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More on 666: The Number of the Beast: A Blast from the Past

My post yesterday about manuscripts that give the number of the beast in Rev. 13 as 616 instead of 666 prompted a number of queries.  I’ll answer a couple of them directly in my next post; but some people emailed me asking me what the number is all about in the first place.   I discussed the issue a few years ago on the blog.  Here is what I said.

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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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666 and Scribal Changes of the Text
Were All Textual Changes Made by Scribes by 300 CE? Readers’ Mailbag November 5, 2017

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Comments

  1. godspell  November 6, 2017

    If you want, you can draw parallels between Nero and later historical figures, such as Hitler (there are, in fact, some similarities in both their personalities and fates), but history always repeats itself, and the author of Revelation is clearly commenting on his own time, and hoping, as Jesus did, that God is coming to deal with these great evils afflicting humanity.

  2. anthonygale  November 6, 2017

    Are there any candidates, other than Nero but living around the time Revelation is believed to have been written, that 616 or 666 might refer to? And is this point a major factor in dating Revelation? I’ve seen various dates for the writing of Revelation, some pretty close to the death of Nero but others many years later. If the number most likely refers to Nero, and given the apocalyptic message of the book, it seems to support an earlier date (say compared to the Gospel of John). If there is good reason to believe it was written latter, I wonder who else the number could potentially refer to. I can imagine Nero’s infamy lived on, but early Christians were not short of persecutors.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2017

      Offhand I don’t know all the ancient interpretations of the number — but I’d be interested in finding out. One of the best commentaries on Revelation is by David Aune (three volumes!) and that would be the first place I would look. But the dating doesn’t hinge on it being Nero, since there were Christians who believed he was going to come back from the dead at the end of the age.

  3. dankoh  November 6, 2017

    Gematria was also used as a secret code so people could talk about their rulers without giving themselves away to the spies and informers who were on the lookout for sedition. Although I do have to add that Nero was dead by the time Revelations was written, so “John of Patmos” may have been following an old habit here, or he may have feared that even though Nero was dead and disgraced, some of the authorities might have taken offense.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2017

      There were rumors about Nero Redivivus — he was to come back from the dead to create even more havoc at the end of time.

  4. Tony  November 6, 2017

    It seems the persecution by Nero of Rome’s Christians in 64 AD is only identified by Tacitus in AD 115. No contemporary, or later historians confirms it. It seems unlikely that “Christians” were an identifiable group in 64.

    https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-roman-studies/article/the-myth-of-the-neronian-persecution/73AC9F872D273C643F4E910B87B1A234

    Could Revelation be based on Tacitus’ passage, who in turn heard about locally fabricated persecutions by Nero? In view of Christians’ love for persecution and (Christian) suffering, It would not surprise me. There seems to be a victim meme within Christianity even today. The war on Christianity and Christmas will soon be headlined again at Fox News, I’m sure.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 7, 2017

      This article (by Brent Shaw) has been refuted by Christopher Jones in a recent issue of New Testament Studies 63 (2017) 146-52.

      • Tony  November 7, 2017

        I look forward to Brent Shaw’s refutation of Christopher Jones’ refutation….

    • Skepticalone  November 14, 2017

      If you are an avid reader of history, you will notice that Christianity has often been persecuted by Christians . Just as Hitler without Hitler’s words and hate is just a man, so too Jesus without His words and wisdom is no longer Jesus . So the “war” on Christianity has been around for a long time . A cloak of religion is more dangerous to truth than someone who has convinced themselves that there is no God. I would not associate Fox news with Christianity or maybe I should say with Christ any more than I would associate Christmas with Christ. Christmas as we currently know it, is a trillion dollar business adopted/promoted by Wall Street, retailers, Hollywood and advertisers. It is also a good time for churches. Persecution ? Ba-Humbug . The world economy can not afford it and even atheist would not stand for it . ( It would impact their livelihoods as well . ) Now , persecution of the truth ? That is another matter my friend.

  5. John Uzoigwe  November 7, 2017

    Since the gospel of peter is dated back to second century why was it added to the Bible?

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  November 7, 2017

    Gematria is still quite popular in Judaism. I know lots of family members who try to “prove” the truth of the Torah via gematria. Here’s an example I have lifted from torahcode.org:
    “Consider the verse Genesis 49:10. ‘The scepter shall not depart from Judah nor a scholar from between his feet (among his descendants) until Shilo shall arrive and his will shall be an assemblage of nations.’
    לא יסור שבט מיהידה ומחקק מבין רגליו עד כי יבא שילה ולו יקהת עמים
    Both Rashi and Onkelos interpret the phrase ‘until Shilo shall arrive’ as meaning until the Messiah comes to whom the kingdom belongs. The Sages have taught that this verse is a primary Torah source for the belief that the Messiah will come. The gematria of the phrase יבא שילה, ‘Shilo shall arrive,’ is 358. The Hebrew word for Messiah is משיח which also has gematria 358.”

    When I point out to Jewish friends and family that the Jews got gematria from the Greeks, they think I’m nuts, until I point out to them the word “gematria” itself, comes from the Greek word “grammatika” which is where we get our word “grammar”. Anyhow, if you’ve ever watched a Jewish telethon of some sort, like the L’Chaim To Life telethon, you’ll notice that the donations are almost always in denominations of 18. For instance, $18, $180, $36 (2×18), etc. The reason being that the Hebrew word for “life” (chay) is spelled with the Hebrew letters Chet and Yod, which are also the 8th and 10th letters of the alephbet, respectively. Thus they carry the numeric value of 18.

  7. Hume  November 7, 2017

    Are there more gematrias in the Bible? If so, what are they?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      Do you mean the explicit interpretation of a word/name in light of its numerical equivalences? None that I know of.

  8. Boltonian  November 8, 2017

    Robert Graves, in his magnum opus, The White Goddess, came to the same conclusion. Have you read it?

  9. SidDhartha1953  November 8, 2017

    Another question about Revelation: I read today that the image of the woman in labor (12:1-12) is based on a common theme in apocalyptic literature of the period. For instance, 4 Esdras has a longer passage (9:38-10:54) in which Ezra has an encounter with a woman mourning her son who died on his wedding night, who turns out to be a personification of Mt Zion and the Temple that has been destroyed and is now in the process of being rebuilt. Fourth Esd. is said to date from the same decade as Revelation, but by a non Christian Jew. Do you know of any earlier texts that may have influenced both authors to use this image of a woman who has suffered or is threatened with the loss of her son?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 8, 2017

      I imagine it’s a common motif, but nothing specific comes to mind. (Rachel weeping for her children?)

  10. webo112
    webo112  November 9, 2017

    Bart,
    Do you think the actual name “antichrist” meant something different to the early Christians or the author of Revelation, compared to later and even modern readers now? As in reality the name means anti-messiah….today we would not use that term, and instead think of the name to mean anti-Jesus Christ-Someone evil to everyone, not Just Jews.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 12, 2017

      Yes, it just meant “someone opposed to Christ.” The author of Revelation doesn’t actually use the term.

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