Four Unusual Papal Legends

Tales about popes can tend toward the fantastic

Tim Gebhart

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Sculpture of St. Peter in Vatican’s St. Peter’s Square (Photo by iam_os on Unsplash)

LLegends and history both tell stories of the past. Given its power and antiquity, the papacy has plenty of both. Some legends have a basis in fact; others are simply apocryphal. Here are four of the more offbeat.

A Papal Tiara Shows the Pope is the Antichrist

Although the Book of Revelation dates to the late 1st century, some Christians believe it directly relevant to modern times and the near future. It’s permeated popular culture to the extent that one portion is oft-cited today. Revelation 13:16–18 (NKJ) says everyone will receive the mark of the beast. “Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man,” it adds. “His number is 666.”

This leads many to equate 666 with the Antichrist. A theory initially proposed in 1612 spread widely around the time of the French Revolution. It says a papal title shows the pope bears this mark because the numerical values of the letters in Vicarius Filii Dei (“Vicar of the Son of God”) yield 666. Uriah Smith, a 19th-century Seventh-day Adventist minister, claimed the phrase appeared in jewels on the pontiff’s tiara. “It is the number of the beast, the papacy,” he wrote.

1881 illustration of a papal tiara (Wikimedia Commons)

While the numerical value of Vicarius Filii Dei is 666, that’s arguably the only solid ground of the legend. It’s never been a pontifical title. It appears in The Donation of Constantine, an 8th-century forgery in which Constantine the Great supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western Roman Empire to the pope. While the pope’s official titles long included Vicarius Christi (“Vicar of Christ”), its letters don’t add up to 666.¹

Also, each pope has his own tiara, so there isn’t one worn by a succession of pontiffs, according to a November 1948 article by Seventh-day Adventist historian Le Roy Edwin Froom. None of the tiaras examined at the time had any such inscription, said Froom, who discussed the tiara theory in his four-volume work Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers. Moreover, Froom noted, the only photograph…

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Tim Gebhart

Retired Lawyer. Book Addict. History Buff. Lifelong South Dakotan. Blog: prairieprogressive.com