Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:18

18 Here is wisdom: the one who has understanding, let him count the number of the Beast, for it is a human number, and its number [is] six hundred and sixty-six.

Revelation 13:18 is one of the most famous passages in the entire Bible. It has been at the center of theological debates since the second century, and is firmly fixed in popular culture, especially in occult circles, and within popular horror literature and movies. With all the baggage this verse has accumulated over the last two thousand years, it’s hard to look at it dispassionately, or without some preconceived notion as to what it means. However, if we are to honor this verse as part of God’s word to His people, we need to keep our eyes fixed on the two questions we apply everywhere else in Revelation: What did it mean for John and his audience? What does it mean for us, the church, today? As part of God’s eternal word, this verse meant something to John and those to whom he wrote in Asia Minor, and it has had abiding meaning to God’s people ever since, even to this day.

Before we get to “666,” we need to recall the context. John has been describing two “beasts”: a main beast, and his minion beast who is drawing the “earth-dwellers” (i.e., unbelievers) to worship the main beast by means of wondrous signs and a talking idol. As with all the other visions in Revelation, John is being shown spiritual realities by means of symbols. The main beast is some kind of overarching authority working under the power of Satan (the dragon in chapter 12). He is a false Messiah, as we see from his horn that dies and rises again, and the fact he has horns, like the Lamb in chapter 5. The second beast is some kind of subordinate power, operating like Jesus’s apostles. He’s a false prophet, drawing people away from worship and allegiance to the true God, so they might be under the dominion of the main beast. Among the second beast’s activities is to apply a special mark on the earth-dwellers that enables them to buy and sell. Those who do not have this mark, i.e., the heaven-dwellers (God’s people), are not able to buy and sell. Just like the name of God that is written on the foreheads of the heaven-dwellers, the mark of the beast is placed on the head of the earth-dwellers. This indicates ownership and loyalty. The mark can also be placed upon the right hand, which calls to mind Deuteronomy 6:8, wherein God instructed His people to carry His commandments on their foreheads and their hands. It seems the beast is also parodying this command of God, such that the earth-dwellers will have the beast’s name as part of their everyday life.

This is the situation for the persecuted church. Having lost the heavenly battle by failing to destroy the Messiah (chapter 12), Satan is going after the church. Since he can’t touch God’s people spiritually, he’s going after them physically. We’ve seen this played out in broad strokes with the seven seals, and here we’re getting more detail. Those who do not have the beast’s mark are those who carry the name of the Lord: the church. The beast has been empowered to act against them, both financially and mortally. Failure to carry the beast’s mark carries at least financial punishment, and at most, capital punishment.

Now, in verse 18, John calls us to apply “understanding” or “discernment” (Greek nous) to figure out, “count,” or “calculate” the number of the beast’s name. The Greek verb here is psēphizō, which is associated with accounting. The psēphos was the name they gave to the small stone or pebble they would use to represent numbers or votes. The reason the beast’s name is calculable is because it is a “human number.” Some translations might render this “the name of a man” or “a man’s name” which is not accurate. The Greek is arithmos anthrōpou, using the word often used to indicate mankind in general, anthrōpos, as opposed to the word for a person of the male gender, anēr. I believe what John is saying is that this is not an esoteric, heavenly number that is beyond man’s reasoning. Rather, it is a regular number, and as such, its meaning can be ascertained by use of “wisdom,” “understanding,” and “discernment.” John then gives us this number: Six hundred and sixty-six.

Given the way John introduces the number (“his number is”), most scholars and students of Revelation agree that “666” is a form of gematria called isopsephy. “Gematria” is simply representing words, or names, by using their numerical values. “Isopsephy” literally means “equal count,” and refers to a kind of number game that was popular in the first and second century. Essentially, you come up with a number that can represent equally two different words. Since in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, numbers were represented by letters of the alphabet, one “word” would be the letters that constitute the number. That number, however could also be derived using letters that make up a name.

