The entire concept of the “number of the Beast” and the associated number of 666 is based upon something scholars call “gematria”. In Hebrew, letters all have a numerical value. Gematria is the calculation of the numeric value of Hebrew letters, words, or phrases. Because of the nature of the Hebrew language and its symbolic character, gematria offers insight into the meta-meaning of Hebrew writings (i.e. the Tanakh (Torah, aka the Old Testament) and the Talmud).
In the Book of Revelation 13:18, the text reads something like:
Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
The “beast” in question here is Nero Caesar. The Greek form of this name, transliterated in Hebrew, yields the gematria of 666. Nero, as some of you may recall, was somewhat nuts, and not a nice person to folks of religious convictions other than Roman. Hence, his characterization as a monster.
However, it seems that the number may be wrong:
A newly discovered fragment of the oldest surviving copy of the New Testament indicates that, as far as the Antichrist goes, theologians, scholars, heavy metal groups, and television evangelists have got the wrong number. Instead of 666, it’s actually the far less ominous 616.
This information comes to us from the Oxyrhynchus collection that I blogged about recently. Among the deciphered material thus far is a newly discovered fragment of the Book of Revelation written in ancient Greek.
Professor David Parker, Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism and Paleography at the University of Birmingham, thinks that 616, although less memorable than 666, is the original. He said: “This is an example of gematria, where numbers are based on the numerical values of letters in people’s names. Early Christians would use numbers to hide the identity of people who they were attacking: 616 refers to the Emperor Caligula.”
Even though all of this seems to have little more than historical academic value in terms of who the writers of the text considered to be the enemies of their faith, the significance of this in Christianity has assumed a much more dramatic scope:
The Book of Revelation is traditionally considered to be written by John, a disciple of Jesus; it identifies 666 as the mark of the Antichrist. In America, the fundamentalist Christian right often use the number in sermons about the coming Apocalypse.
As ominous numbers go, 616 seems quite a bit less scary than 666. It sounds less like the Number of the Beast and more like the Number of the Beast’s Apartment. It remains to be seen whether modern Christians will adopt 616 as the true number, or whether Revelation 13:18 as traditionally known will continue to be used.
Considering how much fake “gematria” some people find in things that conveniently yield 666 as their result, I’m guessing that pseudo-numerologists and armchair prophets will be in a tizzy for a few years to come.
Personally, I think that the Bible as a text should be taken primarily as historical literature. It also presents various sorts of philosophical thought and allegorical stories that are useful in illustrating various values.
But scrutinizing the supposed numerical values of various things in the world around us is to miss the forest for the trees. Evil is easily identified, and does not need to be “verified” in this way to be treated as such. So-called “Satanists” may continue to play their silly games of scaring the chickens and the womenfolk, but they should remember: It’s not the number that has power. It’s what the number represents.