A couple of readers prodded me to comment on the thrilling — ahem — revelation that the notorious “number of the beast” in Revelation 13:18 might actually not be 666 (thus putting a crimp in the Omen movie franchise), but 616. This makes the news because a few years ago, one of Oxford’s Oxyrhynchus Papyri turned up with the number 616, and it’s taken a long time for this bit of text-critical esoterica to catch the attention of mainstream media (go figure!) — which seem to have noticed only when MTV figured out that this news had implications for heavy metal bands.
The textual variant here isn’t news; we already knew that Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (codex “C”) reads “616,” and Irenaeus shows knowledge of that variation in Against Heresies (Stephen Carlson cites the passage here). If you own a critical edition of the Greek New Testament, you should find a mark in the apparatus that cites this variant. Indeed, this particular papyrus was published in 1999. The fragment in question merits attention because it makes the earliest direct attestation for this variant; the Oxyrhynchus people seem to be dating P.Oxy. LXVI 4499 as later third/early fourth century. That’s after Irenaeus, who died around 202, but well before fifth-century Ephraemi.
It’s hard to displace the fairly strong evidence for 666, but this bit of papyrus strengthens the case that St. John may have ascribed the number 616 to the beast — whatever that number turns out to mean.