Contra Mundum: The Number of the Beast

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by Matt Flannagan

Recently TV3 screened The Omen. This classic horror is a about a boy called Damian who is the predicted anti-Christ and appropriately has the number 666 on his head. This film epitomizes how the book of Revelation is understood in contemporary culture; apparently it predicts a future person, the beast or the anti-Christ who will take over the world. Associated with this is the number 666 which is literally inscribed into people’s heads or hands.  I think this pop-theology is mistaken.

The relevant section in Revelation says:

And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority… The whole world was astonished and followed the beast. Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?” (Rev 13:1-2, 3b-4)

The text proceeds:

Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast … He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666. (Rev 13:11,16-18)

Most English translations mention the number 666, this is an accurate translation of the number contained in many Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Lesser known, is that some manuscripts contain the number 616 (the significance of this will be explored later).  What is noteworthy, is that the passages quoted above contain imagery, no one, to my knowledge, understands them to refer to an actual seven-headed monster.

In this type of genre, the ancient style of writing called Apocalyptic has imagery that is well known and can be fairly easy to interpret…

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