“Here is a wake-up call for wisdom: whoever has a brain capable of understanding, let him or her figure out the number of the beast, for it is a human number, and its number is 666” (13:18).
What is now the correct meaning of “666,” “the number of his name” (13:17)? The temptation to convert it into someone’s name should be resisted. We need to linger longer inside the text, to internalize its striking conceptions and contrasts. If we manage to resist the urge to decipher “666” into someone’s name, should we have similar caveats with respect to the sea, the earth, and the “forty-two months”? Should space (geography) and time yield to theology and meaning to a greater extent that all schools of interpretation allow? What does “666” say about the beast if we leave it as “666”? It is Satan’s number — Mr. Wormwood, Mr. Darkness, and Mr. Destroyer in the trumpets — and here the master of “666.”
I advise against decoding the number “666.” My respect for “666” — to leave it as it is — is consistent with a reading that prioritizes imitation. A view that emphasizes the imitative aspirations of the two beasts safeguards all the concerns of those who are committed to historical prediction — without the risks. Let me state some risks as bullet points.
In revelation 13:18 John explicitly instructs us to figure out the meaning of the number of the beast “666”, through (counting, solving, calculating or reckoning)
The meaning of the greek word psēphizō
- to count with pebbles, to compute, calculate, reckon
- to give one’s vote by casting a pebble into the urn
- to decide by voting
Its translations in various English bible versions:
- Calculate: KJV, NKJV, NIV, ESV, CSB, NASB, NET, HNV,
- Reckon: RSV
- Count:ASV, YLT, DBY, WEB
By advising us not to try to decode what John meant when he used 666, you are in a way advising us to ignore John’s instructions. If we take into consideration the context within which John wrote Revelation, we’ll get a better understanding of the message in Revelation.
Rome ruled over Judaea, but not all Jews were very happy about the arrangement: there were actual terrorist groups fighting to free Israel from their Roman oppressors. Apocalyptic literature was often written to encourage these efforts, so it was a dangerous thing to be caught with: for that reason it was written in religious metaphors as a kind of a code, so that to the Romans it would look like the incoherent ravings of a religious nutcase. Unfortunately, nearly 2,000 years later, most of these metaphors are lost on us.
This verse is basically saying, "If you can understand the code, you’ll figure out what the beast represents. Here’s a clue."
The text was written in Koine Greek, the “ordinary” Greek (spoken by ordinary people, not poets and philosophers) of the 1st century. Like Latin, Greek used letters to represent numbers. Most manuscripts that exist give the number as χξϛ, which represents 666; the oldest manuscripts, though, give it as χιϛ, which represents 616, and may be the original number of the beast. As it turns out, though, that may not be significant. Its also important to note that Irenaeus (2nd c., Against Heresies) speaks in favor of the 666 reading.
The best theory is that if you convert 616 into Hebrew – which also uses letters for numbers – you can get NRO QSR. Most vowels are not usually written in Hebrew (readers have to just know what the vowels are), so this represents “Nero Qaisar”, i.e. “Nero Caesar” in Latin. 666 also works, though: that gives you NRON QSR, for “Neron Qaisar”, which has “Nero” with an extra grammatical ending.
Revelation isn’t the only ancient jewish text that contains gematria, 3 Baruch has some gematria.
Historians have long known of a group of ancient Jewish books called the Sybilline Oracles, which predict that one of the most hated of the Roman Emperors, Caesar Nero, will return from the dead to wreak havoc on the earth — comparable to one who recovers from a death-inflicting wound. This popular belief may have something to do with the number of the beast. It should be recalled that Nero was seen as the archenemy of the Christians, whom he ruthlessly and unjustly persecuted for setting fire to the city of Rome.
As Richard J. Bauckham, states in his book “The Theology Of Revelation”:
Thus Revelation seems to be an apocalyptic prophecy
in the form of a circular letter to seven churches in the Roman
province of Asia. This is explicit in i: 11: what is revealed to
John (what he ‘sees’) he is to write and send to the seven
churches which are here named. This command applies to all
the visions and revelations which follow in the rest of the book.
The habit of referring to chapters 2- 3 as the seven ‘letters’ to
the churches is misleading. These are not as such letters but
prophetic messages to each church. It is really the whole book
of Revelation which is one circular letter to the seven churches.
The seven messages addressed individually to each church are
introductions to the rest of the book which is addressed to all
seven churches. Thus we must try to do justice to the three
categories of literature - apocalypse, prophecy and letter - into
which Revelation seems to fall. In considering each in turn it
will be appropriate to begin with prophecy.
Whatever meaning/interpretation we get from Revelation should not negate the meaning/interpretation of its original readers (the 7 churches that John addresses in his “letter”)