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The origin and meaning of 666

Information: This article explains the origin and meaning of the number 666. The article assumes Preterist interpretation of the origin and meaning of the number, meaning that it is first and foremost a reference to a particular historical figure at the time John wrote. (Watch a video about this subject)

'666 is probably the best known number in our society.' (Pastor Ron Graff, Technology: Preparing For The Mark, www.bible-prophecy.com)

Introduction

Although many volumes have been written trying to explain and interpret the meaning of the number 666, there is only one reference to this obscure numerical symbol in the Bible It is found in chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation:

'This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666. (Revelation 13:17)

DVD cover of the 2006 film The Omen, showing the number 666.
This film was also released on June 6th 2006 (6/6/06), at 06:06:06 in the morning.The popular media tends to promote the idea that 666 has a particularly close Satanic association, but as we can see from Revelation 13:17 this is not strictly true. In fact (as we will see), the number 666 has a far more human than supernatural meaning associated with it.

The Book of Revelation is sometimes called the Apocalypse (which means revealing things to come). It was written by someone called John, near the end of the 1st Century CE [1]. Although it contains what many Christians believe to be a series of visions about the end of the world, it is actually a book very much grounded in the real world. Despite the many fantastic and dramatic events it describes, the Book of Revelation is first and foremost a letter to persecuted Christians to encourage them to remain true to the faith, despite their sufferings.

'Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer... you will suffer persecution... Be faithful, even to the point of death.' (2:10)

The Book of Revelation begins with a series of seven letters said to be written to, 'churches in the province of Asia' (Revelation 1:4). In the Bible, seven is a number associated with things being whole or complete (E.g. 'By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing' - Genesis 2:2). This is in contrast to the number 6, which is often used as a symbol of imperfection (or things being incomplete). As such, many scholars believe the Book of Revelation was written not just to seven particular churches, but to the whole Church.

Although many Christians interpret the events described in the Book of Revelation as being about things yet-to-come (or yet-to-occur), it is evident from the way John writes that he believed the things he 'saw' were close to, or actually happening. Now this is an important point for understanding the origin and meaning of 666; for if John's revelation was 'received' in light of specific things happening to a specific group of people in the past, then the origin and meaning of this number must also be predominantly found in the past too. In fact, if John's letter to the church begins in this world, then we have no reason to think he is not still in this world when it ends.

The belief that the Book of Revelation describes events which have already happened (or were in the process of happening) in the 1st Century CE, is known as a Preterist view. One of the reasons people advocate a Preterist view of the Book of Revelation, is because there are passages in it where it seems John was convinced that the events he spoke of were going to happen very soon (E.g. Revelation 1:1).

The image of the two beasts

The first thing we know about the number 666 is that it is the number of a beast, and we learn about this creature in chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation:

'I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name... One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed... Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast... He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast... He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.' (Revelation 13:1-17)

Although 666 is the number of a beast, there are clearly two beasts being spoken of here; one from the sea and one from the land. The beast from the sea is said to be a symbol of the Roman Empire, with its ten horns and seven heads representing the emperors and rulers of Rome:

  • Tiberius (14-37 CE)
  • Caligula (37-41 CE)
  • Claudius (41-54CE)
  • Nero (54-68 CE)
  • Galba (68-69 CE)
  • Otho (69-69 CE)
  • Vitellius (69-69 CE)
  • Vespasian (69-79 CE)
  • Titus (79-81 CE)
  • Domitian (81-96 CE)

(Dates are when they ruled Rome)

Now this list of ten men are not the only ones to have ruled Rome, but they were the ones under whom the idea of Emperor worship emerged and flourished in the 1st Century CE, and as such it is the beast from the land which represents this practice.

The original institution of Emperor worship was intended to honour the lives of dead leader and their divine appointment, but in some cases certain rulers (such as Domitian) considered themselves to be the living presence of Divinity on earth.

Although not all the Caesars were happy with the idea of people worshiping them, over time offering tribute to them became a test for demonstrating one's loyalty to the Empire. As such, it was expected (and largely required) that people would do this to avoid being perceived as a threat to the established social order.

Paying tribute to the Emperor typically involved nothing more than placing a pinch of incense on an altar, but at the the time the Book of Revelation was written many Christians were suffering, being persecuted, and even put to death, because they were refusing to do this.

'Those who had given the worship to Caesar which was demanded had on them the mark of the beast... [which shows that] those who worship the beast are his property... [or] are his devoted followers... [or] accept his authority... [or] are the property of the beast... [or] may be the certificate of worship, which a Christian could only obtain at the cost of denying his faith.' (Barclay W., The Daily Study Bible: The Revelation of John Vol. 2 [Brackets mine])

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The resurrection of Nero (Nero redivivus)

The first beast spoken of in Revelation 13 represents the emperors and rulers of Roman, but we also learn from verse 12 that it has a wound which has been healed:

'He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.' (Revelation 13:12)

Many scholars believe Revelation 13:12 is actually a reference to the legend of Nero redivivus. Although Nero committed suicide in 68CE, many believed he would rise from the dead in the future, possibly because they thought his death was faked, and that he had simply gone into hiding for a period of time. If this was the case, then John's vision of the first beast, 'whose fatal wound had been healed' is a reference to the return of Nero.