Here is a chart showing letters of the Greek alphabet and their corresponding number values:

(Note for those familiar with the Greek alphabet: the letters representing 6, 90, and 900 are pre-Classical letters that fell out of use except to represent numbers. The two letters that can be used for 6 are stigma or digamma. For 90, I have given two forms of the letter koppa, and the letter for 900 is sampi)

This is a real example of ancient graffiti that uses isopsephy:

For those that don’t read Greek, it’s pronounced philō hēs horithmos [which is a misspelling of “arithmos”] ‘Atē. “Atē” is not a real Greek word, but the “word” that makes the number 1,308 (A + t + ē). If you want to know who the mysterious “Atē” is, you would try various female names until you come up with one whose letters make up 1,308. Of course, there could well be more than one contender, in which case, unless you knew the person who wrote the graffiti and his social circle, you may never know. Classical Greek scholars, who clearly have more time to spend pouring over ancient graffiti as opposed to Revelation 13:18, think the lady in question is Tuchē (but spelled with a lower-case “t”). This was a popular female name for the period, and the math works (t = 300, u = 400, ch = 600, ē = 8).

This form of gematria could also be used with phrases. For example:

(Again for the non-Greek readers: neopsēphon: Nerōn idian mētera apekteine, which translates to “A calculation new: Nero his own mother slew.”)

This is a very famous example cited by the historian Suetonius as a “new calculation” that was going around Rome during Nero’s reign. If you add together all the Greek letters in the name “Nero” (Nerōn), you get 1,005. And if you add together the Greek letters in the words following (idian mētera apekteine), you get… 1,005! This was actually cited as proof that Nero killed his own mother.

Now we know what gematria is, and what isopsephies are, we can apply this to Revelation 13:18 and the number/name of the Beast. Of the possible meanings derived using gematria, there are three that seem most likely.

NERO

The most popular contender, even among scholars, though I can’t say I find the reasoning overly compelling. As we saw above, Nero’s number, using the Greek form of his name (Nerōn) is 1,005, not 666. If we transliterate the Latin “Nero” to Greek (Nerō), we get 955. At this point, those that argue for Nero turn from Greek to Hebrew. We can do gematria with Hebrew letters using a table like this:

If we transliterate the Greek Nerōn into Hebrew, we get 50+200+50 = 300. We could use a defective spelling, with a waw standing for the “o” sound (which it often does in Hebrew). That gives us 50+200+6+50 = 306. Still not there. But what if we include Nero’s title: Nero Caesar, which in Hebrew could be written :

That makes 50+200+6+50 + 100+60+200 = 666!!!

However, that transliteration of “Caesar” isn’t accurate. A better transliteration would be:

Indeed, that form of “Caesar” can be found in various Jewish writings (e.g., the Talmud), whereas the other form has little or no attestation anywhere. Unfortunately, with that extra letter added, the math comes out to 676. Another point to consider is the fact that the “s” sound in “Caesar” could be made with either the letter shown (a samek), or with a sin (the letter designated 300 in the chart above). The only reason for using the samek is because the Talmud used it, but if you wanted to play with the math, you could just as easily substitute one for the other.

So “Nero” is possible, but you have to do some special pleading to make the math work. As an interesting side-note, if you transliterate the Latin Caesar Nero into Hebrew, you get:

which works out to 616. There are two manuscripts that read “616” as opposed to “666,” and this may be why. A scribe, assuming the number represented Nero, used the Latin spelling in Hebrew and “corrected” the verse accordingly. We don’t know this for sure, of course, but it’s possible.

DOMITIAN

There is a case to be made for “666” representing Domitian, whom we have discussed previously as one of the first to “officially” persecute the church, and to do so quite mercilessly. We’ve noted how the situation in the churches described by John fits a Domitian time-frame, so could his be the name of the Beast?

The Greek form of his name, Domitianos, comes to 755, so we know from the start this isn’t going to be obvious. But John did say the number required “wisdom” and “understanding” to figure out, so we could expect to have to work a bit. But will it require as much of a stretch as with “Nero”?

Domitian’s official Imperial title in Latin was: Imperator Caesar Domitianus Augustus Germanicus. If we translate this to Greek we get:

Clearly all those letters are going to add up to a lot more than 666! But we have evidence of those titles being abbreviated like so:

If we add up the lower-case forms of those letters, we get 666. How popular were these abbreviations? Would John’s audience have known them? If they used money, then it’s very possible. Various of these six abbreviated titles have been found on coins from the time of Domitian, though, admittedly, there’s no evidence (yet) that all five were used on a single coin. This means that Christians buying and selling in the marketplace would be familiar with these abbreviations. Don’t forget the context of Revelation 13:18–we’ve just been talking about how only those with the mark will be able to buy and sell, so one could argue John is giving a clue to the context in which the number is to be understood.

