666!!! What should we make of the Bible’s most infamous, scariest number?


Does it really matter if it is 666 or 616?


Hold that 616 for a moment.

The Bible’s scariest and most infamous number -- 666 -- occurs in Revelation 13:17-18, a famously perplexing passage in Scripture’s most perplexing book. (If you’re superstitious, note that’s in chapter 13.) “The International Bible Commentary” recounts that assorted preachers have identified 666 as the Pope, Muhammad, Muslim warrior Saladin, King Charles I, Charles’s enemy Oliver Cromwell, King George III of American Revolution fame, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Anwar Sadat, Moshe Dayan, Saddam Hussein, Henry Kissinger, Sun Myung Moon, Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Reagan.

In Revelation (a.k.a. the Apocalypse) chapter 13, a devilish dragon controls a powerful beast from the sea allied with a second beast from the earth that marks everyone on the right hand or forehead. “No one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: Let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six” (New Revised Standard Version).

All English translations say 666, but to Wesley’s point, some add a footnote like this in the NRSV: “Other ancient authorities read six hundred sixteen.” In 2005, British scholar David C. Parker was in the news reporting that the oldest surviving manuscript from Egypt reads 616. Parker dates this fragment of Papyrus 115 around the late 200s A.D. However, the oldest text isn’t necessarily the best and, significantly, in A.D. 180 church historian Irenaeus wrote that 616 was a mistake.

To oversimplify Revelation and its fantastic images, theologians follow three general concepts that can overlap:

(1) A past approach says the book depicts in code the persecution Christians were facing in the 1st Century.

(2) An ever-present approach sees an allegory of Christians’ struggles and triumphs through all time.

(3) A future approach, prominent in one segment of U.S. evangelical Protestants and true Fundamentalists, sees predictions of literal events around Jesus Christ’s Second Coming.

There’s no agreement on who or what the mysterious second beast could be.

Continue reading "What should we make of the Bible’s most infamous, scariest number?" by Richard Ostling.

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