by Dan WallaceDecember 4th, 2009 36 Comments
In a video that’s posted on Youtube and is making the rounds in popular Christian circles, an Arab Christian claims that there are three Arabic words in Revelation 13.18, the passage that speaks about the number of the beast.
Here’s the link to the video: Walid Shoebat – Mark of the Beast
Walid Shoebat claims in this video that the mark of the beast is Islam itself. Certainly, Christians can recognize that Islam denies the deity of Christ, vicarious atonement, and bodily resurrection; for this reason, Islam is a false religion. We can also recognize that there are small groups of Muslims who are radical and would like to destroy Israel and America. But does this make Islam the Antichrist? That’s rather doubtful.
Shoebat’s basis is this: “When I first saw the Codex Vaticanus, I was literally shocked because I could read the text. It was Arabic! … ‘In the name of Allah.’”
But Shoebat did not read Codex Vaticanus. This codex is the famous fourth-century Greek New Testament (and Old Testament) manuscript that ends at Hebrews 9.13. The material added after Heb 9.13 is all in a much later hand. According to the authoritative Kurzgefasste Liste der griechischen Handschriften des Neuen Testaments, 2nd edition (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1994), the supplement (known as codex 1957) was written in the 15th century. What Shoebat saw was not technically Codex Vaticanus but Codex 1957, a text written over a thousand years after Vaticanus.
In his video, he explains how the three Greek letters χξς in Revelation 13.18 are not really Greek at all, but Arabic. On top of the stretch to make the Arabic words fit, there are other severe problems with Shoebat’s claims. As much as some Christians would like for Shoebat’s interpretation to be correct, it fails at many levels. Let’s examine Shoebat’s claims.
1. Rev 13.18 specifically introduces this symbol as the number of the beast. The word ‘number’ is used three times in this verse. We are thus expecting a number, not a foreign word, to be introduced. Shoebat offers no explanation how ‘number’ can mean anything other than number here.
All he says is that “God is not the author of mysteries… His yoke is easy. God is not interested in gematria. Gematria is a process that was used in witchcraft.” These statements are self-serving, contradictory, and incorrect. To say that God is not the author of mysteries is stunningly naïve. Of course he’s the author of mysteries. “Mystery” is a word that occurs 28 times in the NT. Almost every time it is used in collocation with a positive word: ‘the mystery of godliness,’ ‘the mystery of the gospel,’ ‘the mystery of faith,’ etc. Jesus’ parables were a form of mystery (something that was unknown to the listeners until revelation about the parables was given). Furthermore, if there is Arabic in Rev 13.18, why wouldn’t that qualify as a mystery for most readers? And if no one until Walid Shoebat had properly understood the meaning here, then the text has obviously been a mystery for 1900 years. To say that “[God’s] yoke is easy” is to wrench out of context what Jesus said about what it means to follow him in Matthew 11.29–30: his yoke is easy because it does not burden someone down with legalism. The text has nothing to do with interpretation. Judging by the disparate interpretations of scripture for the several millennia, if an easy yoke means that the interpretation of the text is plain and straightforward at all points, then scripture has created a brutally hard yoke for us.
Shoebat argues that Rev 13.18 can’t refer to a number because gematria was evil, used in witchcraft. That may be, but even if so (Shoebat gives no evidence of this), it was not always used for evil purposes. And the fact that Rev 13.18 explicitly links a person’s name to a number tells us that the author is thinking along the lines of gematria. If the number 666 is authentic, it may be significant that the gematria for the name “Jesus” (Ἰησοῦς) is 888. And just as 666 comes short of perfection, 888 is beyond perfection (since 7 is often viewed, biblically speaking, as the perfect number). Early Christians thought of some passages as involving gematria. For example, Barnabas 9.8 (early second century) says, concerning the 318 servants of Abraham mentioned in Gen 14.14, “For it says: ‘And Abraham circumcised ten and eight and three hundred men of his household.’ What, then, is the knowledge that was given to him? Observe that it mentions the ‘ten and eight’ first, and then after an interval the ‘three hundred.’ As for the ‘ten and eight,’ the Ι [iota] is ten and the Η [eta] is eight; thus you have ‘Jesus’ [the first two letters of the name ‘Jesus’ in Greek]. And because the cross, which is shaped like the Τ [tau], was destined to convey grace, it mentions also the ‘three hundred.’ [The Greek letter tau had a numerical value of 300.] So he reveals Jesus in the two letters, and the cross in the other one.”
