Apocalypse, or the book of Revelation, generates much ignorance and confusion, not the least of which is the infamous number 666.
The first time I taught the Apocalypse (or the book of Revelation) was 2001. It was right around the same time as the September 11 attacks. Classes were on Monday evenings at the same Church I used to park my car at to sleep safely just two years prior. Of course, the unthinkable (for Americans) happened the very next morning. So we took a week off the Monday following the tragedy.
We returned two weeks later to a packed class. The room was a wide mix of women and men representing various ages, political views, cultural backgrounds, and professions. Lawyers, nurses, and doctors were in that class, as well as two aspiring deacons. I used “Sacra Pagina: Revelation” by Wilfrid J. Harrington, OP, as our guide—this was shortly before I discovered Scott Hahn’s writings on Apocalypse. I got brainwashed by his connect-the-dots system later. Thank God I eventually kicked that habit. Tell you about that sometime.
Anyway, attendees derailed the class just after opening prayer. Forget that circular letter to the seven churches (Revelation 2—3). Everyone wanted to talk about 9/11. They explained how it was foretold Nostradamus-style in the book we were studying. Many of our participants were convinced that the two witnesses who appear in Revelation 11:1-14 couldn’t mean anything other than the destroyed World Trade Center towers.
“Bill, it’s obvious that it’s the two towers!” blurted a future deacon. “It’s crystal clear! Can’t you see it?”
No, I couldn’t, Catholic fundamentalist though I was. And nothing I could say, nothing I could offer from sound scholarship could dislodge these good but mistaken people from their erroneous ideas. Please watch the video here:
Apocalypse of Nonsense
There is so much crazy, uninformed ignorance going around about Apocalypse or Revelation, the last book of the New Testament canon. Some of the worst of this concerns “666,” the number of “the Beast” (Revelation 13:1-18).
But it doesn’t stop there. Identifying the colossal Pregnant Sky Woman as various biblical females is another doozy enabled by Lectionary readings. Obsessing over the Antichrist (1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 1:7) is yet another, even though “Antichrist” never appears in Revelation. And always there are Christians endlessly trying to align contemporary events with descriptions in Revelation.
Six hundred sixty-six generates so much undeserved attention, energy, and nonsense. For as long as I can remember, fundamentalists have been fighting over what that number means. And nearly everyone who “discovers” it’s meaning confidently sits in faux certitude that “the Beast” and his number must mean… Jimmy Carter. Pope John Paul II. Ronald Reagan. George HW Bush, Saddam Hussein. Bill Clinton. George W. Bush. Osama bin Laden. Pope Benedict XVI. Barack Obama. Pope Francis. Hillary Clinton. George Soros. And recently, Bill Gates.
The Problem with Futurist Readings of Revelation
All of these nonscholarly futurist interpretations are dead wrong. In light of these bogus futurist or “End-Historical” interpretations, the book of Revelation gets read as if it is exclusively concerned with events happening at the end of time. Conveniently, this happens to be the time of the reader!
I want you to think about how ridiculous that is. Since the 21st century American Christian Bible reader stands on the threshold of the end of all things, and since most of the book of Revelation is about events happening in the last days, what becomes of the earlier Church that read it? The whole book of Revelation is rendered meaningless to our ancestors in the faith! It becomes meaningless and irrelevant to its first readers, and all subsequent readers, except for us Western Christians blessed to be living at the end! Given that, why would anyone before us bother preserving it, and handing it forward?
But the fundamentalists love to imagine things this way. Fundamentalism is a psychological condition, kind of like solipsism—you are the only thing that matters. Me, Myself, and I—the Trinity of all fundamentalisms. Catholic fundamentalism isn’t really about God or Christ, but the fundamentalist being right, correct, and unshakably certain.
Not Much Luck with Scholarship, Either
So there are plenty of nonscholarly and dead wrong, yet depressingly, extremely popular, takes on Apocalypse or Revelation. But what about scholarly commentaries? The book called Revelation has given birth to illimitable scores of scholarly studies. However, here too success in penetrating this ancient Mediterranean text is fleeting. Almost none of the critical scholarship on Revelation bothers to care for what this document and its strange details actually meant for its first century author and his intended audience.
