Hello, beast? Damn! Wrong number. Directory Assistance, can you get me the number of the Beast?

“The number 666 is no longer in service. Calls are being taken by… 616.”

A couple weeks ago everyone was eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Beast. You know, that legendary Satanic creature from the Bible that would signal the end of time as we know it. Something like that. And since the number of the Beast is supposed to be 666–it’s in the Bible, isn’t it?–everyone was halfway hoping the Beast would make an appearance June 6th.

Late in the day, without having seen hide nor hair of aforementioned Beast, I was talking to my father on the phone and he happened to mention the number of the Beast has actually been determined to be 616. Dad can outdo me in calculus and electronic tube theory, but not in Boolean algebra, and especially not in biblical scholarship, so yes, I had already heard of the Beast’s new number. I know it comes from the last book of the Bible, Revelation, which was believed to be written by John, disciple of Jesus, from an imperial Roman prison. No doubt John had to write cryptically if he wanted his letters to reach the outside, which this one obviously did. And we probably wouldn’t understand a lot of the current events that would be common knowlege to readers 2000 years ago. But I started getting more curious about the scholarship behind the number thing, and decided to track down the Beast in its lair.

First of all, yes, it is in the Bible, Revelation 13:18, which is rendered like this by Today’s New International Version (TNIV is the 2005 gender-accurate translation of the Biblical literalists’ NIV. This means when the original Greek says “human” it gets translated as “human” and not “man.” The word “man” in this translation will always refer to one male human individual) :

This calls for wisdom. Let those who have insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.

beast-616-number-72.jpgThe interpretation of the Beast’s number centers around the fragment of a papyrus first discovered in a 3rd century Egyptian garbage dump back in 1895. With new imaging techniques, Oxford scholars have been able to read the damaged fragment. A photo of this earliest known papyrus of this passage of Revelation is available on their website. The number itself consists of the Greek letters chi, iota, stigma which look something like “xic” and stand for the Greek numbers 600, 10, and 6.

Taken at face value, the Revelation account of the vision of the Beast centers around the antichrist and the apocalypse. But the ancient Greeks liked to play with numerology. They liked number puzzles centering on the names of political figures. Some say Caligula was the real identity of the Beast. A more common viewpoint is that the puzzle represents Nero, who, after all, wanted to destroy the temple in Jerusalem.

So maybe the Number of the Beast is nothing more than the first century equivalent of someone sneaking a “Somewhere in Texas a village is missing its idiot” bumper sticker out of Guantánamo.

UPDATE: The Nero link is broken, the best beast explanation now–and the Beast is now thought to have been Domitian–is here:
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/apocalypse/revelation/white.html

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