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666: The Number of the Beast

This post will be the culmination of my thread that deals with ancient numerology, especially as it is based on the fact that ancient languages used letters of the alphabets for their numbers, making it possible to add up the numerical equivalent of any word.   In this post I will explain how that relates to one of the great mysteries of the Bible, the identification of the Antichrist in the book of Revelation, whose number was 666.

Yesterday’s post was meant as background to this brief discussion, and I’d suggest reading it first to make sense of what I’ll say here.  I also need to point out that this kind of numerological investigation was turned into a major interpretive method in Hebrew-speaking and –reading circles, since the inspired words of Scripture each had numerical equivalents, and one can always play with numbers.  The ancient interpreters who did such things were not “playing” of course.  It was a very serious and complex business.  This use of the numerical value of words in Hebrew, to help fathom the (very) deep meaning of texts, was called gematria.

And so, now I turn to 666.  The following is drawn from my discussion of the book of Revelation in my New Testament textbook.

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The Number of the Beast, 666. Somewhat earlier in the book of Revelation (i.e., before ch. 17, which I discussed yesterday) we are given a description of another beast, one which in fact bears a remarkable resemblance to the one we have just observed. According to chap. 13, this other beast arises from the sea and has ten horns and many heads.  One of its heads receives a mortal wound that is then healed.  The entire world follows this beast, which is empowered by the dragon (i.e., the Devil, 12:9).  The beast makes war on the saints and conquers them (13:7).  It has power over all the nations of earth (13:7-8), exploiting the nations of the world economically (13:17) and demanding to be worshipped (13:15).  The author concludes his description of this mortal enemy of God with a final identifying mark, given for those “with understanding.”  The number of the beast is 666 (13:18).

Interpreters have offered numerous conjectures over the years to explain this number (probably more than six hundred and sixty-six of them)….

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Apocalypticism and Apocalypses
Symbolism in the Book of Revelation

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    RecoveringCalvinist  February 18, 2015

    If Revelation was written by a gentile for a largely gentile audience, how would that audience make the Hebrew 616/666 connection? Was the writer a converted Jew?

  2. Avatar
    vinnyrac  February 18, 2015

    And Hal Lindsay couldn’t figure this out! Hey Hal, I want my $2.99 back!

    1
  3. Avatar
    BobHicksHP  February 18, 2015

    It never occurred to me before, but does this suggest the author was Jewish? How likely is it that instead he was working from “common” Christian ideas of the time? Nero had been dead for many years, after all.

  4. Avatar
    Jana  February 18, 2015

    Why did the author feel compelled to shroud his “prophecy” with symbols? The selected symbols .. a sea creature with ten horns for example seem strange today but were they then? Did the author create his own symbols or were the recognizable ones within the community for which he wrote? (again, I’m faced with a sharp learning curve so hopefully haven’t missed too many points you’ve all ready made)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      For one thing, it is so much more mysterious, intriguing, and gripping that way! That’s how the genre works.

      • Avatar
        Jana  February 20, 2015

        So the images were completely made up by the author? WOW! (I am envious of that imagination 🙂

  5. Avatar
    Hon Wai  February 18, 2015

    What period of persecution do you think the author of the Book of Revelation had in mind? In some of your other works, you tended to de-emphasise the extent of persecution of Christians in the first few centuries, as the religion was not illegal, the Roman world typically tolerated all religions, had a certain respect towards venerable old religions like Judaism. Yet from the perspective of the author, persecution was happening on a global scale, vicious and persistent, and he showed hatred towards Rome and the emperors, by demonising them. Do the non-canonical apocalypses also portray Rome in a negative or demonic light?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      I wish we knew. It is traditionally thought to have involved the persecution of Nero and of Domitian, but there is in fact very little (virtually no) evidence of any serious persecutions under Domitian.

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  February 19, 2015

    Prof Ehrman

    Last Thanksgiving I had dinner with my fundamentalist premillenialist dispensationalist cousin and his wife and was privy to a quite serious discussion as to whether or not Obama is the Anti-Christ. The consensus? No, one of the qualities of the Anti-Christ is that he will be popular so as to deceive the very “elect”. Obama isn’t popular among the “elect”, so.. Should I tell the President his lack of popularity puts him above suspicion? Talk about having mixed emotions!

    Care to speculate on the identity of the “two witnesses” of Chapter 11? (Tim LaHaye and Hal Lindsey?)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      Yes, it’s either them or Moses and Elijah or, more likely, Elijah and Enoch. Or Tim and Hal…

      • TWood
        TWood  May 25, 2016

        Since you joked about this I thought you might get a kick out of this (I too was once a fundie pastor)… I get it if you don’t approve the comment because you don’t want outside links… but I wanted to show it to you and this is the best way I know how to do that: https://youtu.be/eqKvwqCbXaE?t=7m54s

        To add a question to the mix… It seems to me that Rev was written in the 90s… and def not before 70 CE… am I right to assume you agree?

