Six Hundred Sixty-Six

Revelation 13.16-18

This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.

Every decade or so, end-times hysteria grips American evangelicals. Justified or not, a new scapegoat is found and said to be 'the beast' of John's Revelation. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Bill Gates, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Barack Obama, and the World Wide Web have been contenders in the past.

Readers invent an interpretive system that enables them to make the connection they 'always knew' was right. Ronald Wilson Reagan was identified because his full name consists of three six-letter names. Barcodes were implicated because someone badly misunderstood how they work, and erroneously determined the guard bars in every barcode (the slightly taller lines on the sides and in the center) were actually three sixes, hidden in plain sight.

No one seeking to identify a present or future villain with 'the beast' will ever succeed, because John expected his original readers to be able to do it.

Alphabet Numerals

What is taken for granted by many today are the way we write numbers. Most of the world today uses Arabic numerals: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. In John's time, however, this was not the case. Many Indo-European peoples used letters from their alphabets as numerals. The Romans, for example, used I, V, X, L, C, D, and M to represent 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, and 1000.

The Greeks used their entire alphabet, including a handful of letters now considered obsolete.

Likewise, the Israelites used the Hebrew alphabet. One variant system used the terminal forms of letters to pad out the last of the hundreds.

Because the Greeks and Israelites used their entire alphabets to transcribe numbers, this meant every word, every sentence, every name carried numeric value. In Greek this practice is called isopsephy, while in Hebrew it is called gematria. Examples of this can be found all around John's era.

The Text of Revelation 13

Many modern interpretations of the mark of the beast insert ambiguity where it does not exist in the text. The number 666 is interpreted as a series of three individual sixes, 'six six six'. This is how people were able to claim 'Ronald Wilson Reagan' was the beast. For those who bothered to research Greek numerals, they noticed that 6 is represented by the letter Digamma, which was roughly equivalent to the modern letter W. Hence, 'six six six' meant 'WWW', the World Wide Web.

However, because the Greek system clearly identifies numbers as being in the ones, tens, or hundreds place, there is no room for ambiguity on how to read the number as written in the original text.

In the cases where ancient Greek manuscripts don't simply write out the number (εξακοσιοι εξηκοντα εξ), they give it as Chi Xi Digamma, ΧΞF or χξς. Because of this, 'six six six' is an impossible interpretation. Chi Xi Digamma can only be read as the sum of 600 and 60 and 6: six hundred sixty-six.

Graffiti & Riddles

A popular graffiti found in Pompeii reads φιλω ης αριθμος φμε. Those final three letters are not a Greek word, but a number: φ equals 500, μ equals 40, and ε equals 5. The text reads 'I love her whose number is 545'. Someone was so infatuated they defaced a building, but not before hiding the name, whether out of modesty, embarrassment, or to keep someone from getting in trouble.

The Roman emperor Nero was known for his violent outbursts. In The Lives of the Twelve Caesars 39.2, the ancient historian Suetonious reports that a riddle emerged after Nero's rule:

A new calculation: Nero killed his own mother.

In Greek, Nero's name was spelled Νερων, adding up to 1005. This happened to equal the same total of the phrase ιδιαν μητερα απεκτεινε, 'killed his own mother'. Nero's matricide would never be forgotten.

These riddles and calculations could become very elaborate, with full lines of poems or epigraphs made to have the same numeric value. Another example of graffiti in ancient Smyrna displays this sort of thing: ισοψηφα / κυριος ω / πιστις ω, which means 'equal in value / lord ω / faith ω'. It's suspected this may be Christian graffiti; because both 'faith' and 'lord' equal 800, one must have faith in the Lord (Jesus).

Holy Numbers

This practice was common enough it can be found in Judean and Christian texts. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy that runs from Abraham to Jesus. Famously, however, this genealogy purposely drops names and counts one name twice, in order to produce three segments that each last fourteen generations. Why fourteen? Because the author was writing 'an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David', and in Hebrew 'David' is spelled Dalet Vav Dalet (דוד), which is 4 plus 6 plus 4.

Barnabas 9.13-14 contains this dizzying passage:

Children of love, learn then about all things that Abraham, who first instituted circumcision and practiced that rite, richly looked forward in spirit to Jesus. For he received the doctrines of the three letters. For it says: 'And Abraham circumcised eighteen men and three hundred.' What, then, was this knowledge that was taught to him? Learn the 'eighteen' first, and then after a pause the 'three hundred'. The 'ten' and the 'eight' are denoted in this way: 'ten' is ι, and 'eight' is η. You have Jesus. And because the cross was to express the grace by the letter τ, he also says, 'and three hundred'. Therefore, he signifies Jesus by two letters and the cross by one.

The author jumps on the specific wording used by Genesis to tally how many people Abraham circumcised. Because the number 18 is given first, the author decides it is a calculation based on the first two letters of Ιησους (Jesus). With even more strained logic, the author claims 300 signifies the cross, because 300 is Tau, and Tau looks like a cross.

Abraham circumcised 318 men, ι plus η plus τ equals 318, therefore 318 predicts Jesus' crucifixion.


Apocalypses were extremely popular in the late Second Temple period, and for decades after. This genre was built out of evocative symbolism, and sometimes the authors couldn't help but incorporate numerical riddles into their works.

Fourth Ezra 14.45-48, written just around the same time as John's Revelation, concludes with this command from God to Ezra:

the Most High spoke to me, saying, 'Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.' And I did so.

