The number of the beast is given in the book of Revelation as 666. But what does that mean? What relevance does it have for us?
The number of the beast comes from Revelation 13:18, which reads:
This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.
This has sparked all sorts of questions, puzzles and theories, a bit like the rest of the book of Revelation… I’ve talked about that before.
To understand this, it’s necessary to know that there weren’t separate characters for numerals (like 1, 2, etc), but instead the letters of the various alphabets were also used as numbers (so if the English alphabet used this system, A would also stand for ‘one’, B for ‘two’, J for ‘ten’, K for ‘twenty’, T for ‘one hundred’ and so on). Separate characters for numbers, our Arabic numerals, were only introduced into the Middle East and then Europe through Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages.
So Hebrew, Greek and Latin all used the system of having their letter also stand for numerals (we still occasionally use Roman letters as numerals). There were a number of different systems, but the table below shows a common one for Hebrew (which reads from right-to-left).
This meant that it was also possible to make use of the fact that words also had a numerical value. For example, some Greek graffiti found at Pompeii reads:
I love her whose number is 545
Making use of the numerical values of words in this way is known as Isopsephy, or for Hebrew letters, Gematria.
Number of the beast
So, when John used gematria in Revelation, he was drawing on an understanding and practice that his first readers would have been familiar with. It also fits with John’s practice of using numbers in symbolic ways. Of course, different names and words will have the right letters to add up to 666. But, in Hebrew, the letters of the name Nero Caesar are:
Hebrew reads from right to left and also doesn’t include most vowels, which gives the letters as NRON QSR, for NeRON QaSeR.
N=50 R=200 O=6 N=50. 50+200+6+50 = 306
Q=100 S=60 R=200 100+60+200 = 360
This identification is further strengthened as a small number of early copies of the book of Revelation give the number of the beast as 616, rather than 666. If the final N is removed, leaving NRO QSR, then the name adds up to 616.
Why did John go to all this trouble? Throughout Revelation, John is contrasting Christ and his followers and the beast, the Anti-Christ and his followers. In Revelation 7:3 and elsewhere a seal is placed “on the foreheads of the servants of our God” (the 144,000). In Revelation 13:16 “all people” are forced to “receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads“. Both are resurrected. In Revelation 5:6 John talks of “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain“, while in Revelation 13:3 he talks about “One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.”
This references the belief that the emperor Nero (ruled AD54-68) who committed suicide and who had persecuted Christians was not truly dead, but would return. Indeed, at least three pretenders, claiming to be Nero returned, had been active in the 20 years after Nero’s death in AD68 (Beard 2016:404). Writing sometime later, John draws on this belief and background to emphasise the contrast.
Also, throughout Revelation John makes extensive use of numbers, including the number 7 which he uses to symbolise perfection. So, the number 666 signifies a triple falling short of perfection, incompleteness, judgement, deficit. And by linking this with Nero, the archetypal persecutor, the “self-obsessed, mother-killing pyromanic” (Beard 2016:404), it gave John’s readers a clear picture and warning of what someone opposed to Christ looked like and how they acted. Boring (1989:164) summarises his discussion of this passage:
The whole passage calls responsible interpreters of the Bible not to “decoding” a “puzzle” but to alertness in discerning the nature and consequences of one’s commitments.
We have choices we can make, choices which mean that, whether or not we realise it, we are either sealed as a servant of God or marked with the number of the beast. What are we committed to?
Beard, M. 2016 SPQR
Boring, M. E. 1989 Revelation. Interpretation commentaries.