōn ‘Nero’
= 50 + 5 + 100 + 800 + 50
= 1005

is equated with

ἰδίαν μητέρα ἀπέκτεινε = idian mētera apekteine ‘killed his own mother’
= 10 + 4 + 10 + 1 + 50 + 40 + 8 + 300 + 5 + 100 + 1 + 1 + 80 + 5 + 20 + 300 + 5 + 10 + 50 + 5
= 1005

The epigram calls this a neopsēphon, a ‘new calculation’ — the same word as in Revelation 13.18 psēphisatō ‘let (him) calculate’. Isopsephy is attested in Judaeo-Christian contexts too, notably in a set of poems called the Sibylline Oracles; and a 1st-3rd century CE Jewish apocalyptic text known as 3 Baruch uses equations based on Greek words transliterated into the Hebrew script.

  • Sib. Or. 1.324-9 uses the number 888 = Ἰησοῦς, ‘Jesus’ in Greek.
  • Sib. Or. 5.12-44 gives a list of Rome’s rulers numbered from their initials: e.g. 12-13 ‘he will be the very first king, who will sum twice ten / with the start of his name ... he will have his first letter from 10’, that is, 20 = Κ(αῖσαρ), 10 = Ἰ(ούλιος), for Julius Caesar. The text carries on with Augustus = α = 1, Tiberius = τ = 300, Gaius = 3 = γ, Claudius = κ = 20, Nero = ν = 50; then three rulers with short reigns; then Vespasian = ο = 70, Titus = τ = 300, Domitian = δ = 4, and Trajan = τ = 300.
  • 3 Baruch ch. 4 discusses a dragon in connection with 360 rivers, where ‘dragon’ δράκων > דרקון drqwn, which adds up to 360; and a cataclysm involving 409,000 giants, where ‘cataclysm’ κατακλυσμός > קטקליסמס qtqlsms, or 409. (Bear in mind that the Hebrew script doesn’t have vowels.)
  • Koester 2014 has more evidence on the use of isopsephy/gematria in ancient graffiti, inscriptions, and epigrams.

Revelation follows the same procedure as 3 Baruch. It transliterates the Greek Νέρων into the Hebrew script and calculates with Hebrew numerals.

‘Nero Caesar’ = נרונ קסר Nrwn Qsr
= 50 + 200 + 6 + 50 + 100 + 60 + 200
= 666

In favour of this interpretation:

  1. The word ψηφισάτω (‘let him calculate’) plainly implies isopsephy.
  2. The same reasoning explains the variant reading ‘616’. It is based on the Latin form of Nero’s name: Nrw Qsr. (See below.)
  3. A papyrus from Qumran contains Nero’s name in Aramaic in the form Nrwn Qsr, so the orthography inferred here is legitimate, though not common.
  4. Two ancient discussions retain a memory of the link between Revelation and Nero, though neither mentions this isopsephic interpretation. The Liber genealogus (5th cent.; 194-6 ed. Mommsen) is aware that the number of the beast refers to Nero. Victorinus of Pettau (3rd cent.; Commentary on Apocalypse 17: 11) knows of a link between Revelation and Nero, and (at 13.18) knows both the 666 and 616 readings, though he explains the two numbers differently.
  5. The Greek word ‘beast’ can also be transliterated into Hebrew as θηρίον > תריון trywn = 666. The form actually used in Revelation 13.18 is a possessive, θηρίου, which gives תריו tryw = 616. With both 666 and 616, the text is equating ‘Nero’ and ‘beast’ in the same way that Suetonius’ epigram equates ‘Nero’ and ‘killed his own mother’.