  7. Avatar
    James  February 19, 2015

    Do any of the Apostolic Fathers make reference to the 666? What were their thoughts on ‘the mark?’ Did any of them have the knowledge of the Hebrew language to understand this contextual clue or was the meaning lost once the letter left the (I suppose) Jewish community it was written to?

  8. Avatar
    dragonfly  February 19, 2015

    What about 668… the neighbour of the beast!

    Any thoughts on where revelation was written? In Rome?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      Ha! Good one. I really don’t think we can know — except it was somewhere in the Roman empire!

    • Avatar
      spiker  May 27, 2015

      @ dragonfly
      What about 668… the neighbor of the beast!

      An interesting observation. Consider if 666 or 616 translates to Dr. Werner Klopek
      Would 668 be Rumsfield or Walter Seznick?

  9. Avatar
    billgraham1961  February 19, 2015

    I wish more people knew this information. It could have some positive geopolitical implications.

  10. Avatar
    bobnaumann  February 19, 2015

    I assume Revelation is written in Greek like the rest of the NT, so how would 666 be rendered in GreeK? The sixth letter repeated three times? Or six-hundred sixty-six in Greek number notation? And would the intended readers understand the inference in the Hebrew number system? I would imagine that not many Christians at the time Revelation was written knew Hebrew.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      See my earlier posts on numbers. They would have used the letter for 600 then the letter for 60 and then the letter for 6. Three different letters. Whether readers knew what he was saying — I wish we knew!

      • Avatar
        nichael  February 20, 2015

        I have a question here:

        In my copies of the Greek NT (USB and NA) neither indicates a “digital” representation of the number at REV 13.18 ( i.e either in the text or in the critical apparatus showing known variants).

        Rather, rather all examples appear to show the number written out “in full”, e.g. some variation of “six hundred sixty six” (written in Greek, of course).

        Am I missing (or misreading) something here?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 20, 2015

          Yes, when *describing* a number, versus writing the number, it would be spelled out.

  11. Avatar
    Eric  February 19, 2015

    I know you have here completed your intended object, explaining the numerological background for the number of the beast.

    I would like to encourage you to expand, however, on the interpreting other aspects Revelation, not only the author’s apparent intent but also as someone else asked yesterday, what we know about later interpretations (but the earlier, the better).

    While variances and later interpretations of Gospels, which are at least written in a narrative and historical style, have led to many peculiar “certainties” among fundamentalists and or others, the symbolic style of apocalypses has surely provided even more leeway for later interpretation (and variances between interpretations). So in some ways, for your readership, bringing Revelation as close to “ground” as possible could be the biggest “bang for the buck” so to speak.

    In other words, the speed and distance our understanding could potentially “move” with a “more correct” interpretation of what the author was talking about in Revelation could be much greater than the “move” occasioned by your exposition of the (to me) very significant disagreement between Gospels on a matter as so central as to what day Jesus was supposedly crucified.

    So please put this on your list!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      I don’t know much about later interpretations, but I will say something about the book in its own historical context.

  12. Avatar
    Steefen  February 19, 2015

    Point 1A which puts Teitan on the board:
    Teitan – Satan’s name among the Devil-Worshippers of Kurdistan is Sheitan, which is from the Chaldean Teitan. The Chaldean language often transforms the “sh” or “s” into “t”. (E.g. Hebrew shekel and Chaldean tekel; Hebrew seraphim and Chaldean teraphim, the Babylonian counterfeit of the heavenly Cherubim or Seraphim.)

    Point 1B which shows Teitan may be Titus in another language
    The beast is the man who destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem. Biblehub Clark’s Commentary: 12. The number of the wild beast, 666, the number of a man, Teitan, Titan or Titus: T, 300. E, 5. I, 10. T, 300. A, 1. N. 50, making in the whole 666. [But some very respectable MSS. have 616 for the number; if the N be taken away from Teitan, then the letters in Teita make exactly the sum 616]. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/clarke/revelation/1.htm

    • Avatar
      Steefen  February 19, 2015

      General Titus, later Emperor Titus was largely responsible for destroying the Temple of Jerusalem.

  13. Avatar
    Steefen  February 19, 2015

    Please see Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter 30, Section 3 http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103530.htm. Irenaeus starts with Teitan which can be a correct interpretation. One can understand that in the Book of Revelation only a beast Teitan-Titus would destroy The Temple of the God of Israel. The souls waiting for justice are the souls who died in the War for Jewish Independence and Self-Determination for the people of the God of Israel, also known as The Jewish Revolt and the First Jewish Roman War.

  14. Fearguth
    Fearguth  February 20, 2015

    If you haven’t seen this, I think you might get a kick out of it.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bntfUA6TmLs

  15. Avatar
    Lance  February 20, 2015

    Haven’t some scholars argued that “616” was possibly meant to be Caligula?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      I don’t know! do you know what their argument is?

