TextScribal Blunders in Biblical Numbers Different ways of writing numbers in Greek can be difficult both for ancient scribes and modern scholars. Zachary J. ColeGreek and Arabic numerals. Illustration by Peter Gurry.November 21, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level Ancient scribes faced many challenges when they copied books, but they seem to have had an especially difficult time with numerals. A survey of the numbers in the Bible shows that copyists often misread and miscopied them, leading to a variety of textual variants among existing manuscripts. This is more significant than we might think at first. Remember that numbers play a significant role throughout the New Testament. For example, think of the three sets of fourteen generations in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:17), the precise hours given for the chronology of Jesus’ passion (Mark 15:25, 33, 42), the number of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (1 Cor. 15:6), the number of the Beast (Rev. 13:18), and the ubiquitous numbers three, seven, and twelve. In this article, we consider why many numerals were prone to corruption during the copying process and what this tells us about the New Testament text. Writing numbers To understand why some ancient copyists botched biblical numbers, we need to recognize that there were two different systems of number-writing in use at the time of the New Testament. Perhaps surprisingly, biblical manuscripts often contain both systems standing side-by-side. Actually, modern English does the same thing; we can spell numbers fully or use shorthand symbols (two and 2). Koine Greek likewise used both number-words and number-symbols. A Greek writer, for instance, could spell the number “two” fully, δύο (duo), or use the shorthand equivalent letter beta (β̅). New Testament manuscripts, especially the early ones, often use both systems, sometimes even within the same verse. Numbers written as both letters (yellow) and words (red) in Luke 12:52 in P75 (3rd c.). Pap.Hanna.1 1B.6v The numerical shorthand we find in New Testament manuscripts is an alphabetic system. This means the regular letters of the Greek alphabet were used to express numerical values. For example, the number 153 could be expressed in shorthand form as ρ̅ν̅γ̅—where ρ̅ stands for one hundred, ν̅ for fifty, and γ̅ for three. Notice how it is potentially confusing to use the very same characters for both letters and numbers. How should a scribe know if the letter alpha (α) was meant to stand for a number (“one”) or was simply a part of the next word? To help prevent misunderstanding, scribes used a horizontal stroke above the letters to mark them out as shorthand numbers (ρ̅). Confusing numbers Even still, confusion occurred. Consider four notable examples of numerals with textual variation in the New Testament. Number of shipwrecked passengers First, in Acts 27, Luke narrates the account of Paul’s shipwreck on the way to Rome, and he happens to mention that there were 276 persons aboard the ship (Acts 27:37). Or was it only 76 persons? While the vast majority of Greek manuscripts have the number 276, there is one early manuscript that instead reads: “about 76”. That manuscript is an important one, Codex Vaticanus (B 03). It is hard to see how such an alternative reading would arise when the numerals are written as words. Observe: Most Greek manuscripts: “276 in the ship” (ἐν τῷ πλοιῷ διακόσιαι ἑβδομήκοντα ἕξ) Codex Vaticanus: “about 76 in the ship” (ἐν τῷ πλοιῷ ὡς ἑβδομήκοντα ἕξ) However, if we remember that scribes often used numerical shorthand, the reason for the error becomes clear. With the number written as a symbol (and without spaces between words), the phrase would have appeared like so: entōploiōsos (εντωπλοιωϲ̅ο̅ϲ̅). Now we can see how the scribe of Vaticanus could misread this as en tō ploiō ōs os (εν τω πλοιω ωϲ ο̅ϲ̅). These numerals in the exemplar of Vaticanus were almost certainly written in shorthand. Related The Bible Jesus ReadJohn D. MeadeThe Jefferson Bible and the Faith of an American FounderThomas S. KiddFour Benefits of Reading Greek ManuscriptsAmy S. Anderson Number of years by the pool A second example appears in Codex Ws (032), which wrongly states that the crippled man at the pool of Bethesda had been lying there for forty-eight years rather than thirty-eight (John 5:5). Here, it is easy to see the similarity between the longhand forms of the numbers: tesserakonta kai oktō (τεσσεράκοντα καὶ ὀκτῳ) versus triakonta kai oktō (τριάκοντα καὶ ὀκτῳ). Such visual and aural similarity by itself might explain the error. However, this appears to be another case in which numerical shorthand caused the problem. The difference between the shorthand versions is very slight, a one-letter difference: mē (μη) versus lē (λη). Furthermore, if we take into account the appearance of ancient majuscule (capital) script, the difference is even harder to detect at first glance: ΜΗ and ΛΗ. Number of Jesus’ followers Third, a well-known case of numerical variation appears in Luke 10:1 and 17. Luke tells us that in addition to the core group of twelve disciples, Jesus also had a larger group of seventy followers—or was it seventy-two? Manuscripts are split here. The majority of Greek manuscripts contain “seventy-two,” but several manuscripts—some very early and some later—simply have “seventy.” The difference in Greek would appear like so: seventy-two: ο̅β̅ = ἑβδομήκοντα δύο seventy: ο̅ = ἑβδομήκοντα Making a decision here is extremely difficult, and commentators are not in agreement about the original wording. From a transcriptional point of view, it’s more likely that a scribe would inadvertently omit duo (δύο) or β̅ rather than add it. A survey of numerical errors in New Testament manuscripts shows that, in general, scribes tended to omit the second of two digits rather than add them. This trend suggests that “seventy-two” is the preferable reading. In this case, knowledge of numerical shorthand does not immediately decide the issue but a knowledge of scribal tendencies can help.1For more on this argument, see Zachary J. Cole, “P45 and the Problem of the ‘Seventy(-two)’: A Case for the Longer Reading in Luke 10.1 and 17,” NTS 63.2 (2017): 203–221. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: Number of the Beast A fourth and final example is the famous “number of the beast” in Revelation 13:18. The standard reading here is, of course, 666. Written fully, it is hexakosioi hexēkonta hex (ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ). In shorthand, it would be χ̅ξ̅ϲ̅. However, two notable Greek manuscripts (P115 and C 04) attest an alternative number, 616. Written longhand, it would be hexakosioi deka hex (ἑξακόσιοι δέκα ἕξ; as in C 04), and shorthand it would be χ̅ι̅ϲ̅ (as in P115). Unfortunately, knowing the appearance of the shorthand version does not seem to help us resolve this textual problem. There is no obvious transcriptional reason why a scribe might mistake one of these for the other. A portion of P115 (3rd c.) showing 616 as the number of the Beast in Rev. 13:18. P.Oxy.LXVI 4499 It is worth recognizing the potential symbolic value of the number of the beast, and thus the likelihood that a scribe could intentionally change it. It is possible, for example, that early Christians saw the numerical value 666 as a code for a name. Using the practice of gematria (called isopsephy in Greek), the letters of a name or word could be totaled up (since, as we have seen, letters were also numbers) and connected with other things. For example, many early Christian documents have the number 99 written at the top, which most likely means “amen,” since the total of the values in the word amēn (ἀμήν) amount to exactly 99: α (1) + μ (40) + η (8) + ν (50) = 99. If early readers of Revelation were seeking to identify a known individual as the Beast, this may have led to intentional changes so that the numbers “added up,” so to speak. In short, recognizing the dynamics of Greek number-writing can often, though not always, explain the cause of errors in the copying of numerals. Preserving numbers The examples that we have considered here are instructive for an additional reason. One of the striking things about these points of variation is how relatively minor they are. This point can be seen more clearly when we consider how some skeptical scholars claim that scribes intentionally corrupted the text of the New Testament by doctoring its presentation of Jesus. It is often claimed that scribes deleted uncomfortable wording and added things to make Jesus appear more impressive and godlike than he really was. With that idea in mind, the remarkable thing about New Testament numbers is how stable most of them they are. Take, for example, the account of the feeding of the five thousand in John’s Gospel. Here would have been an opportunity for a scribe to fudge the numbers and exaggerate the extent of Jesus’ miracle. It would have been easy to change five thousand into six thousand, or ten thousand, and so on. And yet the Nestle-Aland critical apparatus notes only one textual variant affecting the value of this number (John 6:10). It is in Codex Sinaiticus (ℵ 01), which wrongly has three thousand (which was subsequently corrected). In other words, scribes here had the opportunity to exaggerate the extent of Jesus’ miracle and thereby inflate the depiction of Jesus. But there is only one known manuscript that miscopied the number, and the value actually decreased. We would expect the opposite if scribes were rewriting the narrative. The remarkable thing about New Testament numbers is how stable most of them they are. We can also consider the narrative of the feeding of the four thousand. One might imagine that this account would have been another tempting occasion for a scribe to exaggerate numerical values and thereby increase the miraculous nature of the feeding. Instead, this is exactly what we do not find. The account appears in both Matthew and Mark. According to the Nestle-Aland apparatus, there are no textual variants with respect to the number of loaves Jesus multiplied (seven in Matt. 15:34/Mark 8:5), the size of the crowd (four thousand in Matt. 15:38/Mark 8:9), nor the amount of leftover baskets (seven in Matt. 15:37/Mark 8:8).2The only apparent numerical variant is that a handful of manuscripts add “about” (ὡς/ὡσει) before four thousand in Matthew 15:38 in parallel to Mark 8:9. In other words, there is remarkable stability across all Greek manuscripts in these seemingly minor numerical details. In conclusion, appreciating the dynamics of ancient Greek number-writing can help us understand the causes of some errors that occurred while copying. Yet, the overall picture gives us confidence in the stability and reliability of the New Testament. Zachary J. Cole Zach Cole (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida and an ordained Presbyterian minister. He is the author of Numerals in Early Greek New Testament Manuscripts: Text-Critical, Scribal, and Theological Studies along with various articles on textual criticism. View all posts Notes1For more on this argument, see Zachary J. Cole, “P45 and the Problem of the ‘Seventy(-two)’: A Case for the Longer Reading in Luke 10.1 and 17,” NTS 63.2 (2017): 203–221.2The only apparent numerical variant is that a handful of manuscripts add “about” (ὡς/ὡσει) before four thousand in Matthew 15:38 in parallel to Mark 8:9.