Against this interpretation, there really isn’t much to say. One objection might be that Caesar/Καῖσαρ would normally be written in Hebrew as קי‬סר (Qysr), not ק‬סר (Qsr) (for a total of 676). On the other hand, a number of 1st-3rd century documents do attest the spelling ק‬סר (Qsr). Other isopsephies have been suggested, but they’re not strong. An abbreviated form of the emperor Domitian’s name, Α. Και. Δομετ. Σεβ. Γε. (for αὐτοκράτωρ Καῖσαρ Δομετιανὸς Σεβαστὸς Γερμανικός) adds up to 666. The emperor Gaius was justly detested by 1st century Jews, and his name adds up to 616 in Greek (Γάϊος Καῖσαρ). The Domitian one with the abbreviation looks like a stretch, though. And while Gaius was very objectionable to Jews, he wasn’t especially interesting to early Christians. Nero is by far the strongest candidate.

2. Nero as boogeyman. There is pretty good evidence that Nero was a figure of terror for late 1st century Christians. Early 2nd century sources blame him for the first persecution of Roman Christians, claiming that he made them scapegoats for the great fire of Rome in 64 CE. There is some doubt as to whether the persecution actually happened, but even if it didn’t, the 2nd century sources show that there was an early belief that it did. The sources are the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15.44.5-8; Latin text): he reports that Nero had Christians ‘clothed in the skins of wild beasts, and torn to pieces by dogs’, or ‘set up to be burned, so as to serve the purpose of lamps when daylight failed’ (these gruesome tortures are quite likely fictional). Suetonius reports on a persecution under Nero too, though in his version it had nothing to do with the fire (Nero 16).

3. Nero redivivus. Nero may have been a menacing figure for Christians, but overall he was a tremendously popular figure in the eastern empire. Suetonius claims that after his death some people acted ‘as though he was alive and was soon to return, to the great harm of his enemies’ (Nero 57). In other words, he was to have a second coming. We have reports of at least two, maybe three ‘false Neros’, who pretended that they were Nero, that Nero had never really died, and gained a significant following. (This wasn’t unique to Nero: Tacitus reports on other people being impersonated after their death, most notably Scribonianus in Histories 2.72.)

In 68 or 69 CE, shortly after Nero’s death, one false Nero appeared in Greece and, after landing on the Aegean island of Kithnos because of a storm, turned to piracy until he was captured and killed by Roman forces. (Source: Tacitus, Histories 2.8-9.)

A second false Nero, whose real name was Terentius Maximus, appeared during the reign of emperor Titus in 79-81 CE. He was active in Anatolia, Mesopotamia, and possibly Armenia, and sought refuge with the Parthians, apparently getting as far east as the river Euphrates. (Sources: Cassius Dio epit. 66.19.3 = Zonaras Epit. hist. 11.18; John of Antioch fr. 104 Müller.)

The third one is less well attested. The main evidence for him is Suetonius’ claim that there was a false Nero ‘twenty years after (his death), while I was a young man’ (Nero 57). This would suggest a date around 89 CE, during the reign of Domitian. However, Suetonius mentions the Parthians too: he states (1) that the Parthian king Vologaeses II (fl. ca. 78 CE) asked the Roman senate to honour Nero’s memory; and (2) that the Parthians supported the third false Nero ‘vigourously’ and ‘returned him reluctantly’. This sounds awfully like the second one, above: there could be a confusion of dates. One point in favour of Suetonius’ story is that Tacitus’ report, of the first false Nero above, refers to ‘results and attempts of others’, plural. That implies that he knew of at least three false Neros.

The neighbour of the beast: Pokey (Don McKellar) calls on a wannabe Devil (Earl Pastko) who can’t get his act together. (Highway 61, 1991)

Which number?

Some early copies give a different number. In particular, the Ephrem palimpsest (5th century) gives it as ἑξακόσιαι δέκα ἕξ: ‘six hundred and sixteen’.

This has a pretty strong heritage. As I mentioned above, Irenaeus knew both variants. And 616 works as an isopsephy of Nero’s name just as well as 666 does:

‘Nero Caesar’ = נרו קסר Nrw Qsr
= 50 + 200 + 6 + 100 + 60 + 200
= 616

The Latin form of his name, Nero, gives 616; the Greek form Nerōn (Νέρων) gives 666.

