The Number of the Beast 666 Decoded

The Number of the Beast  666 Decoded
| PentecostalTheology.com

What is this mysterious number, so familiar to horror film buffs, Satanists, and fundamentalist apocalyptic speculators alike? The answer is very intriguing, satisfying and perhaps ominous. It’s also a great illustration of all the different things that can sometimes go into biblical interpretation.

The passage in Revelation that mentions the number of the beast is an explicit riddle and demands that we try to figure it out. In Revelation 13:11-17 we are presented with a description of “the beast,” that mythical creature who will bring the whole world under the sway of its power, to then be defeated by God in the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 19:19-20). Then John adds,

This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666 (Rev. 13:18).

 

The answer lies in gematria

Image: Ben White

Who could resist this challenge? Historically many have attempted to decode the number on the assumption that it is an instance of gematria, using numbers as codes for words. This made a lot of sense in the ancient world where letters were used as a matter of course to represent numerals. In gematria the number was arrived at by adding together the values of each letter of a word. If you assigned numbers to letters in English (a=1, b-2, etc.) then my name, Rob, would add up to 35 (18+17+2). The number of Rob is 35.

Here are some ancient examples,

  • Graffiti at Pompeii reads, “I love her whose number is 545.” Can you imagine the girls excitedly adding up their own letters in their heads? But only ΦΜΕ got the twiterpations.
  • An early Christian used the number 888 to represent Jesus (Ιησοῦς: Ι = 10; Η = 8; Σ = 200; Ο = 70; Υ = 400; Σ = 200).
  • The names of many emperors or their initials were also represented by numbers.

But another level of complexity is that you have to know which language the code applies to. In Greek, 666 doesn’t seem to line up to anything very significant. Just a few common names, as Ireneaus, the second century church father, discovered. The key here is that the calculation must be done in Hebrew.

Let’s switch for a moment to a different word in the sentence to get started with our calculations. The Greek word for “beast” used in the text of the New Testament is theirion (θηρίον). If this word is transliterated to Hebrew (תריו֝), it adds up to 666. Of course, this does not tell us much, since it is stated explicitly in the text that 666 is the number of the beast. But maybe it does tell us something about method. Maybe it means that in order to find the name behind the code 666 you have to transliterate a Greek name to Hebrew and then add up the letters.

Fortunately the work on this was already done a long time ago, and we don’t have to go scouring ancient manuscripts for names. If we take the Greek phrase “Nero Caesar” and transliterate it into Hebrew, it turns out that the letters add up to, you guessed it, 666.

A couple pieces of information make this a very likely interpretation. First, a contemporary Aramaic (not Hebrew) document makes a similar calculation, and also arrives at 666 as his number. Second, there is a variant in several ancient copies of Revelation where 666 is replaced by 616. Why is this?  If we take the Latin form of “Nero Cesar” and transliterate it into Hebrew, the letters adds up to that number. It seems clear that someone in the ancient world was making the connection between this passage and Nero through gematria, most likely under the influence of the Greek to Hebrew connection.  

What does this mean?

For some readers of Revelation this might seem like a strange turn. Isn’t Revelation a book about things in future? But Nero was emperor from 54-68 AD, well before Revelation was written (early 90s AD). Why is the beast being identified with a past ruler? I think the answer is that Nero serves as an example of the coming beast. The code is saying, “if you want to get a better idea of how the beast will rule, just look at Nero. He is one of the same type.” But John, the author of Revelation, cannot do this explicitly without risking the wrath of the Roman government.

And why would Nero be identified as a prototypical “beastly” individual? The answer is easy. Nero was famous for his cruel treatment of Christians and initiated the first major Roman persecution of Christians. This included having them eaten by dogs, crucifying them, and lighting them on fire on poles to serve as human lampposts. He is probably also the emperor under whom Paul and Peter were martyred. So the coming beast, also, like Nero, will be a brutal enemy to Christians. Here is Tacitus’ account of Nero’s treatment of Christians after a great fire in Rome in AD 64,

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt [for the fire] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired (Tacitus Annals XV.44).

A Caution: Lest anyone get the wrong idea I must insert a caution. I am not by any stretch of the imagination suggesting that we go crazy on the numbers of the Bible with gematria . This is the only place I see it at work, and the reason is that the passage explicitly encourages us to do the calculation. Most of the historical data I’ve mentioned here is provided in the Word Biblical Commentary on Revelation 6-16 by David Aune.

About the AuthorRob Haskell grew up in Argentina as the son of missionaries. He has done college ministry and worked in missions in Latin America, training pastors. Rob has a ThM in New Testament from Regent College. He is author of a Spanish language book on hermeneutics (Interpretacion Eficaz Hoy) and co-editor of Local Theology for the Global Church, a book produced by the World Evangelical Alliance Theological Commission. Currently he makes websites at his company, Intuito Websites, and teaches regularly at his local church in Bellingham, Washington. He enjoys a busy life as a single parent and an avid hiker.

