The Number of the Beast
by D. C. Parker
MANUSCRIPT COPIES OF THE BOOK OF REVELATION give different 'numbers of the beast'. Exciting though this number is for people who believe the Bible literally, the interest of this number of scholars of Revelation is the light it sheds on the development and use of Revelation in early Christianity. The two numbers which are best known are 666, the number found in the majority of manuscripts, and 616, found in some of the oldest copies, and those with an early form of text. The editorial rule is that the harder reading must be the one from which the easiest came. If 616 was first found, then the much more impressive number 666 (repetition of numbers in the ancient world gave emphasis), and 6 as one short of 7, which represented wholeness, stands for discord and confusion, its opposite, so 666 is diametrically opposed to what the author believed in. The text specifically states that the number refers to a man, and here too the move from 616 to 666 is more likely. By the practice of gematria, in which the letters of a name have a numerical value leading to a significance, the title Gaius Caesar adds up to 616. Gaius Caligula, who tried to set up his statue in the Temple in Jerusalem, may have represented to early Christians the challenge of the Roman state to their monotheism. Caligula may have been replaced by Nero after the horrific persecution of Christians, who were made scapegoats for the fire of Rome. And Nero Caesar can come out as 666 in Greek.
No doubt people who take Revelation literally will still prefer 666. This article is not an attempt to persuade anyone that 616 is the 'real number of the beast' - the whole thing was a clever attempt by an early Christian to avoid naming the emperor as the number one enemy - a sensible step. It has nothing to say to the modern world.
In fact other numbers are also found in early sources - 617, 646 and 665.