In recent years the 616 variant has enjoyed a lot of prestige, because of an ancient papyrus published in 1999. The papyrus, found at Oxyrhynchus and catalogued as P. Oxy. 4499, dates to the late 3rd or early 4th century. We have 26 fragments of the papyrus, containing bits of Revelation chapters 2 to 15. Fragment p is the relevant one.

P. Oxy. 4499 (= P115 Gregory-Aland), fragment p (Revelation 13.18-14.2)

This papyrus, all by itself, has generated two modern myths:

  1. This papyrus unambiguously supports the reading 616 (highlighted in yellow above: χιϲ).
  2. This papyrus is the earliest existing copy of the passage, or even the earliest existing copy of Revelation, and therefore its text carries more weight than any other manuscript.

These two myths, taken together, would suggest that 616 was definitely the original reading and 666 is a corruption of the text. However, they are both absolutely completely dead wrong.

First, here’s a transcription. I’ve copied the original editor’s text, with some minor adjustments because I think some of the letters are clearer than the original editor thought. (For technical side of how a papyrus text is represented, you can refer to this post from last month.)

Diplomatic text:

1               ]υ̣νψ̣ηφιϲ̣[
2                ]αρανου[
3                    ]ηχιϲ[
4            ]επ̣ιτοορ[
5              ]εχουϲα[
6               ]α̣υτουγε
7             ]α̣υτωνκαι
8              ]φω̣ν  ̣νϋ

Reading text as printed by the editor, Juan Chapa, in The Oxyrhynchus papyri:

1   [(13.18) ὧδε ἡ ϲοφία ἐϲτίν· ὁ ἔχων νο]ῦ̣ν ψ̣ηφιϲ̣[ά]-
2   [τω τὸν ἀριθμὸν τοῦ θηρίου, ἀριθμὸϲ γ]ὰρ ἀν(θρώπ)ου
3   [ἐϲτίν· καὶ ὁ ἀριθμὸϲ αὐτοῦ χξϛ] ἢ χιϛ. [ ]
4   [(14.1) καὶ εἶδον, καὶ ἰδοὺ τὸ ἀρνίον ἑϲτὸϲ] ἐπ̣ὶ τὸ ὄρ[οϲ]
5   [Ϲιών, καὶ μετ’ αὐτοῦ ρμδ χιλιαδε]ϲ̣ ἔχουϲα[ι]
6   [τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ καὶ τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ π(ατ)ρ(ὸ)ς] α̣ὐτοῦ γε-
7   [γραμμένον ἐπὶ τῶν μετώπων] α̣ὐτῶν. (14.2) καὶ
8   [ἤκουϲα φωνὴν ἐκ τοῦ οὐ(ρα)νοῦ ὡϲ] φω̣νὴ̣ν ὑ-
8a  [δάτων ... ]

And my translation of Chapa’s text:

1    [(13.18) Here’s a bit of cleverness. Let someone who has sen]se calcu[l]-
2    [ate] the number of the beast, fo]r [it is the number] of a person:
3    [and its number is 666] or 616. [ ]
4    [(14.1) And I looked, and behold, the lamb standing] on Mou[nt]
5    [Zion, and with it were 144 thousan]d (people) who ha[d]
6    [its name and the name of] its [father] wr-
7    [itten on] their [foreheads.] (14.2) And
8    [I heard a voice from the sky, like] the voice of w-
8a    [aters ...]

Here’s the text and translation as they appear in modern editions. Before we get on to the number, some technical notes (skip over them if you want):

1. In Roman-era papyri, there’s often no visual distinction between the numerals ϛ ‘6’ (the letter stigma) and ϲ ‘200’ (sigma). However, it’s easy to tell which is which by looking at their position.