Watch Western scholars explain the genre of literature to which Revelation belongs. Western academia, conservative or progressive both, tends to rely heavily on disciplined intuition (AKA—a sophisticated Northern European and North American ethnocentrism). So our scholars look to their own culturally misinformed models and literature familiar in their contemporary university departments. And so they answer: Revelation is symbolic fiction. Or Revelation is a midrashic hodgepodge of phrases and sentences culled from the Hebrew Scriptures. Or Revelation is an apocalypse, or an eschatological work, or an apocalyptic eschatology.
Maybe if the author and his readers had been 21st century Northern Europeans or North Americans, these scholars might be on to something!
Naming the Sky Beast Over the Sea
Let’s talk about 666. Following John PIlch and Bruce Malina, Context scholars who offer a culturally informed historical criticism, the best place to study “666” or anything in Revelation is a planetarium. That’s because like everything in Revelation, “666” deals with phenomena in the skies—stars, singular and constellated, comets, planets.
That Cosmic Lamb worthy to break open the scrolls (Revelation 5:1-14)? That’s the constellation we call “Aries.” Michael fighting Satan (Revelation 12:7-9)? That’s Orion and Scorpio-Libra. The titanic Pregnant Sky Woman at the beginning of time, large enough to be clothed with the sun and stand on the moon (Revelation 12:1-6)? That’s the constellation we call Virgo. Those four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Revelation 6:1-8)? Comets, always harbingers of doom for ancients.
First century Mediterranean peoples perceived, understood, thought about, and communicated reality WAAAAY different than we Western Christians. They saw the denizens of the skies as living persons, spirits and gods, rather than scientific phenomena. That’s how contemporary Israelites saw things as well, folks. So too Jesus group Israelites like the astral prophet, John the Seer (Revelation 1:9).
The Author and Compiler of Apocalypse
John had visions and took sky journeys in trance states (Revelation 4:1-2). And he wrote what he learned down, describing his altered states of consciousness experiences of sky events into several works.
Later on, an anonymous, unknown Compiler (Revelation 1:1-3) edited together several different documents he preserved authored by John the Seer. The version we have of the Book of Revelation is the product of the Compiler’s editing and redaction. It’s ironic how he warns his readers not to tinker with the text, not to add or to subtract from it (Revelation 22:18-19). “The Compiler” did a lot of that! Inspiration is messy, folks.
But, Doesn’t 666 Mean Nero?
As many non-fundamentalist Christians know, the document called Revelation went through various re-contextualizations throughout history. But none of these re-contextualizations, including the one that identified “666” with Nero Caesar, were in the minds of John the Seer (Revelation 1:9) or his Compiler (Revelation 1:1-3).
In fact, where are the clear, unambiguous, or direct references in Apocalypse or Revelation to Rome or to Roman emperors? Answer: nowhere. Sure, most modern scholars favor thinking of Revelation as apocalyptic “resistance literature” against Roman oppression, all that is backing up this tenuous hypothesis is gratuitous insistence, nothing else.
Surely Israelite authors, of this time, such as those authors of 1 Peter 5:13, do identify Rome with Babylon (see 4 Ezra, Apocalypse of Baruch, Sibylline Oracles 5). But following Pilch and Malina, when this repeated reference is encountered in such writings, unlike Apocalypse does with Babylon, there are no hostile or pejorative overtones directed at Rome.
In other words, the authors of these Israelite writings are just calling Rome a place of exile. In contrast, Babylon in Revelation isn’t Rome, but rather the loathsome first city of humankind, Babel, the source of deception in the post-flood world. Babel is the prototype of any and all ancient cities, places of deception.
Triangle in the Sky
Before Gnostic Jesus groups, and later Latin, post-Constantinian churches, re-contextualized it, “666” meant something quite different. According to Bruce Malina and John Pilch, “666” originally related to the constellation Deltoton, or in Latin, Triangulum.
The earliest Jesus groups apparently were not really interested in the significance of Rome or its Emperors—Revelation is no different. Apocalypse is not about Rome. John never identifies Rome as “the Beast.” Indeed, John turned his attention elsewhere, namely, the sky vaults above.
John the Seer wrote down his visions to allay fear and unease in the Jesus groups with which he was associated. He wrote them down to immunize his fellow astral prophets against lies and deceits. His audience learned through his visions why things turned out the way they did. John conveyed to them cosmic comfort provided by God’s certain rule and the ever-loyal and true role of Jesus Messiah, the polokrator who literally cranks the cosmos and controls everything beneath God’s throne.