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Symbolism in the Book of Revelation

I will soon conclude this thread dealing with the ancient use of letters of the alphabet for numerals by discussing the most famous instance of them all, the “number of the beast” in the Book of Revelation:  666.  What is this number referring to?

I’ve decided that to make sense of this intriguing number, I need first to say a brief word about how the symbolism of the book works more generally.  My students usually think of the book of Revelation as an amazing one-of-a-kind book, unlike anything ever written, a blue print for the future of earth.   What they learn in class is that in fact it is a lot one-of-a-kind, but instead is like a number of ancient books, both Jewish and Christian, that are called “apocalypses.”   The term “apocalypse,” in this context, refers to a literary genre.   Like all genres, apocalypses had set literary features.  The reason Revelation seems so weird and unusual to readers today is that they are not familiar with the genre.  But there were numerous other books like the book of Revelation (also called the Apocalypse of John), in which a human prophet was shown the heavenly secrets that can make sense of earthly realities.

For most of these apocalypses, the reality here on earth is that the world is controlled by forces of evil.  The secrets of heaven are that the days are numbered for these forces.  For the book of Revelation, God is soon going to intervene to destroy this wicked world and replace it with a perfect utopian kingdom in which there will be no more pain, misery, or suffering.   But first, all hell has to break out.

The author was not writing for those of us living 2000 years later.  He was writing for Christians of his own day, telling them to HOLD ON! – for just a little while longer.  They needed to remain faithful, despite their suffering, because God was soon going to bring history, and this world, to a crashing halt, in a cataclysmic show of power in which all that is opposed to God will be obliterated and God will create a new heavens and a new earth for his people.

The enemies of God were the ones living at the time of the author – not those who would arise two millennia later.   God would take care of these enemies once and for all, before giving his people their eternal rest.

To explain this view, the author of the Apocalypse…

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666: The Number of the Beast
Futuristic Interpretations of the Book of Revelation



  1. Avatar
    billgraham1961  February 17, 2015

    Somewhere along the line, I read that symbolism was also used in apocalyptic literature to communicate with a knowing audience while keeping the meaning hidden from those outside that circle. In this case, the knowing audience would have been Christians who were familiar with the context of their present Greco-Roman world and the older context of the Babylonian Exile. I’m no longer sure where I read that, but it may have been in the old Broadman commentaries. That would be the volumes that were published before the fundamentalists took over of the Southern Baptist seminaries.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      I may post on this issue.

    • Avatar
      nichael  February 19, 2015

      Just to make what may be an overly-obvious point, I’ve always assumed that one of the primary reasons for the use of symbolism –i.e with “hidden” meanings– was simply for the protection of the writers.

      A good analogy would be the spirituals that originated with the slaves in the US. Just as it was no doubt safer for those singers to sing spirituals that spoke of “Following The Drinking Gourd” or of Moses saying “Let My People Go” (as opposed to lyrics with a more overt meaning) it was no doubt safer for those living under the thumb of Rome to write works about “Beasts With Ten Horns” or “Women Dressed in Scarlet”.

      • Bart
        Bart  February 20, 2015

        I’ll say something about this in a post.

      • Bethany
        Bethany  February 20, 2015

        I’ll be interested to read the post! My first totally not-in-any-way learned thought is that if we can figure out today that the Great Whore of Babylon who’s actually a city built on seven hills represents Rome, the Romans probably wouldn’t have had any problem figuring that out, too…

  2. gmatthews
    gmatthews  February 17, 2015

    Maybe you mentioned this in one of your earliest general readership books and I’ve forgotten, but I’ve been wondering if the early church knew this apocalypse was about Rome then why was it eventually included in the collection we call the New Testament? By the time the NT was officially collated Christianity was the state religion so why have a book like Revelations in the NT? Also, is it because the Roman empire eventually became the Holy Roman Empire (and as such was not the “evil empire”) that the study of Revelations eventually came to be seen as something yet to come? When did this view come into being or for a certain segment of Christianity was it always seen as something yet to come?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      My sense is that once the book was being read outside of the community in which it was written, the original interprestation of it came to be lost. (But I should also say that lots of church fatehrs were not in favor of including it in the canon.)

