What’s up with 666, the “mark of the beast”?


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Dear Straight Dope: My daughter informs me that the date 6/6/06 is coming up. Being a little disappointed at our last couple examples of doomsday hype, I wanted to know if there was anything to worry about. Should I start going to church? What’s the origin of the “mark of the beast”? Was it truly supposed to represent Satan or is it a gematria interpretation of Julius Caesar’s name? John Escalante, Los Angeles

SDStaff Dex replies:

You’d better believe you should worry, John. Where do you get off, making fun of prior doomsday hypes? The last time we had such a conflux of 666 was June 6, 1666 — the date of the Great Fire that destroyed London. OK, the fire was actually September 2, not June 6, but we’re not going to quibble about a few months, are we? And remember September 11 — if you add the digits 9+11 you get 20, which is just two more than 6+6+6! Even worse, if you include the year 2001, the sum of the digits is 23, which is just one short of 6+6+6+6!!!

OK, seriously. The famous quote, “the number of the beast … is 666” is from the book of Revelation (note that the title is singular, not plural), the last book of the New Testament

Revelation is classified as apocalyptic literature, i.e., writings about eschatology, the end of times, events hidden in the future, when the forces of Good and Evil fight the ultimate war. The earlier Old Testament book of Daniel has similar visions, as do some of the non-biblical Dead Sea scrolls. Generally, this type of literature was written between 200 BC and 100 AD. The book of Revelation was probably finalized around 95 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, although some parts are likely dated shortly before 70 AD, during the reign of Nero, just prior to the destruction of Jerusalem.

Revelation, like all apocalyptic literature, is mystical, characterized by powerful, vivid imagery and kaleidoscopes of symbolism that let the reader’s imagination run wild. There are bizarre creatures, strange numerology, and fantastic allegory. Most scholars, religious and scientific, agree that every aspect of the writings has symbolic value — people, locations, animals, numbers, colors, clothing, jewelry, everything. Sometimes the images draw meaning from different associations, including other biblical stories. No one really knows what it all means — the original key, if ever there was such a thing, is long lost. In short, there is no one single answer.

So what gives rise to the beast and 666? We need to start in chapter 12 of Revelation, where a dragon battles the angel Michael. Chapter 13 then begins with a “beast rising out of the sea, with ten horns and seven heads, and ten crowns upon its horns and a blasphemous name upon its heads. And the beast was like a leopard, its paws were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like lion’s.” (There’s a similar description of a monster in Daniel 7:4-6.) The beast is empowered by and serves the dragon. Men worship the dragon and the beast, which holds power for 42 months and makes war on the saints. Then a second beast comes from the earth, to help the first beast. This one has two horns like a lamb but roars like a dragon, breathing fire and deceiving men, and killing people who don’t worship the first beast. People are marked (or branded) on the right hand or forehead — it’s illegal to “buy or sell” without having been “branded with the name of the beast or the number of its name.” (This suggests a licensing system of sorts, possibly a reference to an economic boycott against the early Christians by the Romans. I wait for the fundamentalists to use this to condemn social security numbers.)

The chapter ends with verse 18, the key line: “This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six.”

What’s this all about? The simple answer is that the number 666 is tied to the beast, which is tied to the dragon, and the dragon is (obviously) Satan. Hence, 666 is the mark of Satan.

But, as with any compelling story or symbol, there have been many ways of interpreting this over the centuries, depending on where and when you’re reading it.

The most common interpretation is that the dragon is Satan, and the beast from the sea is the Roman emperor and empire, incited by the dragon to persecute the early Christians. By the time of the writing of Revelation, Satan was commonly depicted as a dragon.

The second beast is, well, God knows, but evidently a “false prophet,” deceiving the people into worshipping the emperor (the first beast).

Why 666? You mention the most common interpretation, gematria, the Hebrew numerological system. Check out the Staff Report about numerology, the mystic association of numbers with poetic concepts, at http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2230/whats-the-story-on-numerology.

In the bible, six is traditionally a number of incompleteness, failure, imperfection. God creates the world in seven days, so seven is the number of fullness, completion, perfection; but six is short of perfection. The number six repeated three times (three is also a mystic number) therefore connotes failure, lack of completion, hence evil or wickedness.

