666!!: What should we make of the Bible’s scariest number?

666!!: What should we make of the Bible’s scariest number? March 17, 2015


Does it really matter if it is 666 or 616?


Hold that 616 for a moment.

The Bible’s scariest number — 666 — occurs in Revelation 13:17-18, a famously perplexing passage in Scripture’s most perplexing book. (If you’re superstitious, note that’s in chapter 13.) “The International Bible Commentary” recounts that assorted preachers have identified 666 as the Pope, Muhammad, Muslim warrior Saladin, King Charles I, Charles’s enemy Oliver Cromwell, King George III of American Revolution fame, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Anwar Sadat, Moshe Dayan, Saddam Hussein, Henry Kissinger, Sun Myung Moon, Mikhail Gorbachev, and U.S. Presidents Kennedy and Reagan.

In Revelation (a.k.a. the Apocalypse) chapter 13, a devilish dragon controls a powerful beast from the sea allied with a second beast from the earth that marks everyone on the right hand or forehead. “No one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: Let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six” (New Revised Standard Version).

All English translations say 666, but to Wesley’s point, some add a footnote like this in the NRSV: “Other ancient authorities read six hundred sixteen.” In 2005, British scholar David C. Parker was in the news reporting that the oldest surviving manuscript from Egypt reads 616. Parker dates this fragment of Papyrus 115 around the late 200s A.D. However, the oldest text isn’t necessarily the best and, significantly, in A.D. 180 church historian Irenaeus wrote that 616 was a mistake.

To oversimplify Revelation and its fantastic images, theologians follow three general concepts that can overlap: 1) A past approach says the book depicts in code the persecution Christians were facing in the 1st Century. 2) An ever-present approach sees an allegory of Christians’ struggles and triumphs through all time. 3) A future approach, prominent in one segment of U.S. evangelical Protestants, sees predictions of literal events around Jesus Christ’s Second Coming.

There’s no agreement on who or what the mysterious second beast could be. Many think 666 is the feared end-times “antichrist” of 1 and 2 John, but Revelation doesn’t use that term. In general, the ever-present school figures this “person” symbolizes perennial evil and worldly rule. The future school cannot absolutely identify 666 before the horrid person appears, though prophecy preachers like those cited above keep speculating about candidates. The late John Walvoord, president of “Dispensationalist” Dallas Theological Seminary, said 666 will be the future “false prophet” of the end times when “false religion will sweep the entire world” under the first beast’s 42-month dictatorship. Dallas Professor Charles Ryrie explains that “somehow unknown to us, this number will play an important part in the identification of the Antichrist in a future day.”

There’s far more to say about the past or “preterist” school with its focus on 1st Century history. A typical exponent, Harvard’s Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, sees 666 as “the economic and political oppression” of Christians and others who refused to worship Roman emperors. Canadian Jesuit Jean-Louis D’Aragon concluded that the two beasts symbolize all “the divinized Roman emperors” and if a specific person then most likely Nero.

Why? In the Greek and Hebrew languages, letters did double duty as numbers, so “gematria” would convert numbers to names and vice versa to seek hidden meanings. G.B. Caird of Oxford University said the Greek “Neron Kaisar” transliterated into Hebrew yields 666, while the Latin “Nero Caesar” into Hebrew produces 616. Others figured 616 was the Emperor Caligula or that 666 in Hebrew was code for “beast.” One fellow figured the Greek initials of Rome’s rulers from 45 B.C. till A.D. 79 totaled 666, though he had to omit two emperors who survived for mere months.

Then again, 7 is the Bible’s symbol of perfection so 6 always falls short, and humanity was created on day 6, thus 666 is triply flawed. Numerologists propose 666 as the sum of all numbers from 1 through 36, and 36 as the sum of all numbers from 1 through 8, with Revelation 17:11 saying the “beast that was and is not is an eighth.” Could that refer to rumors Nero didn’t really commit suicide and would return as dictator? After all, in 13:14 the second “beast” has a “mortal wound” yet lives on.

In any event, D’Aragon figured “Nero fits the context, for he was the first emperor to persecute the Christians; he embodied all the worst characteristics of the Beast” and he “came to life again” in the person of the vicious Emperor Domitian. The manic Nero reigned in A.D. 64 when a vast six-day fire leveled much of Rome. To counter suspicions that high officials were to blame, Nero accused the city’s Christians. Historian Hans Lietzmann said Nero’s victims were crucified, mauled to death by dogs, torn to pieces for arena sport, or dipped in pitch and “burned as torches in the imperial gardens.” Tradition says the apostle Peter was crucified in this reign of terror.

Domitian repeated such slaughter during his rule from A.D. 81 to 96, and these are thought to be the years when Revelation was written. Moreover, Pliny’s history labeled Domitian “the beast from hell.” He was the first emperor to make himself a god while still living so worship of him was a civic duty. Jews were exempt, but Christians suffered severely for refusing.

Persecution sidelight: An A.D. 112 letter to the Emperor Trajan from Asia Minor’s governor reported that two unnamed “slave women whom they call deaconesses” were tortured to death. They are Christianity’s first recorded martyrs following New Testament times.

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