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    Jana  February 17, 2015

    I have been waiting a very long time to read about Revelation’s symbolism. I hope this thread doesn’t end too soon (she writes hopefully).

    • Bethany
      Bethany  February 18, 2015

      A book that was recommended to me was _Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation_, which talks a lot about the history and symbolism and which I found very interesting.


    • Avatar
      Jim  February 19, 2015

      An excellent scholarly book for interested lay people is “Revelations: Visions, Prophecy & Politics in the Book of Revelaton” by Elaine Pagels. I think she and Dr. Ehrman would agree very closely about the historical, in context, interpretation of Revelation.

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    RonaldTaska  February 17, 2015

    This is helpful but still the symbolism in the Book of Revelation is so difficult for me to understand that it makes me wonder how many people in antiquity actually read and understood this or similar books. Were authors of such books actually trying to sell copies of them?

    By the way, regarding all of your many youtube videos, which are so helpful, the one I like best is your interview with Diane Rehm. She asked very different and yet interesting questions which would have left me speechless. You handled them quite well where I would have just been a big blank.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      I don’t think sales were on their minds: they were probably writing for their own communities. and I’d assume that a lot of people in those communities knew what the author was tlaking about, even if we often don’t.

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    Deek  February 17, 2015

    I find it interesting that the standard dating for ‘Revelation’ is either 65 with Nero and the Christian Persecutions in Rome or 95 and the Domitian intolerance. Given all of the language as in the future, I tend to lean toward a very close post-destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70CE. I believe John of Patmos is using Daniel language to warn the regional christian centers (7 Churches) to hunker down and weather the expected onslaught that John anticipated to follow after Titus had finished things up in Judea. It would make sense to believe that the rest of Jewish institutions, of which the church was still embedded, would view themselves as the likely next target of Roman wrath.


    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      I lean toward later in the first century, but I’m not an expert and it’s a very technical question, as it turns out.

    • Avatar
      mjordan20149  February 18, 2015

      Some say that the “mountain falling into the sea” of Rev. 8:8 may refer to the Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD, which would support a later date.

    • Avatar
      scissors  July 14, 2019

      I think Elaine Pagels uses both dates to suggest it was partly written after 66 and finished later. Youd have to read her book.

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    Matt7  February 18, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I noticed that you began this post with the phrase, “I will *soon* conclude this thread …”, and the Book of Revelation begins by stating that the revelation is about, “… what must *soon* take place.” We all know that you’re going to wrap up this thread sometime before the year 4015. How could anyone living today think that Revelation is about events that are yet to come?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      Many, many do!

    • gmatthews
      gmatthews  February 19, 2015

      Every Protestant church I was ever a part of believed it was yet to come and I did as well! When I became agnostic “letting go” of what might happen from Revelations was one of the last things I had to come to terms with.

    • Avatar
      scissors  July 14, 2019


      Thats very easy. Many Christians view Revelation through the lens of, if I may, modern apocalypticism.
      They’ve been taught that the Bible prophecies the end times, so they read Revelation in that way.
      I recall attending Jesus 78 with a friends family and one of the things we were told was that the planets would align in 1982 as a harbinger of the antichrist.
      Imagine that! Even if no one knows the hour or the day, there’s a whole lot of ppl who will tell you everything else!

  7. Avatar
    Jason  February 18, 2015

    What are the earliest (and if there were many, the most interesting in your view) post-Nero interpretive assignations for the number of the beast? Certainly not Reagan or Kissinger, right?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      You know, that’s a great question. Off hand I don’t know what early Christian authors said about that (I don’t recall them saying *anything* — but I’m not intimately familiar with all the writers from the fourth century and later, when Revelation was widely accepted as Scripture.) I’ll see if I can find out.

