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6-6-06: Day of the Beast or Just Another Day?

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. Tomorrow, we note, is June 6th. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

The sixth is D-Day when the allies returned to northern Europe. But this particular June 6th is D-Day for another reason: D as in demonic. Tomorrow is 6-6-06, a long dreaded date for people who associate 666 with Satan.

BRAND: Mike Pesca joins us in a moment with a story of the fears these digits inspire. There are women trying to avoid giving birth tomorrow. First though, the biblical origins of 666.

Here is DAY TO DAY's devilish Nihar Patel.

NIHAR PATEL reporting:

New Testament scholar L. Michael White tends to sigh when clearing up misconceptions he feels people have about 666.

Professor L. MICHAEL WHITE (Department of Classics, University of Texas): Okay. In Chapter 13, the 666 is used to refer to…

PATEL: Now before White completes that thought, consider what the University of Texas at Austin professor has to compete with.

(Soundbite of movie, “The Omen”)

Unidentified Man #1: (In film clip) He bears a birthmark, a sequence of sixes.

PATEL: A new remake of the classic horror movie The Omen, featuring Damien, a special little boy.

(Soundbite of scary sound effects)

PATEL: Who is the spawn of Satan! But if popular culture is right, could one number really embody all that evil?

Prof. WHITE: We just don't know. All we know is we've got the final numbers.

PATEL: That hasn't stopped Professor White and other biblical scholars from coming up with theories about what this number really means. Here's what we do know: 666 appears in the Book of Revelation, the cataclysmic, apocalyptic, end of times final book in the Christian Bible. Traditional Christian views held that 666 referred to the anti-Christ. But maybe not, says White.

Prof. WHITE: There is no word anti-Christ in Revelation. That's as simple as that. Everybody knows that. It's part of the misinterpretation.

PATEL: Harvard divinity Professor Françoise Bovon believes the writer of the Book of Revelation, known as John, may have been trying to unite the early followers of Jesus, more than scare the bejesus out of them. These early Christians were already living under the often cruel and authoritarian Roman Empire.

Professor FRANÇOISE BOVON (Harvard Divinity School): It was a subversive movement. And the Book of Revelation is very much engaged in the resistance against the Roman ideology and Roman power, in one sense.

PATEL: And so it makes sense, then, that when the Book of Revelation says 666 is the Mark Of The Beast, some scholars think this beast refers to a reviled Roman emperor. At the time the book was written, the emperor was Domitian, or as Professor White says in Greek…

Prof. WHITE: Domitia Kais, which would be Domitian Caesar.

PATEL: White says Domitia Kais could be code. It's all because of an Old World practice called numerology.

Prof. WHITE: Domitia Kais, if written in Greek, would come out to 666.

PATEL: Ancient Greek, the language in which the Book of Revelation was written, had no written numeral system. So individual letters often had number equivalents: A equals one, B equals two, and so on.

Harvard divinity Professor Françoise Bovon.

Prof. BOVON: They had to be a little cautious in the way they were speaking. So they were using riddle and enigma and symbolic numbers.

PATEL: So taking the number value of each letter in Domitian's name, Professor White added them up and got 666. It also works for another infamous emperor, Nero. Some early sources say he burned down Rome and blamed it on Christians. Nero is spelled Neron in Greek, and that, too, can up to 666.

This numerology stuff may sound like notes for a new Dan Brown novel, but it is taken seriously by scholars. And they say it matters not which Roman emperor 666 refers to. The writer, John, probably meant it to be any Roman emperor with a pit of hungry lions.

Of course, there are those who believe that 666 refers to the impending arrival of a satanic beast, who will wreak unimaginable horror all over the planet. But to that, L. Michael White would probably sigh and say the end is not near. The Beast is already dead.

Nihar Patel, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nihar Patel