We read in Revelation 13 of two horrible beasts, rising out of the sea and the earth:
And I saw a beast rising out of the sea having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names…. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast…. Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon…. [I]t causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six. (Rev. 13:1-18, NRSV)
The last details in this passage have caused a great deal of commotion among endtime prophecy teachers, but the scholarly discussion of the number 666 (which properly rejects the speculations of prophecy teachers out of hand) is not as profuse as the subject deserves. I suspect that the treatment that prophecy teachers have given these verses has made the subject somewhat disreputable for serious scholars. Any objective reading of Revelation, however, can hardly fail to see the importance of this number within the author’s web of historical signifiers.