 

4 Comments

  • Reply July 4, 2020

    Varnel Watson

  • Reply July 4, 2020

    Pastor Roger Frederick

    After reading : “The Number of the Beast 666 Decoded.”
    I’m still convinced that understanding is a mystery, that is not to be “Decoded!” “Until the proper time!”
    When it does come it will be made plain! (I doubt that this Beast will be wearing a covid protecting mask!)
    This “Understanding” could be compared to the Birth of Jesus Christ.
    In no way, did Jesus fit the mold that the World and Jewish Scholars would have predicted.
    No one can possibly imagine. How many “Baby Boys!” Through the ages were thought to be the Destined Messiah, before the birth of Jesus! The True Son of God!
    God used:
    “Heavenly stars” “Baffled wise men” “A commoner, obedient, young, woman.” “A young man, chosen because obedience and pedigree.” “Shepherds watching there flocks, at the lambing time of the year.”
    To create into being. “The greatest gift and miracle the World has ever seen!
    All my life Preachers, wanting to make a name for themselves, have said they have been told when the End of the Age will be!
    I am old enough to witness when it was determined that farmers qualified for Social Security.
    I heard, reachers tell them not to accept it! Because a Number would be issued to them. Listening to their leader, they died in poverty.
    Still no Beast wearing, “666” On it’s forehead!
    My advice, to Preachers:
    “Preach what you Know!” “And for sure Know what you Preach!”

  • Reply December 13, 2020

    Vincent Sodano

    Dear Mr. Haskell,

    First, let me just say about the previous reply from Pastor Roger Frederick – I absolutely love it and think that he is ‘spot on.’

    “The answer lies in gematria.” Respectfully, I’m not so sure about that.

    The theological community has always been split on the question of whether or not the number 666 should apply to a specific individual. More than a few, well-respected theologians believe that gematria does not apply to the number 666, and that a “man’s number” from Revelation 13:18 is simply a number that is counted or calculated using the numbering system of a man, as opposed to referring to a specific individual (cf. Revelation 21:17).

    The general consensus, which I do not agree with, is that verse 13:18 really isn’t a riddle, as such. In other words, it asks us to “calculate the number of the beast,” but then seems to tell us that the calculated number of the beast is 666 – not much of a riddle. I think there is another way to look at it: consider that 666 is given as the number of a man, and that based on that information, the (unknown) number of the beast needs to be calculated.

    But, aside from all of that, consider that in order to be able to apply the gematria method to the number 666, verse 13:18 must say these three things:

    1) “calculate the number of the name of the beast”
    2) “the beast is a man”
    3) “the number of the beast equals the man’s number of 666”

    None of these three phrases are directly stated within that one verse, which means that they are merely interpretations, subject to debate, and do not rise to the level of indisputable fact. But, for a moment, set aside the debate over whether the gematria method should or shouldn’t apply to the number 666. Consider that almost all solutions to the riddle that have been offered over the last two thousand years are based on the premise (number 3, above) that the number of the beast equals 666.

    Why is that? The verse does say that “the number of the beast is the number of a man.” However, if the original Greek text should have been (or could have been) translated as “the number of the beast equals the number of a man,” it would have been, but it couldn’t be, and so it wasn’t. That is why all literal, English translations simply use the word “is.” Some thesauruses list more than 100 synonyms for the word “is.” Certainly, “equals” and “is equal to” are among the many possible meanings.

    I prefer “is equivalent to,” and I think it actually makes a lot more sense. Suppose we were to change only a couple of words in the original verse 13:18, as follows:

    “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of miles, for it (is equivalent to) a number of kilometers. That number (of kilometers) is 666” (Vinny 13:18).

    By swapping in the words “miles” and “kilometers” in place of “beast” and “man” to give the verse a more contemporary flavor, a whole new light is shed on the meaning and interpretation. We immediately see that ‘Vinny the Revelator’ has given us a number of kilometers as 666 and has asked us to calculate the equivalent number of miles. We know that 1 km = 0.62 miles, so 666 × 0.62 = 413 miles. The 2000-year-old riddle of Vinny 13:18 has finally been solved: the calculated number of the miles is 413.

    Now, do the same with the actual verse from Revelation:

    “This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it (is equivalent to) the number of a man. That number (of a man) is 666” (Revelation 13:18).

    The text gives us the number of a man as 666, but asks us to “calculate the (unknown) number of the beast.” The only reason that the answer doesn’t jump right out at us, as it did when we considered miles and kilometers, is simply because we don’t generally think in terms of a formula for converting a “man” number to a “beast” number. But an appropriate formula does readily exist, and it really isn’t any more complicated than the formula for converting kilometers to miles. It’s just that no one has ever thought to apply it to Revelation 13:18.

    As is the case with so many riddles, the answer (the calculated number of the beast) is right there in front of us, hidden in plain sight, as one of the numbers already cited in Revelation 13. The calculated number of the beast, which turns out to be 2, makes sense because it directs us to the 2 horns of the beast. Now you can begin to work on the interpretation!

    There is a book, available at Amazon.com, that shows how to calculate the number of the beast before trying to interpret its meaning:

    A Faithful Calculation: THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST In the Age of Spirit and Grace

    I welcome any comments.

    Vincent Sodano
    vincentsodano@yahoo.com

  • Reply December 27, 2020

    Susan Mahan

    Thought your comments very intriguing in light of the 2020 pandemic where corona can be calculated as 666. (6 letters with each letter taking its numerical value and added together will give you 6+66 =666.) This in case you haven’t seen the vids…
    Would be curious what the numbers of heads of State of Russia, China, & Obama is = to….
    By the way 2 Thes. 2 says that the day of the Lord and the catching up of us to him wont occur until the man of lawlessness is revealed. Why do we as believers always seem to pass this by….?

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