2. Chapa’s supplements stick to the standard text fairly rigourously, except for (a) numerals replacing numbers written out as words, in the missing parts of lines 3 and 5; (b) some normal abbreviations in the missing parts of lines 6 and 8. However, the result is that the number of letters per line is erratic, ranging from 28 (line 3) to 35 (lines 2 and 6). These could be evened up if we imagine some textual variants: for example line 2 could omit τοῦ, by analogy with ἀνθρώπου later in the line, bringing the line down to 32 letters; line 5 might have written out πατρὸς in full but omitted the repetition of τὸ ὄνομα, bringing it down to 31. Line 4 is also longer than I’d like, at 34 letters.

OK, on to line 3 and the numeral. Let’s see how Chapa arrived at this text. Take a look back at the image above, where the number of the beast, χιϲ ‘616’, is highlighted. Notice the letter immediately before the number? It’s the letter eta, η. That letter raises an important question of its own.

The problem is that there is nothing that eta can possibly correspond to in the standard modern text of Revelation 13.18. What is it doing there?

There are only a few things an eta before a word-break can be:

  • certain forms of a-stem (1st declension) feminine nouns and e-stem (3rd declension contracted) neuter nouns with endings in eta
  • a verb in a specific form with an ending in eta (the aorist passive 3rd person singular)
  • ἡ ‘the’, in a specific singular form
  • δή ‘indeed’
  • ἤ ‘or’

Revelation 13.18 has no occasion for any 1st or 3rd declension nouns or aorist passive verbs, and you can’t have a singular ‘the’ before the number 616. So it’s going to be δή or ἤ. The text is either

[ ... δ]ὴ χιϲ
[ ... ] indeed 616


[ ... ] ἢ χιϲ
[ ... ] or 616

The clearly correct interpretation, as Chapa realised, is that the eta before the number of the beast can only be the word ἤ ‘or’. The papyrus originally quoted both numbers, 666 and 616, as alternatives. And this is why Chapa’s edition correctly prints

[ ... καὶ ὁ ἀριθμὸϲ αὐτοῦ χξϛ] ἢ χιϛ.
[ ... and its number is 666] or 616.

So, no more talk of 616 being attested earlier than 666, please. We can be absolutely confident that they were both written in this papyrus.

And one last thing: there’s still that myth that P. Oxy. 4499 is the earliest existing copy of Revelation. Well, it isn’t. It’s the earliest existing copy of some parts of the book. But not this part.

The misunderstanding may be partly due to this phrasing used on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri website:

The newest volume of Oxyrhynchus Papyri contains a fragmentary papyrus of Revelation which is the earliest known witness to some sections (late third / early fourth century).

If you stop paying attention after the word ‘witness’ you could easily come away thinking this is the earliest copy of Revelation. Even if you carry on reading, you might think it’s implied that it’s the earliest copy of the ‘616’ passage. But it ain’t. That honour goes to P47, above, which is solidly 3rd century, and which has the reading χξϛ ‘666’.

Even if we didn’t have P47, we’d have Irenaeaus’ discussion of the passage — and he’s earlier than both papyri. He knew both the 616 and 666 variants, though he didn’t know the reason for either number. Both of them are very satisfactorily explained by the equations

Νέρων Καῖσαρ = נרונ קסר Nrwn Qsr = 666 = תריון trywn = θήριον ‘beast’

Nero Caesar = נרו קסר Nrw Qsr = 616 = תריו tryw = θηρίου ‘of the beast’

Further reading

  • Chapa, J. 1999. ‘4499. Revelation.’ The Oxyrhynchus papyri 66: 10-37.
  • Koester, C. R. 2014. ‘The number of the beast in Revelation 13 in light of papyri, graffiti, and inscriptions’. Journal of early Christian history 6.3: 1-21. [Taylor & Francis]
  • Parker, D. C. 2000. ‘A new Oxyrhynchus papyrus of Revelation: P115 (P. Oxy. 4499)’. New Testament studies 46: 159-174. [Cambridge Core]

Addendum (July 2022). This piece is still occasionally getting new readers, so I have made some edits to correct some links, tidy the html, and most importantly, to make it explicit that the reading text of P115 shown here is Chapa’s text, and not my own doing; I have also added a translation of Chapa’s text.