Anthropologist looks at superstition about June 6 and '666'

"Let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six." (Revelation 13:16-18, New Revised Standard Version)

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The number 666 -- the "number of the beast," according to the Book of Revelation -- conjures devilish images for many, so forecasts of evil, even doom, are rampant regarding dates or places where the number occurs, including next Tuesday, June 6, or 6-6-06.

Fears of 666, long believed to be the dreaded mark of Satan, are based on a "widespread misinterpretation" of the chapter in Revelation -- appropriately, chapter 13 -- in which the number is discussed, according to a University at Buffalo expert on the origins, nature and meaning of cults, superstitions and cultural identities. Phillips Stevens, Jr., Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology, explains that "like most superstitions, the avoidance of the numbers 13 and 666 are examples of magical thinking.

"People everywhere believe that things associated with other things, through actual contact or just some similarity, have causal relationships, even over space and time," Stevens says. "Things associated with good events or great people can bring good fortune; things associated with failure, disastrous events or evil people carry some of that negativity with them."

And, like many superstitions, the one regarding 666 is based on incorrect data: The "beast" referred to in chapter 13 is not Satan, but, in fact, several other entities.

"Revelation is a complex and confusing book, and is rarely read closely by lay people. 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," Stevens says.

"Revelation" author, John of Patmos, traditionally believed to be St. John the Apostle, was writing to other persecuted Christians in code, according to Stevens, 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, and is most probably the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters for Nero," Stevens says.

The First and Second Letters of John use the term "Antichrist" to denote lapsed Christians. Over subsequent centuries, the legend developed 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 says, adding that there is an ever-growing, ever-changing list of persons considered the Antichrist that features "a long string of mostly historical figures -- 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."

Chapter 13 in Revelation 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 says. "And so, like that other Christian superstition, Friday the 13th -- from the Last Supper, where there were 13 people at the table, and the Crucifixion occurred the next day, a Friday -- 666 has become a strong taboo, avoided because of its negative association."

Generations have shunned the number to the point that it is erased or changed if and when it appears, Stevens notes. Authorities have re-numbered various U.S. highways previously numbered 666, and the town of Bel Air, Calif., changed the 666 street number of the house that President Ronald Reagan purchased upon leaving Washington, D.C.

Beyond mere superstition, many others believe conspiracy theories that have cropped up regarding the number 666, Stevens adds.

"They 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 –- this latter is evidence of the fulfillment of Revelation prophecy," he says.

No surprise, then, that someone has found a way to make money off all these fears: coming soon is a remake of the 1976 horror film, "The Omen," the story of a modern-day birth of an Antichrist figure in the form of an evil boy named Damien (the original starred Gregory Peck and Lee Remick). Producers have scheduled the movie's release date for -- when else? -- next Tuesday, June 6, 2006. Perhaps tickets should be sold for $6.66?

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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