So far in this series, we’ve discussed the general context of the book of Revelation, the first beast of chapter 13 (from the sea), the second beast of chapter 13 (of the land), and we touched on the resurrection of the first beast including a brief look on the Nero redivivus myth. In this post we will discuss the cryptic number 666 as well as it’s textual variant 616.
The verse in question is as follows:
“This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.”
There are several things that we can point out that will aid in our understanding. First, as we’ve been saying so far, is that Revelation was written to be understood by its original audience. This has been demonstrated throughout this series. So we must assume that the identity that 666 stands for is also understandable to the original audience. Second, the number represents some aspect of the first beast. Though the number is found in the discourse on the second beast, we know that it actually represents the first beast because throughout verses 11-18, the second beast is usually referred to by “it” and the first beast is called “the beast.” Consider the verses preceding 18:
“16Also it [the second beast] causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the [first] beast or the number of its [with 'the beast' as the antecedent] name.”
Thus, the number in question is of the first beast. From this we can also tell that determining the number of the beast will yield its name. Third, the number is that of a man. The Greek is specific here, ἄνθρωπος (anthrwpos, singular) is used by John, meaning that it is a human being. This removes the possibility that John was considering the number to personify an institution or a collective.
So, according to the context, 666 must symbolize a man who personifies the first beast, and is someone that would be recognized by original audience. The first beast, we remember, has a general and particular consideration: Generally the Roman Empire, and particularly, Nero, the Caesar over Rome. Obviously then, it seems that Nero would be a man who personifies the beast, or the Roman Empire. If this is so, then 666 inevitably points to Nero, but how?
As I briefly mentioned in the first post, that in the ancient world letters played a dual-role: they stood as the actual letter themselves (α = α), and they stood for numbers (α = 1). We see this plainly in Roman numerals today. This allowed for certain word games where the letters also employ their numerical meanings as well. One example is an old inscription φιλῶ ἧς ἀριθμός φμε (I love her whose number is 545). This allows the recipient to recognize her name in the numerical value, but strangers will not know the name because they don’t know the number of letters in the name used to get the value 545. John is inevitably using this word play in writing the name of the beast.
At first, it seems that there may be a proverbial wrench thrown into our cogs, as Nero’s name in Greek (Νέρων) is actually equal to 1005. Yet, the context really doesn’t allow for anyone else. The answer really isn’t as hard as it may seem. It is widely testified that while John writes in Greek, he thinks in his first language, Hebrew. This Hebrew thought comes out in his writing. In fact, Revelation is known as one of the most “Jewish” books of the New Testament. If John was thinking of Nero in his natural language to determine the number, then wrote it in Greek, we would assume that the Hebraic spelling of Nero’s name would yield 666. The Hebrew form, Nrwn Qsr, does exactly that. John, knowing the numerical equivalent of Nrwn Qsr as equaling 666 then wrote that number into his Apocalypse. There have been many who have disputed this rendering of Nero’s name for having an extra ‘n,’ but this is the spelling found in the Talmud and other Rabbinical writings. As Gentry points out in “Before Jerusalem Fell,” Jastrow, Ewald, and Swete have all shown such evidence exists to this spelling, as well as evidence from the Murabba’at document of the Qumran community, which is dated in the “second year of Emperor Nero” and is spelled Nrwn Qsr (see Gentry, pg 199).
Nero fits the context of Revelation as the man behind the number 666. We was a man who was over the Roman Empire, contemporary to John’s audience. Though not the only spelling of his name, Nrwn Qsr, is certainly one that was utilized in the first century. So far, the evidence points to Nero, but there is one last thing to consider. The textual variant ‘616.’
As Gentry points out 666 is “the undeniably certain reading of the original autograph,” so regardless of the textual variant, he still stands as our main contender. Yet, there is a textual variant that 616 instead of 666, which appears very early in the manuscripts. Because it was in the manuscripts very early (before Irenaeus) we must consider why it was changed. It does not seem to be an accidental variant, such as a copyist error, because the variant is not one that is easily confused ( ἑξήκοντα/ξ  vs. δέκα/ι ). Instead, many scholars see it as an intentional variant, one that was made on purpose. Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, writes that 666 is the most approved and says of the variant only that he does not know how or why the variant was introduced. The Latin manuscript adds that Irenaeus thought that it was through the fault of copyists, but this is missing from Eusebius’ Greek record, and is considered by many scholars to have been added later (see Gentry, 197, note 18). That Irenaeus was not sure on the meaning of 666 and viewed the textual variant negatively should not throw us. As Gentry notes, all this shows is that the key to interpreting the number had been lost in the 100+ years between John’s writing and Irenaeus. Mounce, an advocate of a late date, makes a telling suggestion, “John intended only his intimate associates to be able to decipher the number. So successful were his precautions that even Irenaeus some one hundred years later was unable to identify the person intended” (quoted in Gentry, pg 205). Gentry says “Had Irenaeus offered with conviction and assurance a specific alternative, the case against the Nero theory would have been more seriously challenged,” however he did not do so, only offering three guesses out of many possibilities in his time of who people considered it might be.
So why introduce a variation on purpose so early on? If the original was to be understood by the first century audience, and it points to Nero, as I think the evidence points to, does the textual variant strengthen or weaken this? I believe it strengthens the argument for Nero, and was put into the text to further make this identity of Nero recognizable to a wider first century audience. As the letter began to circulate, we must realize that it would gain a wider audience that was less Hebraically minded, which would not necessarily understand the wordplay using the Hebrew version of Nero’s name. It seems likely then, that a copyist who knew the identity of the beast changed the number to reflect his identity in the language of the wider audience: Latin. The new rendering of Nero’s name yields exactly what we would think it would if this is true: 616. Metzer, quoted in Gentry’s book, says “Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Neron Caesar written in Hebrew characters (nrwn qsr) is equivalent to 666, whereas the Latin form Nero Caesar (nrw qsr) is equivalent to 616.”
Certainly, far from weakening the case of Nero, I believe that it in facts strengthens the case. It seems then that the internal and external evidence both point to the identity of the beast, and the man that 666 signifies: Nero.
Next: After a devil of a time, we’ll finally wrap this up. Get it? A devil of a time? Man, this crowd sure is beastly
Note: For a post on the the allusions between 666 in Revelation and the Old Testament, check out Elshaddai Edwards’ post