ciphers and words for numbers

From: Brian E. Wilson (
Date: Mon Oct 20 1997 - 05:59:33 EDT

Juan Stam writes
> Last week Brian Wilson asked a question that interests me very much,
>and nobody seems to have picked up (at least, I've seen no answer): why
>are some letters written as words (six hundred sixty six) and others as
>ciphers (666- but in the corresponding letters)?

Thank you for your interest, Juan, and also to classicists who have
written to me on this direct. As a result of one reply I received last
week, I was given a useful lead, and found the answer to the question
two days ago in the manuscript room in Cambridge University Library in a
book by E. G. Turner - **Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World**
(Oxford, 1971 edition) page 18.

Turner refers to the dozens of photographic plates of papyri of Greek
writings, some literary and others notes, memoranda, and so on, which
are set out in the rest of his book. He points out that in the papyri
of Greek literary published works, numbers are always written in full as
words and never as ciphers. He also refers to the fact that Christian
papyrus manuscripts of the books of the Greek New Testament frequently
use ciphers for numbers in the body of their texts.

My question was whether the papyrus manuscripts of classical Greek
**literary** works ever used ciphers for numbers like the Christian
papyri of Greek NT books frequently do. The answer is in the negative.
Christian Greek papyri of the NT books are different in this respect
from classical Greek papyri of literary works.

In Turner's book, one photograph shows a set of non-literary notes of
the teaching of Aristotle. These are full of abbreviations and do use
ciphers for numbers. It seems that in the papyri, the Christian
manuscripts of the Greek NT books follow the tradition of Greek non-
literary teaching notes, rather than that of Greek literary published

This supports the idea that early Christians writing in Greek may have
regarded the books of the Greek NT more as practical handbooks of notes
to be used for teaching, than works of aesthetically-pleasing
literature to be admired.


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