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Professor unmasks “666” superstition

June 4, 2006
Courtesy University at Buffalo
and World Science staff

The Bible’s Book of Revelation warns ominously of “666” as the “number of the beast,” and it still conjures devilish images for many. Forecasts of evil and doom abound for dates or places where the number occurs, including Tuesday, June 6, or 6/6/06. 

Hell by Hans Memling, 1485

But an anthropologist says fears of the number, long believed to be the dreaded mark of Satan, are based on a misunderstanding of the relevant text in Revelation—Chapter 13, aptly enough. 

“Like most superstitions, the avoidance of the numbers 13 and 666 are examples of magical thinking,” said Phillips Stevens, Jr., associate professor of anthropology at the University at Buffalo, N.Y. 

Such fears have even driven some conspiracy theorists to claim the “evil” 666 is hidden in product bar codes, he said.

But contrary to popular belief, he added, the biblical text shows that the number doesn’t stand for Satan. Rather, it is a mark that the Devil would give someone who met his approval—a sort of infernal bar code, if you will.

The “beast,” moreover, isn’t Satan, Stevens added, but rather several other entities.

“Revelation is a complex and confusing book, and is rarely read closely by lay people,” Stevens said. “Biblical scholars have pointed out that there are several ‘beasts,’ in Chapter 13 and elsewhere, and they all refer variously to Rome, Roman emperors and Roman cults of god- and emperor-worship.”

Revelation’s author, John of Patmos, traditionally believed to be St. John the Apostle, was writing to other persecuted Christians in code, Stevens argued. 

So “many of the strange elements in Revelation signify events, people or institutions familiar to first-century Christians. The mark of the beast, 666, signifies those in thrall to the emperor and thus opposed to Christianity.” 

Stevens said the hellish integer is probably a numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters for Nero, the despised Roman emperor. 

The number is related to another misunderstood term, “Antichrist,” Stevens said. The word denotes lapsed Christians, he explained, in the First and Second Letters of John. Chapter 13 declares that the Antichrist was empowered by Satan, who is described as a dragon.

“So, although ‘the beast’ is not Satan, in Christian tradition ‘the mark of the beast’ was authorized by Satan,” Stevens said. Thus “666 has become a strong taboo, avoided because of its negative association.”

In later centuries, he continued, a legend bloomed that the “end times” would be foreshadowed by the arrival of the Antichrist, an evil figure commissioned by Satan to prepare the world for his coming.

“Many perceived enemies of Christianity have been labeled the Antichrist, and Nero was one of the first,” Stevens said. He added that there is an ever-growing, ever-changing list of people labeled Antichrist. “Saladin was on the list, as was Hitler, and Saddam Hussein. The list varies according to who compiles it. Early Reformation-era Protestants had some popes on their list.”

He added that the Christian superstition of Friday the 13th as an evil day comes from the Last Supper, where there were 13 people at the table, and the tradition that Christ was crucified the next day, a Friday.

Both numbers inspire profound dread.

Authorities have re-numbered various U.S. highways previously numbered 666, Stevens noted. The town of Bel Air, Calif., changed the 666 street number of the house that President Ronald Reagan purchased upon leaving Washington, D.C. 

Conspiracy theorists “believe the sinister number 666 is encoded in our nation’s banking system, in our medical and governmental records, and in our very identity, in personal documents and in UPC bar codes,” he said.

No surprise, then, that someone has found a way to profit from this terror. Coming soon is a remake of the 1976 horror film, “The Omen,” the story of a modern-day birth of an Antichrist in the form of an evil boy named Damien. The movie’s release is scheduled for—when else?—June 6, 2006.

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Front image: Satan Calls Forth His Defeated Legions by Gustave Doré (1832-1883)

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