Legions of metalheads who've saluted "the number of the beast" may need to subtract 50 from the numeral that adorns their notebook doodlings, T-shirts and tattoos.
A newly discovered fragment of the Book of Revelation challenges the conventional belief that the Antichrist's mark is 666, indicating instead that it is 616. Expert classicists used multi-spectral imaging to get a better view of the text, which is written in archaic Greek and dates to the late third century.
"It is clearly an important new manuscript, giving us a relatively very early copy of the text of Revelation," said Christopher Tuckett, a theology professor at Oxford University's Pembroke College. "It is probably not the earliest manuscript of Revelation that we have ... but this is the first time [the 616 reading] has been found in such an early text."
Fear of 666 is so extensive it actually has a name — hexakosioihexekontahexaphobia — and has inspired everything from televangelist speeches to Hollywood films. The numbers have long been appropriated into the heavy-metal lexicon and symbology. Black Sabbath, Rob Zombie, Danzig and Sepultura have featured depictions of "666" on their album covers, Slipknot have decorated their stage set with 666 signs, and hordes of other bands have incorporated 666 symbols into T-shirts, stickers and other merchandise.
Most famously, 666 provided the title of Iron Maiden's groundbreaking 1982 album, Number of the Beast. The title track begins with the Revelation passage "Let him who hath understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number. Its number is 666."
The recent 616 discovery, which was found in a collection of documents recovered in Egypt, isn't exactly a whole new revelation. While it dates back the furthest, other ancient manuscripts of the Book of Revelation have the number as 616 instead of 666, provoking some debate in the past as to which were the original digits. Both Greek and Hebrew letters have numeric values that can be added up to arrive at a total. One common explanation of 666 is that it comes from the numerical value of "Nero" transliterated into Hebrew letters. A small change in the transliteration can result in 616.
Many scholars believe that 666 won out because it is derived from a more complex formula and also because it's simply more catchy. "Six hundred sixty-six looks like a more memorable number than 616," said David Parker, a New Testament professor at the University of Birmingham in England. "Six hundred sixty-six steadily took over, and the alternative was forgotten until modern scholars in the past 200 years started to look at more manuscripts and to find ones that had been lost."
Alan Mitchell, a theology professor at Georgetown University, said there's no reason the discovery should detract from the popularity of 666. "In my opinion, it doesn't change anything," he said. "The most reliable manuscripts have the number as 666. There's no reason to change the text of the New Testament, and there's no reason to change the tattoos."
But even if it's not earth-shattering news for metalheads, one group is probably not too thrilled with the discovery — the folks in southwestern Michigan whose area code is 616.