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Bible writers got the Beast’s number wrong, say scholars

02 November 2006

THE NUMBER of the Beast in Revelation is 616, not 666, say scholars who have been working their way through a large haul of Greek papyri discovered in a dump outside Oxyrhynchus in Egypt.

The find was made in the 19th century, but the poor condition of the documents made them mostly illegible. Recent research in Oxford on the 400,000 fragments has used new imaging techniques. Scholars talk of increasing the sum of classical texts by 20 per cent.

A scrap of the Revelation of St John, dating from about 300, has recently come to public attention, though research on it was first published in 1999. It refers to “616”. By giving numerical value to Greek letters of the alphabet, something educated Greeks enjoyed doing, they could conceal in the text (Revelation 13.18) the real target of their anger.

Until now, commentators have followed later readings that assign the number 666 to the Beast — a code that is thought by some to have referred to Nero, who persecuted early Christians.

The Revd Professor David Parker, Professor of New Testament Textual Criticism and Palaeography at the University of Birmingham, said on Tuesday that the possibility that the sign of the Beast was 616, not 666, was considered by Irenaeus in the second century, but he rejected it.

Referring to the newly examined text he said: “This adds weight to those who believe that it is a reference to Caligula’s attempt to desecrate the Temple in Jerusalem, by having his statue erected there as part of the cult of emperor worship.

 “There may be a reference to it in Mark [13.14], where he refers to the ‘the abomination of desolation’. But this was overlaid by the Neronian persecutions. People believed that you could get from ‘666’ to Nero because in Greek he is the emperor Neron Caesar. And 666 is one number less than the perfect 777.

“The text is quite legible to the naked eye. It was published in 1999, but it has taken people time to catch up,” he said.

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