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
“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
“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.