Text Criticism and Good Hermeneutics is Practical

666 Man QuitsWalter Slonopas seems to read the Bible the way lots of American evangelicals and others do so. They read the most symbolic book in Scripture as if it belonged to some other genre, as if it may be read correctly, the first three chapters excepted, as something other than figurative literature. As a consequence, he has once again quit his job.

Why? He received a W-2 (a tax document) with the number 666. Fearing that to accept the document would be taking the mark of the beast, he quit his job. We should commend this fellow for his desire to obey God’s Word and his willingness to stand for principle even at the cost of his job but in this case it wasn’t necessary.

Revelation 13:18 says, in the ESV,

This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666 (εξακοσιοι εξηκοτα εξ).

First, the text-critical data. Metzger’s Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (1994) says about this:

Instead of εξηκοτα, which is strongly supported by p46 ℵ A P 046 051 all extant minuscules itgig vg sir ph, h copsa, bo arm al, δεκα is read C by some manuscripts known to Irenaeus (who, however, says that 666 is found in “all good and ancient copies” and is “attested by those who had themselves seen John face to face”) and Tyconiuspt. According to Tischendorf’s 8th ed., the numeral 616 was also read by to minuscule manuscripts that unfortunately are no longer extant (nos. 5 and 11; cf. C. R. Gregory, Prolegomena, p. 676). When Greek letters are used as numbers the difference between 666 and 616 is merely a change from ξ to ι (666 = χξς and 616 = χις). Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Neron Caesar written in Hebrew characters…is equivalent to 666, whereas the Latin form Nero Caesar…is equivalent to 616.1

The footnote in the most recent critical edition of the Greek NT (Nestle-Aland, Novum Testamentum Graece (28th edition) published this autumn indicates that there are variants that read 665 and 615.

The point (no Hebrew puns intended) is that there is some doubt about what the correct reading of the original text should be, whether the number is 616 or 666. The differences between 616 and 666 are very slight in both Hebrew and Greek.

In any event, whatever the correct reading, to focus on the number itself misses the intent of the text which is to take the number as a pointer to a kind of figure. It’s most likely that the Revelation was written in the early 90s. In that case, Nero had been dead since 68. The text warns us to pay attention to types, to categories. The warning concerns not a literal but a figurative “beast.” In the very next verse, in 14:1, John sees “the Lamb.” He did not see a four-footed animal. He saw the risen Christ. “Lamb” is a figure for Christ. He also saw 144,000, another symbol. The name written on their foreheads is figurative. There are not literally 24 thrones with 24 elders (4:4). Those are symbols. As my old friend Warren Embree always said, the “blood” that rises to the horse’s bridle (14:20) is not literal blood rising to a literal bridle. You can see how this is going. Just about everything after chapter 3 in the Revelation is meant to be taken figuratively or symbolically. This way of reading the Revelation is not “spiritualizing.” It is reading the Revelation the way God the Spirit intended for us to read it. It’s the way it is read when we pay attention to the signals, clues, and evidence in the text of Scripture itself, when we pay attention to the genre (the type of literature it is).

This poor fellow, trying to be faithful to the Word, has placed his livelihood in jeopardy unnecessarily. Now, there may well come a point in our lives when we shall have to make such sacrifices for the sake of Christ and his kingdom—for some reason that time seems more real to me now than it has in times past. In some places in the world, perhaps even in the West, that time is now but it does not seem to be that time, just now, in Tennessee, for Mr Slonapas. His employer is not asking him to take the mark of the beast. A friend got a 666 phone number. That was not the mark of the beast, although did seem to delight in having that exchange. That’s not the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast is submitting to a system, a theology, a morality that places Caesar before Christ.

In 114AD, about 20 years after John wrote the Revelation, Christians were actually faced with the mark of the Beast. Pliny the Younger, after torturing a deaconess or two, demanded of the Christians that they renounce Christ, honor Caesar as a god, and pour out an offering to the gods. Arguably, to acquiesce would be to take the mark of the Beast. The early Christians faced that choice more than a few times. Under Nero, some of us were covered with pitch, set on fire, and used as human torches. That is probably why John signaled a relation between the Beast and Nero. In the third century Christians would face more intense, systematic, government-sponsored persecution. The Revelation was intended to comfort them (and us) by reminding us that if and when we have occasion to shed blood for Christ’s sake we are only following in the footsteps of our blessed Savior who shed his blood for us. As unjust as such suffering in this life is, there will come a reckoning when evil magistrates who permit or sponsor such persecution will be called to account for failing to uphold their office (Romans 13).

This case illustrates the importance of reading Scripture well, according to its intended sense. It also illustrates the importance of teaching pastors to read God’s Word, in the original languages. It also illustrates the importance of teaching pastors to understand and use technical tools such as text-critical commentaries and the apparatus that appears in academic editions of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. We might even suggest that this case illustrates the value of knowing a little church history, so as to be able put our interpretation of Scripture in a broader context and read Scripture with the church.

The proper and thorough preparation of pastors is not a light matter. Here, we see a direct, practical consequence of inadequate biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). God has given us pastors to help us understand Holy Scripture properly, clearly, and carefully. They need to be well prepared in order to do that, so that God’s people will know how to live according to what Scripture actually says.

1. I omitted the Hebrew characters for Neron Caesar and Nero Caesar because I couldn’t figure how to get the unicode to work.

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