Matthew’s genealogy may also fit this, since his mention of three groups of 14 generations is somewhat artificial, since he skips some ancestors of Jesus. But since the name David had a gematria of fourteen, the evangelist may have been thinking along the lines of David’s gematria for his grouping. Among Jews, see a similar treatment of Gen 14.14 in the Talmud (b.Ned 32a).2. Arabic was a rather minor language at the time that the Apocalypse was written, almost surely unknown to John the Seer. Further, the alphabet looked quite different in the early centuries. Not only this, but the first written record we have of Arabic comes from the early sixth century—over 400 years after the Apocalypse was written. And the Greek script that Shoebat saw in Codex 1957 at the back of Vaticanus (and which he thought was Arabic) was Greek minuscule script, a form of script that was not used in biblical manuscripts until the 9th century! In the majuscule script (found in all NT manuscripts until the 9th century when the minuscule script began to take over), the letters would look like this: cxs. Are these characters Arabic? Shoebat’s entire thesis crumbles at this point. There are simply too many anachronisms here for the view to have any validity.
3. A further point on the majuscule script: Below is the drawing that Shoebat made of the Arabic, which bears almost no resemblance to the majuscule text.
He makes a big point about the first letter (going from left to right): this letter is the Muslim symbol of crossed swords. But in order for it to do so, there must be a tittle at the bottom of each leg (i.e., the font must be serif on the bottom but not the top). This is not the way the majuscule text was written, and only by a stretch of the imagination could one see the minuscule text fitting this style. Below is a picture of the chi in Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth-century majuscule. Notice that any curvature is at the top, not the bottom.
The next two letters, xi and sigma, as found in Sinaiticus:
No matter how you slice it, the Arabic above simply doesn’t look like the Greek.
4. Ancient Greek has no numerical symbols other than letters of the alphabet. When the Greeks wanted to write a number, they had two choices: either write out the name of the number (e.g., “six hundred and sixty-six,” as is found in Codex Sinaiticus, contrary to what Shoebat claimed), or write out the letters that were used for numbers. When they did the latter, they either wrote a horizontal line above the symbols or an acute accent afterward—both to show that this was not a word that was to be read, but something else. One of the features of the earliest copies of the Greek NT was that the manuscripts were written in a ‘documentary’ hand rather than a literary hand. A documentary hand is less elegant, but also utilizes some shorthand not found in literary hands. One of the major shorthand features is using alpha-symbols for numbers. This was not done in literary writing, but it was done in documentary texts. The earliest manuscripts of Revelation do this at Rev 13.18. The horizontal bar over these three letters indicate that the scribes recognized that this was not a word but a number.
5. As early as the second half of the second century AD, there is patristic discussion about the number of the beast. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, speaks about having seen early copies of the Apocalypse as having the number 666 written in this verse. He contrasts this with some more recent copies that have 616. If Shoebat is right, then what John wrote was forgotten almost immediately (for Irenaeus thought it represented a number), only to resurface after 1900 years. But John would have to have written the text in a form of letters that didn’t come into vogue for another 700 years in order to be read as Arabic words whose alphabet could not match the Greek letters, even with the employment of a wild imagination, for at least 400 years! In other words, what Shoebat thought he saw was later Arabic forms that did not exist in John’s day based on even later Greek forms that did not exist in John’s day. The chronology for both the Greek being confused for Arabic and the look of the Arabic itself simply won’t work in the first century.
Conspiracy theories tend to move in the realm of the non-falsifiable. They stoke the fires of imagination and fear, and give the uninformed a sense of enablement and mission because they are in the ‘know.’ But such theories are usually unproductive and even self-destructive, unless they are backed up with overwhelming evidence. This one isn’t.
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