      • TWood
        TWood  May 25, 2016

        I think Nero was very likely in view… but one problem is that Irenaeus seems to be unaware of this view (and he knew of various views)… I wonder if he was aware of it… but because it undercut his futurism… he simply ignores it… Do you think that’s plausible?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 26, 2016

          My sense is that Irenaeus, living 80-100 years later, didn’t have any privileged informatoin on what the author meant…. (Plus he didn’t know Hebrew)

          • TWood
            TWood  May 26, 2016

            Makes sense in regards to the number… but is it really “privileged info” to connect Nero to the Beast? He seems like the “obvious” choice even without the number (e.g. only emperor to really persecute the church in first century, etc). Isn’t it only not “obvious” if you assume the Beast is a future tyrant, which Irenaeus did? I guess my real question is: did Irenaeus ever hint that Nero was at least referenced in John’s Revelation?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 27, 2016

            I don’t know. But many things seem obvious *after* you know them!

  16. Avatar
    Steefen  February 20, 2015

    NET Bible / Rev. 13: 3: One of the beast’s heads appeared to have been killed, but the lethal wound had been healed. And the whole world followed the beast in amazement. // When General Vespasian was fighting at Jotapata, he was wounded. Roman soldiers simply passed along the words Vespasian was wounded without details. Word got to his son Titus who rushed to his father. WELL, the wound that was made on Vespasian’s foot was not mortal. It may have appeared to have been but it wasn’t.

    NET Bible / Rev. 13: 5: The beast was given a mouth speaking proud words and blasphemies, and he was permitted to exercise ruling authority for forty-two months. // 84 months is 7 years, the length of the Jewish-Roman War 66 to 73. There were two Roman generals: Vespasian and Titus. Verse 6 says the beast (Vespasian) was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. Jesus was a Jewish purist. Rebels who fought against Rome were the saints (they took up their cross and followed Jesus).

    NET Bible / Rev. 13: 11-12 Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth; and he had two horns like a lamb and he spoke as a dragon. 12He exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence. And he makes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose fatal wound was healed

    So, when General Vespasian became emperor, he left the war in Judea and gave it to another beast, his son Titus Teitan 666. 7 years divided by 2 in months = 42 months: 2 beasts, Father and Son, Vespasian and Titus but since Titus Teitan was general when the Temple was destroyed he is beast 666.

  17. Avatar
    bobnaumann  February 20, 2015

    If I recall, Revelation was added to the Canon well after Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome. Doesn’t it seem a little strange that a book condemning the Roman empire and predicting its downfall would be added to the religion that had just been endorsed by Rome?

  18. Avatar
    FrankJay71  February 20, 2015

    Why is the Apocalypse address to the seven churches of Asia specifically? If so much of the revelation is about the persecution of the church by Rome, why is it not a general warning to all of Christendom, or at least, why isn’t the church at Rome one of the churches specifically addressed? Was it not prominent enough at the time to be mentioned?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      It appears that the author was from that area and was well connected to those churches. The book was not meant for the church at large throughout the world.

  19. Avatar
    Lance  February 21, 2015

    In regards to 616 in Revelation possibly being Caligula: I even double checked Bruce Metzgers “Breaking the Code” book, but did not find anything on this. But as I remember “Gaius Caesar” in Greek equals 616 ( Gaius = 284; Caesar = 332), and John of Patmos had meant Caligula, primarily because he had wanted to put a statue of himself inside of the Temple during his short reign. I do realize that there is about a sixty year gap in between the two, but thought this was an interesting take.

  20. Avatar
    Steefen  February 21, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, Sibylline Oracles are a collection of utterances that were composed or edited under various circumstances, probably between the 2nd century AD and the 6th century AD. This significantly reduces the chance that 666 refers to Nero, who may have been a problem for the first generation of Christians before Paul died, but the first generation of Christians continued to meet at the Temple of Jerusalem. Their beast 666 also would have been the Roman General, Teitan-Titus, who destroyed Jesus’ Father’s House of Prayer. Would you agree to that possibility?

    • Avatar
      Steefen  February 21, 2015

      With Revelation being composed during the reign of Domitian (81-96) before the Sibylline Oracles (2nd century to the 6th century AD), Emperor Nero cannot be a bigger beast to the Christians of the Jerusalem Church than Emperor Vespasian or Emperor Titus. Second, in addition to the magnitude of the Temple being destroyed, the Roman military under Vespasian and Titus did win a battle on the Sea of Galilee. There also was a battle won by the Romans under Vespasian and Titus at Jotapata, Galilee.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 21, 2015

      Yes, if you would like an extended discussion of the current state of research on the Sybilline Oracles, see my book on Forgery and Counterforgery. There is no 666 reference in them.

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