A variant reading of the text, incidentally, says the number of the beast is 616, but 666 has more rhythm and is a better symbolic number.

If the dragon is Rome, the beast is most commonly understood to be the emperor Nero, who reigned from 54 to 68 AD. (Not Julius, as you suggest.) The beast makes war upon the saints — Nero engaged in deadly persecution of the early Christians. The number 6 is associated with the beast, and Nero was the sixth emperor of Rome (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero — yes, I know Julius Caesar technically wasn’t an emperor, but he was a Caesar.)

And, finally, under gematria, in which numbers are assigned to letters, 666 is the sum of the numbers of the name Nero Caesar (NRWN QSR) in Hebrew. Presumably this would be why you have to be wise or “have understanding” to reckon the number — you need to know Hebrew gematria.

How about the rest of the imagery? The seven heads, for instance? Take your pick — he seven hills of Rome? The seven kingdoms absorbed into the Roman Empire? The “blasphemous names” on the heads? The Roman emperors were proclaimed as gods. Why is the number of the beast “a human number”? Well, according to Genesis, man was created on the sixth day. (Although note that the number of the beast is not three sixes, but six hundred and sixty six.)  So, the easiest and most common explanation is that the beast and its number 666 refer to the Roman Empire and specifically to Nero.

More fanciful explanations require a belief that the book is prophetic and thus needn’t refer to events in the early Christian era. People at various times have interpreted the beast as paganism, the anti-Christ, or (more amusingly) the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, Islam (the name Allah has the numeric value 666), the British Empire, the United States, Nazism, the United Nations, the European Union, Ronald Wilson Reagan (note six letters in each of his three names), etc.

Bottom line: the number 666 has become associated with Satan in western culture, and appears that way in literature and film. Often this is explicit, in films like The Omen, but sometimes it’s more subtle. According to Wikipedia:

In Clockwork Orange, two police officers are numbers 665 and 667.

In Pulp Fiction, the briefcase is opened by the code 666.

The opening of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical Phantom of the Opera is an auction, where lot 666 is the famous chandelier.

And, of course, there was that joke list making the e-mail rounds a while back that included:

666 = number of the beast
665 = older brother of the beast
660 = approximate number of the beast
66600 = zip code of the beast
1/666 = common denominator of the beast
665.95 = retail price of the beast

and so forth.

SDSTAFF TubaDiva adds

But wait, there’s more:

660 = Approximate number of the Beast
DCLXVI = Roman numeral of the Beast
666.0000 = Number of the High Precision Beast
0.666 = Number of the Millibeast
/ 666 = Beast Common Denominator
(-666) ^ (1/2) = Imaginary number of the Beast
6.66 e3 = Floating point Beast
1010011010 = Binary of the Beast
6, uh . . . what was that number again? = Number of the Blonde Beast
1-666 = Area code of the Beast
00666 = Zip code of the Beast
666mph = The speed limit of the Beast
$665.95 = Retail price of the Beast
$699.25 = Price of the Beast plus 5% state sales tax
$769.95 = Price of the Beast with all accessories and replacement soul
$656.66 = Walmart price of the Beast
$646.66 = Next week’s Walmart price of the Beast
Phillips 666 = Gasoline of the Beast
Route 666 = Way of the Beast
666 F = Oven temperature for roast Beast
666k = Retirement plan of the Beast
666 mg = Recommended Minimum Daily Requirement of Beast
6.66 % = 5 year CD interest rate at First Beast of Hell National Bank, $666 minimum deposit.
$666/hr = Beast’s lawyer’s billing rate
Lotus 6-6-6 = Spreadsheet of the Beast
Word 6.66 = Word Processor of the Beast
i66686 = CPU of the Beast
665.9997856 = The Number of the Beast on a Pentium
666i = BMW of the Beast
DSM-666 (revised) = Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the Beast
1232 Octal, Apt. 29A = Beast’s hexed address
668 = Next-door neighbor of the Beast
333 = The semi-Christ

The last word, we promise.

Courtesy of the Austin Lounge Lizards.  The Neighbor of the Beast.

SDStaff Dex, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.