  8. Avatar
    dragonfly  February 18, 2015

    “The enemy of the Christians, Rome of the first century, would soon be destroyed in a cataclysmic display of divine power.” Did Constantine realise this?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      My sense is that by the time of Constantine people had other interpretatoins of the book, as a non-literal description of the future — and many at that time still did not accept it as Scripture.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 18, 2015

    Some of your readers might find the new online article in the “Atlantic” of interest. The article is entitled “What ISIS Really Wants” by Graeme Wood. The main theme is that ISIS is filled with apocalypticists waiting for end times battles..

  10. Avatar
    walid  February 18, 2015

    Dear Dr Ehrman
    Shall we conclude then that this book was written ‘before’ Rome has become friendly with early Christians? because as we know it’s Rome that later has become defender of the faith and all that.

    We actually know that Luke has kind of buffered all attacks on Rome and the Romans and was trying to portray Jesus as a pacifist person who is not at all concerned with Rome or what the Romans do, a la ‘Give Cezar what belongs to Cezar’ and all those Pauline obedience phrases that justify anything the ruler does who is appointed by god according to Paul and is effectively executing god’s will on earth.

    So this book would go so far before all current extact mss perhaps even before the Bar Kochba and the 70CE revolutions. But that would only serve to make it non christian at all! perhaps a Jewish book that has been adopted by christians of the second century.
    Could that be true?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2015

      Yes, it seems that this book was written in a time of persecution. It is usually dated to the end of the first century.

  11. Avatar
    gabilaranjeira  February 18, 2015


    I thought that towards the end of the first century, Christianity was distancing itself from apocalyptic views (as it happened with the Gospels for instance). So why include a book such as Revelation? Was it an important genre at the time that should be part of a body of sacred literature?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2015

      Good question. I think it is safer to say that *some* parts of Christianity were distancing themselves, and others were heavily embracing apocalyptic views. Kinda like today!

  12. Avatar
    Steefen  February 19, 2015

    I’ve found there to be at least seven references/parallels to Emperor Domitian in the book of Revelation. Here are two from my YouTube PowerPoint presentation (YouTube search WBFbySteefen and see the 2+ hour presentation):
    (1) Jezebel is found at Revelation 2: 20-23. By the Son of God, prophetess Jezebel, for sexual immorality, harlotry is severely punished, her sexual partners are made to experience intense suffering, and her children are killed. By Domitian, son of a deified emperor, priestess and vestal, Cornelia, for sexual immorality, incest, is buried alive and her sexual partners are beaten to death. (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, “Domitian,” Section 8 )
    (2) A Dislike of Jewish Pretenders is found at Revelation 3: 9, “Behold, I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say / they are Jews, and are not, but do lie.” Emperor Domitian also had a dislike of Jewish pretenders and converts. Paul Corby Finney wrote the following in his book The Invisible God: The Earliest Christians on Art, Chapter 4: “The Emperor’s Image,” “but the better evidence from Dio and Suetonius indicates that [Domitian] punished people who were “Judaizers”—that is, people who were converts to Judaism or who lived in the Jewish manner without formal membership in a synagogue.

    Why was Revelation, apocalyptic literature written? There was an apocalypse for Temple Judaism (devastation by rebels and by Rome, not just by Rome) and a case may be made that Revelation is post-destruction of Pompeii literature as well. I’m thinking some of the imagery isn’t just devastation by war but geological devastation as well.

  13. Avatar
    webattorney  February 23, 2015

    This is an unrelated question. What do you think of the experts that Lee Strobel (the author of “The Case for Christ”) consulted or interviewed for his book? Specifically, in your opinion, are they really the right experts one should interview if one was to prove or disprove the existence of God/Christ?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2015

      Well, he didn’t interview anyone he didn’t agree with already!

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