When I was a new Christian, I was so intrigued by biblical prophecy and the book of Revelation. My father was really into this kind of bible study, so the very first few books I read as a new Christian was on this topic. The one thing that stood out to me from these studies are whether or not it’s possible to even know what 666 refers to. Many years later, having completed an Undergraduate Degree and a Masters Degree in biblical studies, I believe this debate is settled. In fact, it appears to have been settled for centuries. It’s just that there is a wide chasm between popular Christianity and the world of academic theology. Scholars and readers of the early church writings have long known 666 means. Simply stated, this is the number of Nero’s name.
Calculating The Name 666
We read in Revelation 13:16-18,
He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, 17 and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
18 Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.
From this text we know that the number must be tied mathematically to the name of someone. As it turns out, the name “Neron Caesar” works out to 666. It’s not straight forward to the modern English reader because the ancient Greek name of Caesar was Neron, not Nero. That name works out to 666.
But how can we be sure that this is the best solution? Because we have early manuscripts in Latin and a few even in Greek that maintain a separate textual variant where 666 is 616 instead. When you do the gematria on 616 it becomes clear that this is a reference to the Latin spelling of the name Nero Caesar.
This would make sense to Latin readers and those who were not native Greek speakers who were likely to drop the last letter in favor of the “O” ending, which is native to the Latin language for male name endings. So the case of the name changes when it gets spoken by Greek and Latin speakers. The reason why the calculation is done in Hebrew, was to obscure the solution so it is obvious only to Hebrew/Aramaic speaking people, who was John’s original audience.
This tradition dated back as early as the start of the 1st century and was mentioned by the early church father Irenaeus and appears in the early manuscript, Papyrus 115.
In Irenaeus’ 5th book in Against Heresies, he mentions these manuscripts that were being circulated, estimating that this is a simple mistake on behalf of the scribes.
Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; while reason also leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six (666); that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units (for that number which [expresses] the digit six being adhered to throughout, indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which shall take place at the end) — I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one (616). [I am inclined to think that this occurred through the fault of the copyists, as is wont to happen, since numbers also are expressed by letters; so that the Greek letter which expresses the number sixty was easily expanded into the letter Iota of the Greeks.] Others then received this reading without examination; some in their simplicity, and upon their own responsibility, making use of this number expressing one decad; while some, in their inexperience, have ventured to seek out a name which should contain the erroneous and spurious number. Now, as regards those who have done this in simplicity, and without evil intent, we are at liberty to assume that pardon will be granted them by God.
How Nero Fits The Narrative of Revelation
Given the early witnesses to this variant reading should be conclusive evidence that the early Christian knew the mark was about Nero. But how do we account for the fact that Nero died in 68AD? Interestingly, the passage where the number of the beast is found, we read about the beast being mortally wounded but being revived.
11 Then I saw another beast coming up out of the earth, and he had two horns like a lamb and spoke like a dragon. 12 And he exercises all the authority of the first beast in his presence, and causes the earth and those who dwell in it to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed. 13 He performs great signs, so that he even makes fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men. 14 And he deceives those who dwell on the earth by those signs which he was granted to do in the sight of the beast, telling those who dwell on the earth to make an image to the beast who was wounded by the sword and lived. (Revelation 18:11-13)
This follows well with what we know about Nero from the ancient accounts. Nero’s body was theoretically never found and it was widely rumored that he was mortally wounded by the sword but then revived of his mortal wound. It was feared that, like Jesus (hence the name Anti-Christ) he would come back from the dead and further persecute the church. This tradition was preserved by the 4th century early church historian, Sulpicius Severus, in his “Sacred History”.
In the meanwhile Nero, now hateful even to himself from a consciousness of his crimes, disappears from among men, leaving it uncertain whether or not he had laid violent hands upon himself: certainly his body was never found. It was accordingly believed that, even if he did put an end to himself with a sword, his wound was cured, and his life preserved, according to that which was written regarding him —And his mortal Revelation 13:3 wound was healed,— to be sent forth again near the end of the world, in order that he may practice the mystery of iniquity. (Sacred History, Book II, Chapter 29)
This mythology surrounding Nero was not limited to the Jewish people. This belief, often referred to as the “Nero Redivivus Legend” was so widespread that resurrected Nero imposters were appearing for another 30 years. Some of them garnered quite a following as well.
There was a secondary theory that may have played into the views of the early church, which was that Nero was not actually dead but that he fled temporarily to Parthia, where he was amassing an army to invade Rome and destroy it. However, this narrative from the Sibyline Oracles was more popular in Roman culture than Christian or Jewish culture. Nonetheless, rumors abounded that Nero was alive somehow and would soon return in great wrath.
What Exactly Is The Mark?
Identifying who the mark is referring to is easy enough, but how does his mark get placed on their hand or forehead? This is more difficult but the likely answer is in chapter 14, directly after the mark of the beast is mentioned. In contrast to the people deceived by the beast, those that follow Jesus are marked as well on the forehead. It would seem that the mark is a metaphor for allegiance. There need not be a physical mark.
Then I looked, and behold, a Lamb standing on Mount Zion, and with Him one hundred and forty-four thousand, having His Father’s name written on their foreheads. (Revelation 14:1)
This idea of a metaphorical mark seems to be supported by the fact that the Greek word used is “χαραγμα” which referrers to a seal, branding, or signifying mark. The point of the mark was to identify the person’s alliance or even ownership.Leon Morris, Revelation, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, pg. 168 Moreover, nearly every modern Bible scholar has recognized the fact that this is likely tied to the Jewish practice of phylacteries, whereby the words of Deuteronomy 6:4 would be physically tied to the body, on the forehead and hand, specifically as a “symbol” of dedication and commitment.
These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. (Deuteronomy 6:8)
The fact that the beast is going to mark the foreheads and the hands, but Jesus is just writing his name on the foreheads of his followers, seems to suggest that the author has some level of anti-Jewish rhetoric in this part of the vision. Naturally, this pairs well with what we know about the relationship between the Jews and the Christians at this point in history. The author of revelation seems to be alluding to this practice in a negative light because the tradition of blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death has already taken hold in the Christian church.
Given the historical and numerical evidence, I feel comfortable stating that the debate about the mark of the beast should be as close to settled as any ancient puzzle can be. Unless, new evidence surfaces the best interpretation of the gematria has to be Nero Caesar.
|Leon Morris, Revelation, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, pg. 168