What’s so special about the number 666?
It’s the sum of all the numbers on a Roulette wheel, which is nice. For number nerds, it’s a double triangle number, which is pretty cool, and it’s also equal to the sum of the squares of the first seven prime numbers – try it!
But that’s not what most people’s minds jump to when they hear 666. After all, not every number has its own phobia.
For most people, the number 666 has one specific meaning: the Rapture, Apocalypse, End of the World – call it what you will, it’s harbinger is the number 666. It’s all written right there in The Book of Revelation: “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 and sixty-six.”
Sounds spooky! But what’s really going on here? Why would a beast have a number at all, let alone a fairly ordinary one like 666? Well, here’s the thing: The Book of Revelation is pretty bizarre. And we don’t mean that as a dig against Christianity – serious scholars of religion say the same thing.
"The Book of Revelation … [is] very different than anything else you find in the New Testament," explained Princeton’s Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion, Elaine Pagels, speaking to NPR in 2012. "There's no moral sermons or ethical ideas or edifying things. It's all visions. That's why it appeals so much to artists and musicians and poets throughout the century."
And there’s a good reason for that: "it's wartime literature," Pagels said, written by “John” – likely a refugee from Jerusalem, which had recently been destroyed by the Romans in the First Jewish-Roman War.
“It comes out of that war,” Pagels said, “and it comes out of people who have been destroyed by war.”
When looked at through that lens, the text starts looking a lot less like a vision of the literal apocalypse and a bit more like the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a therapeutic writing class. There’s a great scarlet beast mentioned that has seven heads and seven crowns, for instance – not something you’re likely to see in the real world, but a thinly-veiled reference to the dynasty of Julius Caesar, Pagels explained.
"Most people think John was writing at about the year 90 in the first century. That would be 60 years after the death of Jesus, and the eruption of Vesuvius happened in the year 79," she said. "Much of what we find in the Book of Revelation couched in the fantastic imagery are descriptions of events that for John were very close — the war in Jerusalem, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the Roman Emperors who were ruling at the time.”
And it’s that last example that’s key to understanding the importance of the number 666 – well, that and a bit of numerology. Remember that this was well before the rise of Hindu-Arabic numerals, and contemporary readers would have been used to a range of alphabetical representations of numbers.
“Now what this means is that every word also has a numerical value,” explained Numberphile’s Pete Watts in the channel’s “666” video. “So it's almost as if the text is saying, ‘I’m gonna give you a riddle, you need to calculate the number of the Beast.’”
So then, guys, gals, and non-binary pals, let’s figure it out – who could the mysterious “Beast” be?
Well, let’s look at the evidence: the author of Revelations had been forced to flee his home by the Romans, and would have recently seen a wave of state-sanctioned violence and hostility against (what we would now call) Christians, also at the hands of the Romans. In charge of both these catastrophes was the Emperor Nero, who, despite being dead by the time Revelations was written, many people were convinced was about to come back at any time, like a kind of evil Ancient Elvis. Could the “Beast” be referring to Nero?
Well guess what: “Caesar Nero” translated into Hebrew is ???? ???? – or, to spell it out letter-by-letter, nun-resh-vav-nun qof-samek-resh. Each of these letters has a value in Hebrew numerals:
If we add up the values of the letters in “Caesar Nero,” then, we get … that’s right: 666.
“John would have wanted his readers to understand that,” Pagels explained. “That number, which is couched in a mysterious code, would be understood to his readers as the name of one of those emperors who destroyed his people.”
So not a real beast; not the antichrist; just a particularly anti-Christian Emperor who had really screwed over the writer of Revelations – and who apparently might come back at any moment, so you’d better not piss him off.
“No one wants to write a book under imperial persecutions saying, 'The root of all evil is Nero Caesar,'” added Watts in the Numberphile video. “You're not going to spell that out.”
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