Relfections on Telephone Number
"Calling the Great Beast." When I lived in Berkeley, California, the area code for my telephone number was 510. The San Franciscans across the Bay, with the big-city-dwellers’ characteristic disdain for anywhere outside the city limits, would refer to it dismissively as "that nickel-and-dime area code". Within that area code, I knew a number of people whose telephone numbers began with the digits 666, which was a source of some amusement. There was apparently a conscience-clause: when allotting new numbers, the telephone company would explain at length that those who had religious objections to a number including the digits 666 could apply to have it changed, at no extra cost…

As far as I know, there is no area code in North America bearing the number 666, the number customarily associated with the Great Beast of the Apocalypse. However, Grand Rapids has the Distinction of coming closest – not numerically (since there may well be a 665 or a 667) but textually…

The number 666 appears just once in Scripture, at Revelation 13:18, "…Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is six hundred threescore and six." However, a number of ancient manuscripts of the New Testament here read not 666 but 616. The textual uncertainty is extremely ancient. The great theologian St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons at the end of the second century, notes that he has seen several manuscripts giving the lower figure – manuscripts which would of course be older thn any of our extant complete manuscripts of the New Testament, which date only from the fourth century.

In choosing among variant readings, textual critics often appeal to the principle of the "lectio difficilior", the "more difficult reading", as the one more likely to be authentic. The theory is that, consciously or unconsciously, copyists are more likely to amend a difficult reading to an easy one than vice versa. In this instance one can see that 666 is a nice round round number, neat and memorable, so there would be no reason to change it to 616; but if the original reading was 616, it might well have been misremembered or misquoted as 666… Accordingly, there is a strong case for regarding 616 as the true reading.

An ingenious explanation of the textual confusion is that the numbers refer to the two possible Hebrew transliterations of the title "Nero Caesar". Hebrew letters serve also as numerals, so any word or name can be given a numerical value by adding up its constituent numerals, and rabbinic commentators on the Hebrew Bible, with their interest in "every jot and tittle of the Law" have since ancient times been doing their sums and drawing their pious conclusions. The problem here is that the name Nero could be used in either its Latin form, "Nero", or its Greek form, "Neron". The former would give "NRW QSR", which would be 50 + 200 + 6 +100 + 60 + 200 = 616, the latter would give "NRWN QSR", which would give 50 + 200+ 6 + 50 + 100 + 200 = 666…

The commonly accepted figure of 666 has been a subject of speculation since ancient times; in our own day, both President Ronald Reagan of the United States and President Bill Gates of Microsoft have been shewn to be the predicted tyrants whose number is 666. Ideas like these are not confined to protestant fundamentalists; in the 1980s rampant inflation in Greece obliged the PASOK (Socialist) government to introduce for the first time a five thousand drachma bill – and the right-wing extremists of the Orthodox Church discovered (with a magnifying glass) in the engraved scroll-work of the bank-note, upside down and back-to-front, the figures 666, which all went to prove… something or other!

Of course, if the real number were 616 and not 666, then much human ingenuity would have been expended in vain. It would, however, be good news for people living in Grand Rapids: it would mean that we were the only people in the world who could dial a number in Grand Rapids without invoking the Number of the Great Beast…


- Fr Richard Bowyer,December 2006