The number(s) of the Beast

And you thought overlapping area codes were bad!

“Satanists, apocalypse watchers and heavy metal guitarists may have to adjust their demonic numerology after a recently deciphered ancient biblical text revealed that 666 is not the fabled Number of the Beast after all,” reports today’s National Post, following up on other news stories. “A fragment from the oldest surviving copy of the New Testament, dating to the Third century, gives the more mundane 616 as the mark of the Antichrist.”

This is due to recent technological developments that have allowed scholars to read previously obscure fragments of the Oxyrhynchus papyri, which were discovered way back in the late 19th century. However, as Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin notes, another Oxyrhynchus fragment that scholars have been able to read for years also gives the Beast’s number as 616, not 666; thus, modern translations like the NASB, the NLT, the ESV or the Holman Christian Standard Bible already note this discrepancy in their footnotes. So there’s nothing really new here.

FWIW, Akin has an interesting theory to the effect that the Beast may have been not Nero, as most scholars suspect, but rather Caligula, though I don’t buy that myself. However, I am intrigued by a theory put forth in a book by one of my UBC professors, to the effect that the “abomination that causes desolation” predicted by Jesus in Mark 13:14 might have been inspired by Caligula’s attempt to install a statue of himself in the Jerusalem Temple in AD 40. Of course, Jesus was alluding to prophecies in Daniel which, in turn, appear to have referred to the desecration of the Temple under Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 BC; so while it is possible that Mark might have recorded this saying of Jesus’ with the Caligula episode in mind, the Caligula episode was probably just one of many humiliations that Jerusalem had to endure, and Mark almost certainly had some other event ultimately in mind — such as the war which began during Nero’s reign and ended during Vespasian’s reign with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. (FWIW, this cryptic saying is modified in Luke’s gospel so that it now refers explicitly to “Jerusalem being surrounded by armies,” which sounds more like a reference to this war.)

Anyhoo, one can only wonder what all those end-times novelists and filmmakers will do with this information!

ADDENDUM: I can’t believe I said so much about Caligula and the like without tying this into Bible epics somehow! So here goes…

One of the many interesting and curious things about the New Testament is the way it avoids any mention whatsoever of the episode involving Caligula’s statue and his efforts to have it installed in the Jerusalem Temple. We know of this incident from the Jewish writers Philo, who met Caligula personally, and Flavius Josephus, who would have been a toddler when this happened.

Now, the interesting thing is that all this occurred while the early Church was growing and spreading, yet there is no explicit mention of it anywhere in the New Testament. Luke very explicitly links the birth of Christ to the reign of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14) and the ministry of Christ to the reign of Tiberius (AD 14-37), and he even explicitly links certain events in the Book of Acts to the reign of Claudius (AD 41-54). But there is no mention of Caligula.

We might suppose that this omission is due to the fact that Caligula reigned for only three years and a bit between Tiberius and Claudius. But the incident involving his attempt to install a statue of himself in the Jerusalem Temple evidently made a huge, huge impression on Jewish writers of that time. So it is curious that the New Testament makes no reference to this incident at all.

Ah, well, where the scriptures are silent, film speaks. And one of the reasons I have always loved the mini-series A.D. Anno Domini (1985) is because it tells parallel storylines, one of which deals with the early Roman emperors, another of which deals with the rise of the Church — and it has Caligula attempt to install his statue right around the time Peter baptizes the Roman centurion Cornelius, who thus becomes the first Gentile Christian. Indeed, the mini-series even depicts Cornelius’s conversion as a response to the absurdity of his orders to install the statue in the Temple! It then shows the Christians, almost all of whom are Jews, wrestling with the question of whether the Temple is still “our” Temple.

I rather doubt that things really happened that way, of course. But the timing fits — the Cornelius episode is in Acts 10, and the two scriptural references to Claudius are in Acts 11 and 18 — and it’s a creative way to bring these various historical threads together.

ADDENDUM AGAIN: It’s late at night, and I just remembered yet another tangent… please forgive me as I indulge myself!

The discrepancy in the manuscripts regarding the number of the Beast reminds me of a similar discrepancy regarding the height of Goliath. As I wrote in a university paper over 11 years ago:

In a somewhat unnecessary move, Wiseman supports the plausibility of Goliath’s height (“six cubits and a span”, corresponding to about 3 metres or 9 feet, according to most translations of I Samuel 17:4) by citing anonymous skeletons with heights of up to 3.2 metres that he says have been found in Syro-Palestine; however, he does not cite any particular studies to support this claim (pp. 23, 244 n. 58). In any case, the textual evidence suggests that Goliath, while a giant, was originally somewhat shorter than the height given in most versions of the Bible today. While the Masoretic Text and certain editions of the Septuagint do give Goliath’s height as “six cubits and a span”, Josephus (Antiquities 6.171) and a Dead Sea Scroll fragment known as 4QSama both give his height as “four cubits and a span”, as do certain other editions of the Septuagint (McCarter, p. 286). One would certainly not expect copyists to downplay the challenge faced and won by David, thus it seems that Goliath was, in fact, closer to six feet nine inches tall, “a true giant in an age when a man well under six feet might be considered tall” (McCarter, p. 291).

For whatever that’s worth! Gee, aren’t numbers fun?

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About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his award-winning film column for that paper, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He has also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005) and The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film (De Gruyter, 2016).

  • Josh

    According to my wife, a theology student: If you transliterate “Neron Caesar” from Greek into Hebrew, using Hebrew numerology, one gets 666. However, if you transliterate “Nero Caesar” from Greek into Hebrew, you get 616. The textual variant reflects the variant spelling of Caesar and the ancient copyists apparently knew without a doubt who the 666 was referring to so much so that they amended the text to read 616 if they felt Neron should be spelled Nero.

  • Anonymous

    So all the occult wankers now get a nasal voice that says, “That number is no longer in service…”?