Math

Belphegor's Prime Is the Prime Number of the Beast

Ancient Christian theologians and Iron Maiden fans certainly have their disagreements, but they can agree on one thing: the number of the beast. Both the 1982 heavy metal anthem and the Book of Revelations claim that the number 666 foretells the apocalypse. But mathematicians — especially number theorists — have their own number of the beast. Prime number, that is. It's called Belphegor's Prime, and its sheer size puts the original number to shame.

What Is Belphegor's Prime?

Belphegor's Prime is equal to 1,000,000,000,000,066,600,000,000,000,001. That's one nonillion, sixty-six quadrillion, six hundred trillion, and one. It's a one followed by 13 zeroes, 666, another 13 zeroes, and another one. Since the number 13 is traditionally associated with bad luck, it doubles up on the spooky connotations of the already-spooky number. It was discovered (and proven prime) by Clifford A. Pickover, who determined that it's part of a prime sequence involving the number of zeroes you can add on either side of the 666 to make a prime number (16661 is also prime). It is named after Belphegor, one of the seven princes of Hell, who is known for tempting people with the gift of discovery and invention.

What Makes 666 So Special?

The number of the beast comes from the Bible: the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, to be precise. There, you'll find verse 13:18, which says, "One who understands can calculate the number of the beast, for it is a number that stands for a person. His number is six hundred and sixty-six."

The New Testament is pretty old, but the reason why we're superstitious about numbers in the first place is even older. Enter Pythagoras, of Pythagorean Theorem fame, who you probably learned about in school. He was one of Ancient Greece's more colorful and eccentric characters, and he believed that numbers are the underlying principle of reality. He laid down a complex quasi-religious doctrine about the meaning of various numbers, including 7's position as a holy number and 13's as an unlucky one. Since most of his works are lost, we can't tell if he's responsible for 666, but his influence on John the Revelator, author of the Book of Revelation, is clear.

Related Video: Why Do We Need a 23 Million Digit Prime Number?

Plot Twist: It Might Not Be 666

As it turns out, we may have gotten the entire number of the beast calculation wrong. It doesn't take a Bible scholar to know that the Book of Revelation wasn't written in King James English — it was written in Greek by Hebrew scholars and translated multiple times throughout the centuries. The ancients didn't use the nice, orderly numbering system we use today (that wouldn't become widespread for another thousand years or so). Instead, they wrote numbers in a way that required readers to calculate their sums, the way Roman numerals do.

The current earliest surviving manuscript of the Book of Revelation seems to indicate the number of the beast might be 616. In both cases, most historical scholars believe that the number refers to the Roman Emperor Nero, whom the Bible's authors would rightly have feared as a violent persecutor of Christians, Jews, and just about anybody else he didn't like. The apocalypse will just have to remain delayed until we can figure out which number to look out for.

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Discover more numbers that influenced civilization in "The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer" by Georges Ifrah and David Bello. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Austin Jesse Mitchell March 8, 2019

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