Papyrus P115:

  in defence of 616 as a reference to a big, bad computer




Irenaeus, writing "Against Heresies" in the 2nd century AD, refers to 666 in Revelation 13:18 as having been written in words rather than a number:

"[this] leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six; that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units (for that number which [expresses] the digit six being adhered to throughout..."
So Irenaeus argues, also based on the testimony of those who knew the apostle John personally, that the correct format of the number is not in numeral form, as we know it now, but in words referring to groups of hundreds and tens and ones.

P47, the oldest extant papyrus containing 666 in Revelation 13:18 is considered to back up this view:


Irenaeus goes on to consider that the number 616 in place of 666 is an error, writing:
"I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one."

This claimed errant number is evident in P115, the oldest known fragment of papyrus containing the number known as 616. Notably this papyrus contains the word "or" before 616, written as an "n" with a dot above it, suggesting that the number "600 and 60 and 6" may have appeared before "616" (XIC) in the text:


Putting aside 666 and 616 for the moment, the word "or" may have several meanings.

One possible meaning of "or" is that "600 and 60 and 6" and "616" are connected, that is, "or" is used in the sense of connection rather than alternative.

In that context, the 600 and 60 and 6 may act to set the scene for the number that follows it.

While Irenaeus held that 616 is an error, on the contrary it may be that papyrus P115 is providing information additional to 666 and there may be some justification for deferring judgment on 616.


The currently popular approach to 666 is to use gematria, to substitute the letters in a person's name with numbers to see if those numbers add up to 666. The material above suggests that 666 is not valid anyway but there are other difficulties with this approach.

A name to which gematria is applied will result in a single number. That is the only number for that name. But it does not work in reverse. If we start from 666 and use gematria we will get many names that are a possible match.

So gematria fails to narrow down our inquiry to just one person. Instead we get a multitude of suspects, none of whom can be conclusively shown to be the antichrist.

There is another difficulty. The number 600 + 60 + 6 is first to describe a Beast and then, in addition, to point to the antichrist's name. So to go directly to a man's name without first identifying the Beast is also the wrong way around.

Adding up the number

Coming back to Revelation 13:18, the original text of the Apocalypse is Greek. However the number 600 and 60 and 6 may be read as cumulative, or put another way, may result from adding up other numbers. One way to do this may be to arrive at 600 by the addition of 500 and 100, to arrive at 60 by the addition of 50 and 10, and to arrive at 6 by the addition of 5 and 1.

Adding up in this way to arrive at 600 and 60 and 6 points to the Roman number system of 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 as the context in which to understand the second number written after the "or" in P115.

If we go wider than a preconception that 616 is a Greek number and consider that 600 + 60 + 6 suggests a Roman number, then P115 may give us the Roman numbers X + I + C.

At face value, even without 600 + 60 + 6 preceding it, XIC looks like a Roman Number in much the same way that, in English, we might place a French word or a German word within an English sentence simply because it carries the meaning we desire.

An argument against this is the order in which X, I and C appear. If this was to represent a number per se then the order could matter. If we did treat it as a number it might be confused with 10 + (100 - 1) and result in 109. But the instruction is to add up the number and in that case the task of addition is not location dependent. Put another way, Roman numbers are not place sensitive when added cumulatively. So there is no difficulty adding them up in the order they appear.

Interestingly, Irenaeus in the third century also mixes his hundreds, tens and ones by referring to them as tens, then hundreds, then ones.

The beast and the false prophet

The number in Revelation refers to two things. First it refers to the beast and then it doubles to identify the number of a man's name (but not his name, only the number associated with it). So, to reiterate, it may be argued that it is not to identify the antichrist but primarily to identify the beast and, knowing that, identify the man involved in the affairs of the beast.

Converting X + I + C into modern Arabic numbers as above gives 10 and 1 and 100. So we have gone from Greek, to Roman and then to Arabic.

Cumulatively this may be read as 101100. At face value this is neither Greek, nor Roman, nor Arabic. It is now Binary. This, then, points to the possibility of the beast being related in some way to a computer.

If we consider that the number is also related to a man's name then a simple addition of the 1 + 0 + 1 + 1 + 0 + 0 arrives at the number 3. This could then be read as a regnal number.

Quoting Wikipedia, regnal numbers are ordinal numbers used to distinguish among persons with the same name who held the same office.

For example, King Charles III is distinguished from earlier Charles I and II, William Henry Gates III is distinguished from his father and grandfather or, more abstractly, Rasputin is distinguished from Stalin and Lenin (where n is null) and so on. In this way the identity of the antichrist has a lot fewer possibilities than would be the case with gematria and narrows further if binary is recognised as the nature of the beast and the context of the interpretation.

Computer based control systems

Edward L. Pothier, of the Physics Department of Northeastern University, Boston wrote a piece in July 1991 on the subject of the Greek language used in Revelation 13:18. He commented on the possibility of 666 pointing to a computer beast, saying in a footnote that:

"[4].  Incidentally, some modern apocalyptic fanatics (or "prophecy" students) who are most alarmed at the number 666 and worry about large computer-based control systems that the Beast will use should perhaps worry about a hexadecimal based system (base 16) rather than the decimal based 666 number."

Again, like Irenaeus, there appears a reluctance to consider something that does not fit with accepted or conventional thinking. And there is no advantage in labeling someone a "fanatic" simply because they do not adhere to university theology. But at least there is, on this occasion, a rare acknowledgement that such an interpretation does exist, or had existed long enough by the time of his writing in 1991 to be worthy of commenting on, albeit cynically.

The notion of the beast as a computer or internet-based entity might not be so easy to dismiss as it's critics imagine. Perhaps deferred judgement might be appropriate to see where this leads.

As to what such a beast might be, and who the false prophet antichrist might be, there are many possibilities but less so now as 5G, smart devices and AI develop, often on the false pretext that they will save the human race.

Posted 19th June 2023


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