BEAST

The Greek word for “beast,” thērion, adds up to 247. However, if we transliterate the Greek into Hebrew letters, we get 400+200+10+6+50=666! This would mean the name behind the number of the Beast is… beast! While this is appealing because it keeps the symbolism vague, and therefore applicable to anyone (or anything) that might be identified with the characteristics of the Beast in Revelation (e.g., the Roman emperor, or Hitler), it seems a bit like bait-and-switch. John is telling us that the number is human, and with wisdom and understanding we can discern the name represented by that number. For it simply to be “beast” would mean that John’s actually told us nothing. He needn’t have bothered with 13:18 at all. And if there’s anything we’ve learned about Revelation, it’s that numbers have significance. So there must be more to “666” than simply “beast.”

There is another way to approach “666” that has merit, and does not involve the use of gematria. It can be argued that the term “calculate” isn’t talking about math, but about simply figuring out, or reasoning, the number. And when John tells us it’s a “human number” he might not be talking about playing number/word games, but rather telling us the number refers to something in the earthly realm, not the heavenly.

Numbers in Revelation have symbolic meaning: 7 is the number of completion; 12 and 24 both represent God’s people; 1,000 speaks of a large quantity of something, and so on. If “7” is the number of completion or perfection, “6” is one short of that. We recall that the sixth seal was a vision of destruction prior to the Second Coming. Likewise, the sixth trumpet showed plagues and idolatry, just prior to the seventh trumpet–the Second Coming. In chapter 16, we will see seven bowls of God’s wrath, the sixth of which shows false prophets and demons assembling at Armageddon, just prior to the seventh bowl, when judgment falls. Three sixes, all looking to a time when the clash between Satan and God’s people reaches a climax.

Alternatively, the Greek name for Jesus, Iēsous, comes out as 888, using our gematria chart above. As you can imagine, this was a very popular number among Christians in the first few centuries of the church. The number 777 could, therefore, be used to represent the Trinity, in which case 666 would be an “unholy” Trinity, representing the height of Satanic evil.

There are a couple of Old Testament uses of the number “666.” Perhaps most notably, Solomon’s gold is said to have weighed 666 talents (1 Kings 10:14, 2 Chronicles 9:13). This was not the sum total of all his gold, but it is the number mentioned in the text. After describing Solomon’s great wealth, we then read of how he turns away from the Lord. The text ascribes his backsliding to the foreign women he married, who led him into idolatry. This isn’t directly associated with his wealth, but no doubt the power accorded to him as a result of his riches played a big part in his ability to attract the attention of women from other lands. With regard to Revelation 13:18, however, I’m not sure this helps beyond underscoring the power of earthly desire to lead people away from the Lord, just as the Beast was using the desire for wealth to entice those with the mark. The quantity of Solomon’s gold doesn’t leave us with a “name.”

So, what do we make of all this? Personally, of the three possibilities given using gematria, I think Domitian is the most likely–and I don’t say that simply because it strengthens my case for Revelation being written during Domitian’s time period. I think it’s less of a stretch than Nero, since the necessary abbreviations were known at the time, and were on the coins everyone used to buy and sell. The fact we haven’t found all five abbreviations on a single coin is problematic, but I don’t think it’s a show-stopper. People would have known all five abbreviations, even if they hadn’t seen them all in one place, and the fact we haven’t found a coin containing them all doesn’t mean such coins were never made. We just haven’t found any yet. I also think the number “666” is, itself, important as a symbol of that which is Satanic and evil. While Domitian is long in his grave, there have been other “Domitians” that represent the same Satanic power in operation against God’s people ever since. This is why John leaves the Beast’s name as a number that the reader is to reckon. We can play math games and make just about any name fit (Nero, Stalin, Hitler…), so whether or not John had a specific person in mind (e.g., Domitian) is beside the point.

As we come to chapter 14, we’ll see that the issue of greater concern for us is not so much the identity of the Beast, but that we don’t wear that name. Chapter 14 will present to us a contrast. While the Beast’s people have his number on their heads, God’s people do not. Rather, they wear the name of their Lord and Savior. And as we shall see in the coming chapters, in the end, that’s what will make the difference between the lake of fire, and eternal glory.

Since I used up all our time going through this material, we’ll take time out in our next lesson to discuss as a group. I’ll update the notes with any interesting insights.

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