Attempting to Understand 666 in its Context Part V

6 12 2007

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.”
Revelation 13.18

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.”
Revelation 13.16,17

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 [60] vs. δέκα/ι [10]). 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



10 responses

7 12 2007


I found your blog through ElShaddai’s blog, and have been following your posts on 666. I have a couple or questions/reservations. The first just might be a result of my own ignorance, but you use the example of roman numerals as an example of using letters to equal numbers. In roman numerals, it isn’t as simple as a=1. As you know, I=1, X=10, L=50, etc. So what is the support for using a=1, etc for Greek? is this a common practice with Greek in the 1st century? I always thought that the Greek language used arabic numerals.

2nd, I have a problem with saying that John chose the hebrew spelling of nero’s name because not all of the NT church would’ve been hebraic jews. I would imagine a majority of the original audience would have been hellenestic jews. And remember, God is the one writing this through John, so He would probably make sure it was understood by the original audience, which if hellenistic, would seem to presuppose greek not herbrew.

3rd, my most major reservation is about the deciphering of this passage through time. If Iraneus couldn;t figure it out and he was only approx. 100 years removed from the original time of writing, and has “lost the key” to deciphering it, then how can we even begin to be confident in our ability to 2000 years removed from the writings. I’m confused by Mounce. If he is a late date advocate, then why does it matter because revelation would’ve been written after AD70. Also, he says that John only wanted his intimate associates to decipher it, then why did he write the letter to the churches? Shouldn’t have just gone to his close associates? I think part of that also goes back to what I talked about in #2 above. God is still involved in writing this, and therefore I have a feeling He would have a larger audience in mind that John’s inner circle.

None of this is to say the conclusions are wrong (I am leaning towards orthodox preterisim myself), I just don’t know if some of what you have actually supports the conclusion. Hopefully you can help me understand some of this, because there is a good possibility I’m just missing something.


8 12 2007

Hey Dave,

You definitely bring up some good questions. However, I am unable to answer them at the moment because I am out of town. If someone would like to step in I’d appreciate it, or, Dave, if you don’t mind waiting a little less than a week for me to get back home I’d love to answer them.

If you want to read some in the mean-time, my next post in this series (part VI) lists some of my sources and links to the articles that can be found online. Hopefully that can tide you over till I get some definite time in a few days.
God bless Dave

8 12 2007
Puritan Lad

Hi Dave, (Sounds like the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Let me take a shot at some of these.

Regarding your first reservation, using letters to represent numbers was a common practice not only in Latin, but in Greek and Hebrew as well. The Greeks called this practice isoyejia (numerical equality), while the Hebrews called it gematria (mathematical). In fact, gematria is still used in Jewish Kabbalism today. For more information on gematria, including a chart of values, see

In response to your second reservation, the NT Church would have indeed been knowledgeable of Hebrew. In fact, it is apparent throughout John’s apocalypse that he is writing with this in mind. In Revelation 9:11, for example, he gives the name of the angel (English “destruction”) from the bottomless pit in both Hebrew and Greek (Hebrew first).

“They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.” (Revelation 9:11)

In Revelation 16:16, he gives the location of the battle (I won’t get into a debate about which battle at this point) in the Hebrew language only.

“And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon.” (Revelation 16:16)

In addition, John’s apocalypse is easily the most Hebrew book in the New Testament, not only in language, but in themes. We have the symbolism of altars, slain lambs, incense, etc. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that John uses a Hebrew gematria to reveal the identity of the sea beast to his audience.

In answer to your third reservation, you are correct in that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It is just as profitable and relevant today as it was when it was written. However, in our interpretation of these passages, we must be careful not to rip them out of their historical context. The Bible was written for us today, but it wasn’t written to us. John wrote his apocalypse with a particular audience in mind. He wasn’t writing to “the church” in a generic sense, but was writing to seven first century churches in Asia Minor. He is warning them about imminent events, events that were to take place “shortly” (Rev. 1:1), were “near” (Rev. 1:3), and were “about to take place” (Rev. 1:19). Therefore, we are wrong to try and look for the particular events to take place in the 21st Century. In fact, doing so means that the book has been irrelevant for 1900 years. So the fact that Ireneaus (not a Hebrew) couldn’t figure it out isn’t relevant.

Hope this helps.


8 12 2007


Thanks I will look at the links. I can definitely wait a week, seeing as I have spent the last year trying to sort this eschatology/preterist thing out in my mind! ;)

Thanks again,
Dave <

8 12 2007

Puritan Lad has pretty much taken the words out of my mouth. I’ll try and chime in a bit as I said in a few days :)

This borrowing a computer now and then is rough. I might need to take a technical sabbatical when I get home haha.

