Walid Shoebat, a prophecy speaker, was in Hawaii last week teaching at a few churches. He made some interesting claims (found in this video) about the meaning of the "number of the beast" in Rev 13:18. A few people asked me to comment on the validity of this claim.
Here's Shoebat's basic claim: When John wrote about the famous "number of the beast" in Rev 13:18, he actually wrote in a Muslim symbol and an Arabic phrase, not a Greek number. Shoebat said he discovered this by looking at the symbol for 666 in the 4th-century manuscript Vaticanus. When he turned the letters sideways, he saw the crossed swords of Islam and the Arabic phrase bismillah, meaning "in the name of Allah."
There are multiple problems with this claim.
1) It is yet one more example of our obsession with 666 and the Antichrist. Every few years, some radio prophecy teacher makes another claim that they have identified who the Antichrist is - Ronald Reagan, the Pope, Prince Charles, Barack Obama. Frank Fasi is my favorite candidate (initials FFF, and F is the 6th letter of the alphabet). It is difficult to take these claims seriously, especially when they are not based on the way numbers worked in the first century.
2) John tells us four times that he is referring to a number: "the number of his name... calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man, and his number is 666." We need to listen to the author: if he says that 666 is a number, then we should agree that it is a number, not an Arabic phrase.
3) Shoebat says that he found the symbols in the 4th century manuscript Codex Vaticanus. This is incorrect. Codex Vaticanus is from the 4th century, but it is missing the book of Revelation and several other books due to damage. A 15th century manuscript was added in to the end of Vaticanus to replace the missing material. This is very important, because it means that the supposed Arabic phrase is not found in the earliest manuscripts of Revelation, but only one late medieval manuscript.
4) Anyone who spends much time reading Greek manuscripts can recognize that the symbol in the picture is indeed the Greek number 666. Greek did not have separate symbols for numbers, so it used letters. In this case, χξς (chi xi stigma) is one of the standard ways to write 666 (chi = 600, xi = 60, stigma = 6).
5) The scribe who wrote this particular manuscript followed a pattern that proves that he was writing a number. Like other scribes, he put a bar above the letters to indicate that they were functioning as numbers. He also switched his "font" - he wrote all of his normal text in the more ancient majuscule font (all caps, essentially), and all his numbers in the later minuscule font (lower-case, kind of like cursive). This miniscule script was not even used until the 5th century, so there is no way that John would have used it in his original. In the script used in the first century, John would have written it something like this:
This is what the number looks like in another early manuscript, Codex Sinaiticus. The entire number is written out as a word (ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ, hexakosioi hexekonta hex), like writing six hundred sixty six instead of 666.
So Shoebat is basing his idea on a manuscript written 1400 years after Revelation, in a style of script that didn't exist until 400 years after Revelation.
6) In order for his theory to work, each letter has to be turned sideways, and the bar that symbolizes "number" also has to be turned sideways and read as an Arabic letter. The bar also has to be arbitrarily placed third from left, since it is actually a bar above all three letters. It is almost impossible to believe that John wrote intentionally in Arabic in a Greek manuscript, then turned each letter sideways, moved one letter above the other three, altered each to look more like Greek letters in a script that would not yet exist for four centuries, called them numbers, then expected people to figure it out. Even if it were possible, Shoebat has only given us evidence (sort of) that a 15th-century scribe did this, not that John did it.
7) All early interpreters of Revelation thought it was a number. Some scribes wrote out the whole number, and others commented on the symbolic nature of the number.
8) Most scholars of Revelation (i.e. professors and authors of scholarly books on Revelation) believe that 666 is an example of gematria, the ancient system of calculating the numerical value of a person's name. Shoebat opposes the gematriacal interpretation because he says gematria was used in witchcraft. But this is not a good reason to reject gematria in the Bible. Although gematria was used in later times in magical incantations, so have many other things, such as the name of God, Jesus, and the angels of the Old Testament. In general, gematria in the first century and earlier was more of a word game, and not associated with magic.
Shoebat also opposes using gematria because, he says, "God is not the author of mysteries." This is also not a good objection. Revelation is filled with mysterious symbols, and it uses the word mystery four times. Shoebat's interpretation is much more mysterious than many others! And actually, gematria was not that mysterious. Since every Greek and Hebrew letter was equivalent to a number, any one who spoke those languages in the ancient world could calculate "the number of their name" (gematria) without effort.
The standard ancient interpretation still holds up well: 666 is the number of Nero's name. Other details in Revelation also point to Nero. John is thus saying that the final evil leader will be someone much like Nero (who was already dead when John wrote). This evil leader will persecute Christians, conquer nations, call for worship of himself, and not follow even his own ancestral religion.
Even if one rejects the standard ancient interpretation, Shoebat has not given any real evidence for his claim. The particular way that a 15th-century scribe wrote the number tells us nothing about how John wrote the number.
It's important to remember that 1 John says that there are many antichrists (1 John 2:18, 2:22, 4:3): anyone who opposes the truth about Jesus is an antichrist. In that sense, many empires throughout history have been "antichrist" and Islam is sometimes "antichrist" when it suppresses the Christian message and persecutes Christians. But Rev 13:18 does not tell us that Islam is the antichrist.