Revelations 13: 11-18

11. And I beheld another beast rising out of the earth;
it had two horns like a lamb, and spoke as a dragon.

[12. And he exercises all the power of the first beast before him,
and causes the earth and them which dwell therein to worship the first beast,
whose deadly wound was healed.]
13. And he did great wonders, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all,

14. By the wonders it had power to do in behalf of the beast,
it deceived the inhabitants of the earth,
telling them to make an image to the beast,
which had the wound by a sword, and yet lived.

15. And it had power to give breath to the image of the beast,
that the image of the beast should both speak,
and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed.

16. And it caused all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave,
to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17. That none could buy or sell, who did not have the mark:
the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

18. Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding calculate the number of the beast:
for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.

Morning Prayers talk, Thursday, 14 October 2004
The Numerology of the Beast

Six hundred sixty six? What in blazes is that all about?!

I am a mathematician; next term I'll teach QR28, ``The Magic of Numbers''. Now in math the magic is not in special numbers like 7 or 28, but in the fabric of number systems, the wonderful relations that tie numbers together. But in the Book of Revelations, as often in mystical literature, a number is credited with special powers. There are other numbers in that fantastic vision of the Apocalypse: four Horsemen, seven Trumpets, 24 Elders, and so on -- the familiar small numbers of ritual. Not so 666, which hardly occurs elsewhere in Scripture. The Revelation text draws particular attention to that number: ``here is wisdom'', ``the number of a man'' -- hinting at some secret code, the hidden ID number of the Devil, the final hint that would unmask him if only we knew where and how to look.

Over the centuries people have looked for the dreaded number, and found it everywhere from the Pope to pop culture, from Roman numerals to Viagra. That's right: Viagra has a molecular weight of 666. Just a few months ago, devout moviegoers in Georgia were spooked when their tickets for Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ had serial numbers that began with three sixes. As for Roman numerals, add up I, V, X, etc.: one and five, ten and fifty, a hundred and five hundred -- you do the math.

In fact we probably do know just what wisdom the author of Revelations intended to convey with that number. Yes, it's Roman, and it's numerals, but the numerals aren't Roman. The Roman is the emperor Nero; the numerals are letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Each letter has a numerical value: Aleph is 1, Beth is 2, and so on until 10, then count by tens till 100, then by hundreds till we run out of letters. Nero Caesar in Hebrew is NeRON QeiSaR; adding up the letters we get ``the number of the man'', 666.

This kind of numerical signature is called gematria, and is still used in Hebrew and Arabic. But it's notoriously malleable: as you can imagine, almost any claim can be supported with gematria if you look hard enough (or, these days, have a computer search for you). My name adds up to 160; I looked the number up on an online gematria dictionary. The other 160's ranged from ``clean, pure'' [NAKI] and ``rejoice'' [ALES], to ``tree'' and ``shadow'' [ETZ, METZEL], to ``languish'' and ``waste away'' [AYEF, MASAS] to ``fall dead'' [NAFAL] -- and also for good measure ``suck'' [YANAK], though the word doesn't have the same connotation in Hebrew. So, coming back to the Number of the Beast, how do we know that, of all the things that could add to 666, it's Nero that was meant?

We can never know beyond all doubt, but there's fairly good evidence. It made sense for an early Christian to represent Nero, and the pagan and powerful Empire that Nero stood for, as the Beast. It also made sense to use the code of gematria. If you write plainly that Nero and Rome are doing the Devil's work, then you're an enemy combatant, and the Roman legal code had no Bill of Rights. But give only the number, and you have plausible deniability: maybe the gematria is just a coincidence, and you were really hinting at the Pope or Roman numerals or whatever, or honestly reporting a mystic prophecy of the far future. So far, that's not a lot, even for circumstantial evidence. But the really suggestive hint is that the oldest manuscripts don't agree on the number: some have 616 instead. It's much harder to concoct an explanation that fits both numbers, and only one of the proposed interpretations of the Number of the Beast accounts for both: Nero. Remember it was NeRON QeiSaR in Hebrew. But the final N of NeRON is optional: the name can also be rendered NeRO, subtracting the letter N [Nun] and its value of 50 to get -- 616.

It's not hard to understand why 616 was largely forgotten. Mathematically, neither that number nor 666 is particularly remarkable: about all that can be said for them is that one is a product of small primes [616=2·2·2·7·11] and the other is a triangular number [666=1+2+3+...+36]. But for memorability it's no contest. Sometimes the triply repeated digit 6 is all it takes to trigger a vision of the Beast -- as in the six letters in each of the three parts of the late President Reagan's full name, Ronald Wilson Reagan; or the triple W's of the World-Wide Web, with W representing the sixth Hebrew letter. Going back to chemistry, some have even seen the Beast not in Viagra but in life itself, based on the carbon atom with its 6 protons, 6 neutrons, and 6 electrons!

Now one can argue that to identify the Beast exclusively with Nero and first-century Rome is to miss the point of prophecy. Revelations, as part of New Testament, is revered by Christians as the word of God, good for all places and for all time. St.John was only the conduit: while he may have associated 666 only with Nero, in God's divine plan for the Universe the number might also be a warning about Viagra, Mel Gibson, and any other manifestation of the Beast that wisdom can uncover.

Well, that's not something for me to argue, but a matter of religious faith. It's not a faith I can share -- it goes against my understanding of how the world works -- but then I'm not Christian, so my vote isn't at stake here. But I think that even those convinced of the divinity of the Book of Revelations must agree that it takes more than gematria or other numerology to convict someone or something of being the Beast. Remember, the Number was the final hint at the Beast's identity, but not the only hint: there was also a speaking image to be worshipped on pain of death, a critical wound survived, and other wonders. To these, we must add the modern, scientific wisdom of psychology and statistics. Psychology tells us that human brain is a great detector of patterns, so great that we perceive pattern even in completely random data. We do this by too earnestly counting evidence in favor of the desired pattern, and also by discounting evidence that goes against it -- such as 1998, the recent Year of the Triple Beast, remembered not for some apocalypse but for Monicagate. Statistics can quantify how strong the balance of evidence is for the pattern, and lets us dismiss the claims of astrology, biorhythms, and the like as the wishful thinking of our pattern-obsessed minds. If you vote for me ... er, I mean, if you join us in QR28 in the Spring, we'll explore some of these issues, as well as the real, mathematical magic of numbers.

Thank you.