A typical interpretation of this text is that 'the twenty-four books' refers to the common collection of Hebrew scriptures we now call the Tanakh. What are the other seventy books, though? Speculation abounds that they are other apocalyptic texts. Still, it's convenient a Hebrew word for 'secret', sod (סוד), happens to equal 70; the seventy books are secret books.

Another apocalypse, 3 Baruch, was written in Greek. In biblical numerology, numbers are frequently chosen for the symbolic value they are credited. For example, four usually denotes the earth because of the four directions or the four rivers of Eden. The numbers in 3 Baruch tend not to fit these known traditional meanings. This has led to some suggesting 3 Baruch's numbers are examples of gematria at work.

Third Baruch 4.7 mentions a snake drinking from three hundred sixty rivers. Gideon Bohak sees this as a direct calculation: the Greek word for 'snake' is δρακων. When transliterated into Hebrew letters (דרקון), the word equals 360. Likewise, in 3 Baruch 4.10 it is said four hundred nine thousand Giants died in the flood. When the Greek word for 'flood', κατακλυσμος, is transliterated into Hebrew letters (קטקליסמס), it equals 409. The passage also lists out a series of river names, but Bohak notes they are listed according to Hebrew alphabetical order. The author of 3 Baruch wrote in Greek, but thought in Hebrew.

The Sibylline Oracles contain many plain examples of this. When briefly describing the reigns of the Roman emperors, they are identified by the numerical value of the first letter of their popular names in Greek. This happens multiple times, but for example see Sibylline Oracles 5.16-40:

The very first lord shall be, who shall sum twice ten with the first letter of his name [...] and he shall have the initial sign of ten
And in like manner after him to reign is one who has the alphabet's first letter
But after a long time shall he transmit his power unto another, who shall have three hundred for his first initial sign
Then shall one rule who has the initial sign of the number three
And then shall be a lord who shall for first initial have twice ten
And one whose mark is fifty shall be lord, a dreadful serpent breathing grievous war

The first emperor is represented by the letters for 10 and 20: Ιουλιος Καισαρ (Julius Caesar). The second emperor's name begins with the first letter of the alphabet, Αυγουστος (Augustus). The third emperor's name begins with the letter for 300, Τιβεριος (Tiberius), the fourth's with 3, Γαιος (Gaius, aka Caligula), the fifth's with 20, Κλαυδιος (Claudius), and the sixth's with 50, Νερων (Nero). The list keeps going.

Sibylline Oracles 1.393-400 also gives us this amusing coincidence:

Then also shall a child of the great God come to men, clothed in flesh and fashioned like mortals on the earth. And he does hear four vowels, and in him two consonants are twice announced. The whole sum I will name: for eight ones, and as many tens on these, and yet eight hundred will reveal the name to men insatiate

In other words, the son of God will have a name consisting of four vowels and a consonant used twice, and his name will equal eight hundred eighty-eight. As mentioned above, 'Jesus' is Ιησους in Greek. The four vowels are ι (10), η (8), ο (70), υ (400), and the twice-used consonant is σ/ς (200). The Christ's name equals 888 (eight signifying resurrection), while the Revelation's anti-Christ figure has a name equaling 666 (six signifying humanity, and falling short of divinity, signified by seven).

The Revelation

This all brings us back to Revelation 13.16-18:

Also it 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 man. Its number is six hundred and sixty-six.

The mark of the beast, six hundred sixty-six, must be 'calculated'. It is 'the number of a man'. Specifically, it is the 'name' of a man. How are we to identify the man whose name John has calculated?

Revelation 13 sees one of the beast's seven heads slain by a sword, but the beast as a whole surprisingly survives the fatal wound. Revelation 17 identifies the beast's heads as 'seven kings', as well as 'seven hills' upon which 'Babylon' is seated. John also twice sees armies arriving from east of the Euphrates, in chapters 9 and 16.

Critical scholarship sees allusions to a particular legend in John's symbolism elsewhere in the Revelation. By John's time, Rome, the city of the seven hills, was known as 'Babylon' by Judeans and Christians. Nero had stabbed himself in the neck, throwing the empire into collapse, until it was saved by the military commander Vespasian. And near the end of the century the Nero Redivivus myth had emerged, a legend which said Nero would return with armies from across the Euphrates to destroy Rome.

However, John does what 3 Baruch does: he writes in Greek, but he thinks in Hebrew. The Greek word for 'beast' is θηριον; when spelled in Hebrew (תריון) it equals 666. In the same way, the Greek name for 'Nero Caesar' is Νερων Καισαρ; when written in Hebrew letters (נרון קסר) his name equals 666.

There's a twist, though. Some ancient copies of the Revelation give the number of the beast's name as six hundred sixteen. The most likely explanation is that an astute reader recognized that Nero was the intended referent, yet lived in a region where Νερω (Nerō) was a more common spelling than Νερων (Nerōn). The Hebrew spelling drops the second letter Nun (ן), deducting fifty from the sum. Six hundred sixty-six minus fifty equals six hundred sixteen.

John does not have in mind a person living thousands of years later. There is nothing in the text permitting readers to identify the mark of the beast with barcodes or credit cards or the wording on the bishop of Rome's mitre. The number is not 'six six six'. What John describes is too specific and exact to be anything other than the isopsephy or gematria so common to his time and place.

The beast was Nero Caesar.