8 12 2007

Puritan Lad,

I understand what you are saying about interpreting the book based on its context and understanding it as it was intended to be understood by the original audience. I also understand that (at least as far as prophecy is concerned) most of the book is irrelevant today, if the preterist position is correct (As far as I’m go, i lean towards the pertial-preterist position right now). Maybe I didn’t state what I meant very clearly, but my reservation was not with the timing of events, but with the quote by Mounce that made it sound like John wrote the letter to only a few of his close friends. It seems clear that it was written to the 7 churches. Or maybe that is what Mounce intended to say, but I just misinterpreted it.

Thanks for the info about the Gematria. I’ll h\ave to read more about it.

It is interesting to me, now that you have pointed it out, how John included both a greek and hebrew audince in his writing. That clears up one of my issues with this, since the early church undoubtedly had a large number of hellenistic jewish people.

The reason I commented on Iraneus not figuring it out, is that if he was that close to the events, and it was to be easily understood by the original audience, I find it hard to believe that what the 666 meant couldn’t have made it through 1 generation. That also leads to my reservation about us today having so much confidence that we’ve figured it out when hundreds of generations have now passed.

Thanks for the help though, you have put part of my reservations at ease! :)

Dave <

PS Just curious, are you a full or partial preterist?

8 12 2007

Both me and PL are partial-prets. We affirm the visible return of our Lord, and the final judgment.
I lean amillennial, he leans post-mill

15 12 2007

Dave, hopefully you’re still around :)

About your third question, there are a couple things to remember. Just because the key was “lost” doesn’t mean it couldn’t be found again. Just because we disagree with a church father doesn’t mean we cannot be confident. I disagree with Irenaeus on several things, including a future millennium. Ire probably knew of the Nero designation, but because he rejected a past fulfillment, he would have rejected the “key” as such. He didn’t offer a definite answer, but a few guesses. This is expected considering his futuristic view. His premillennial view doesn’t persuade me from my amillennial view either. Also, Ire has been shown to just simply be wrong sometimes, including the age of Jesus (~50 years old).

On the quote by Mounce, it is confusing because he is a late date advocate. I quoted him from Gentry to show how much weight the original audience is to understanding the text. I.E. even a futurist understands the importance of the understanding of the original audience! As for the close associates, I understood it as meaning his audience. I think it was a poor word choice on Mounce’s part. Either way I believe the “key” would have been known by a wider audience, and not just a close circle of friends. I agree it was written for more than John’s inner circle, but the church as a whole going through the persecution. It’s the same as many of the OT prophecies of Christ, they were for a specific audience, but it is also for a wider audience, and beneficial to the church for all time.

God bless, and thanks for the interaction!

3 06 2008

Hi Guys
If one looks at the formation of the number 666 in the Greek, one will see that it very closely resembles the Arabic slogan ‘ In the name of Allah” ( Bismillah)
Why is it not possible that John could be referring to Islam. With its population of 1.6 billion and its Anti – Christ belief system, do you think God would leave out a movement that has played such an important part in Middle East history, and the history of the church?

3 06 2008

Hey Stan,

Great Question. There are two basic reasons why I don’t think it refers to Islam.

1) The original audience is said to be able to understand what 666 refers to. Yet, Islam did not come onto the scene for another 600 years itself. John certainly could have referred to a future religious movement if he wanted, but we don’t see any clues to that in the text. I don’t think he would have indicated something so radically unknown as mentioning Allah, a name that no one had used yet- unless they were referring to the God of Israel/Christianity. Also, the long version of 666 in Greek is ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ, so I ‘m not sure how that resembles “Bismillah.”

2) The second reason is that John makes it awfully clear that the number is “the number of a man” (ἀριθμὸς γὰρ ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν).
In order for it to be an entire belief system (which I agree with you, in terms of John’s epistles, it is Anti-Christ) is to ignore the fact that John tells us it is a man. Of course, the man stands for a a group, but I don’t think the group he stands for (the first beast) religious, but political. I don’t think we can deny that it is Rome. So the task here is that you would have to show that the number refers a group instead of a man that leads a group, and that the group some how has ties to first century Rome. By this I mean that they were exercising authority in Rome in the first century. Islam does not fit any of these.

It’s not that I don’t think God just left out Islam for no reason, I just don’t think that it was pertinent to the purpose of the New Testament- the coming of the Kingdom in Christ, its spread throughout the nation via preaching, His return, the consummation of the Kingdom, and eternity in the new heavens and new earth. Sure, Islam can be seen in some of the warning passages about those who would kill Christians, and the antichrist passages of John, but that’s because they were generic.

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