"'It just shows you that when you study something as cryptic and mystic as the Book of Revelation there's an almost unlimited number of interpretations.'
The book is thought to have been written by the disciple John and according to the King James Bible, the traditional translation of the passage reads: '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.'
But Dr. Aitken said that translation was drawn from much later versions of the New Testament than the fragment found in Oxyrhynchus. 'When we're talking about the early biblical texts, we're always talking about copies and they are copies made, at best, 150 to 200 years after [the original] was written,' she said.
'They can have mistakes in the copying, changes for political or theological reasons ... it's like a detective story piecing it all together.'
Dr. Aitken said, however, that scholars now believe the number in question has very little to do the devil. It was actually a complicated numerical riddle in Greek, meant to represent someone's name, she said.
'It's a number puzzle -- the majority opinion seems to be that it refers to [the Roman emperor] Nero.'
Revelation was actually a thinly disguised political tract, with the names of those being criticized changed to numbers to protect the authors and early Christians from reprisals. 'It's a very political document,' Dr. Aitken said. 'It's a critique of the politics and society of the Roman empire, but it's written in coded language and riddles.'"
And people want to take the Bible literally?