June 6, 2006 — Forget apocalyptic forecasts. The once-in-a-century date 06-06-06 should evoke images of imperial Rome rather than satanic nightmares, according to an expert on the origins and meaning of cults and superstitions.
Fears of 666, long believed to be the dreaded mark of Satan, are based on a "widespread misinterpretation" of the the Book of Revelations in the New Testament of the Bible, said Phillips Stevens Jr., associate professor of anthropology at the State University of New York's University at Buffalo.
"Let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty-six," the Revelation passage 13:18 states.
The sentence gave rise to the belief that the number 666 holds terrible prophetic power. The number of the beast was associated with Satan, the beginning of the Apocalypse and the destruction of the Earth and all unbelievers.
"The beast is not Satan. 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 said.
According to the scholar, Revelation's author John of Patmos, traditionally believed to be St. John the Apostle, was writing to other persecuted Christians in code.
Most likely, the dreaded 666 is a coded reference to the despotic emperor Nero.
"Many of the strange elements in Revelations signify events, people, or institutions familiar to first-century Christians. The number 666, the "mark of the beast," signifies those in thrall to the Emperor and thus opposed to Christianity and is most probably the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew letters for the emperor Nero," Stevens told Discovery News.
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 said.
Like another Christian superstition — the fear of Friday the 13th, which originates from the story of the Last Supper (there were 13 people at that table, and the Crucifixion occurred the next day, a Friday) — the triple six has become a strong taboo, avoided because of its negative association.
US authorities have renumbered various highways previously numbered 666, and the town of Bel Air, California, changed the 666 street number of the house that President Ronald Wilson Reagan (note the number of letters in each of his first, middle and last names) purchased upon leaving Washington, D.C.
However, hexakosioihexekontahexaphobics , as those who fear the triple six are called, should relax. The sixth of June is technically not in 06-06-06 anyway.
Jesuit priest Richard Leonard, director of the Australian Catholic Film Office, told the Australian press that when Christianity took over the Roman calendar in the fourth century, the monk who compiled the dates got them wrong by four years.
The Church became aware of the mistake in 1582 but did not correct it to prevent the world from losing four years.
"We assume Satan knows that the sixth day of the sixth month in 2006 was in fact June 6, 2002," Father Leonard said.