.Marble sculpture of Nero, 1st Century CE - Source: Wikipedia

Marble sculpture of Nero, 1st Century CE - Source: Wikipedia

Of course, this begs the question as to why Nero's resurrection was important to Christians who were being persecuted. Well, Nero was one of the few Emperors who actively promoted and encouraged Emperor worship (he claimed to be the sun-god, Apollo). He is also widely regarded as being a brutal and sadistic persecutor of Christians. Aside from their refusal to pay tribute to him, he also blamed them for the burning of Rome in AD 64 (when everyone knew it was him). As Tacitus notes, Nero did the most heinous things to Christians in an attempt to cover his tracks concerning this matter:

'To get rid of the report [of him starting the fire of Rome], Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace... Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to torture-stakes, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.' (The Annals of Tacitus, 15:44 [Bracket mine])

It has been suggested that Revelation 13:12 could also be a eference to Domitian, who some considered to be a cruel and ruthless persecutor of Christians on a par with Nero. However, modern historical studies tend towards the view that there was no widespread persecution of non-Roman religion under him, so it is unlikely that this verse is a reference to him.

All this means that if f first century Christians were to fear the return of any of the Caesars, the return of Nero would cause them the most concern.

The number of the beast: 666

In Revelation 13:1 we read that the first beast was given the power and authority of a dragon, who 'stood on the shore of the sea'. Elsewhere we read that this dragon is the devil, or Satan (Revelation 12:9). This appears to suggest that the number of the beast is to be associated with the devil, but as we have already seen, it is actually the number of man:

'This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man's number. His number is 666. (Revelation 13:17)

Although the original meaning of the number 666 has been lost, most scholars (based on evidence found in the Book of Revelation) believe it to be a numerical code for a person's name. We have already seen that Revelation 13:12 appears to allude legend of Nero redivivus, and this would appear to be confirmed as his name can be represented by the number 666 in the following ways:

Nero's name in Greek (Kaiser Neron) represented by Hebrew letters (qsr nrwn), which also function as numbers

  • q = 60
  • s = 100
  • r = 200
  • n = 50
  • w = 6

qsr nrwn (60 + 100 + 200 + 50 + 200 + 6 + 50) = 666


Nero's name in Latin (Neron) represented by letters, which also function as numbers

  • N = 50
  • E = 6
  • R = 500
  • O = 60
  • N = 50

neron (50 + 6 + 500 + 60 + 50) = 666

Long ago when people did not have figures to represent numbers (like we use 1, 2, 3, 4 etc.), they used letters instead. For example, in Latin the year 2009 is represented by the letters MMIX.

It should be noted that in some manuscripts, the number of the beast has been found to be recoded as 616. One reason given for this is that scribes copying the text may have dropped the final 'n' from Neron, thus reducing the total by 50. Some modern scholars believe that 616 was actually the original number of the beast, but that it was substituted in favour of the more memorable 666. Either way, the number still works as a numerical representation of the name Nero.

Now some might ask why, if John was talking about Nero in Revelation 13:12, did he not refer to him in a more direct way? Well, as the Book of Revelation was written at a time when Christians were being persecuted for their faith, people naturally spoke to each other using coded language so that their enemies would not be privy to their conversation (in the same way people do during times of war).

World War II poster, original source unknown

'[The Book of Revelation] is written in code; it is clear that nowhere will the code be more closely guarded than in regard to this number which stands for the archenemy of the Church.' (Barclay W., The Daily Study Bible: The Revelation of John Vol. 2 [Brackets mine])

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Other interpretations of the meaning of 666

Although the most widely accepted interpretation of the origin and meaning of 666 is that it is a reference to Nero, this has not stopped some people from promoting alternative views of the matter.

For example, Pastor Jose Luis de Jesus Miranda of the Ministerio International Creciendo en Gracia (International Ministry Growing in Grace), claims to be the 'last manifestation of God on Earth, Jesus Christ'. He also claims there is no sin or devil, and that his church is the true church. As a visible sign that his followers are members of the 'true church', Pastor Jose invites them to have the number 666 tattooed on their arm:

'The tattoo announces that the apocalyptic beast that John saw is in reality Jesus Christ in his second coming with the man’s stamp of 666 because in the same manner that he came as a man in his first manifestation (Jesus of Nazareth) he does it again for the second time to judge all things in accordance with the gospel of Paul (Romans 2:16) and to end the apostasy that has oppressed, impoverished, and saddened the church.' (666 The Seal of Prosperity, www.creciendoengracia.com)

Pastor Jose believes that having the number 666 tattooed on one's body is intended to, 'undo the myth and fear in regard to the true identity of the Beast and of the Antichrist'. Although traditionally the beast is regarded as a diabolic being, Pastor Jose believes this is not something supported by Scripture. In fact, rather than consider the beast to be an agent of Satan, he claims this being to be none other than Jesus Christ himself, returning to judge the world (particularly the Christian church) for their idolatrous ways and apostate beliefs. As such, according to Pastor Jose, being found to have the mark of the beast (666) when Christ returns will be a sign to God that one is actually a true believer in Christ. Of course, this is in contrast to the more popularly held belief that being found with the mark will be considered a sign that one is not a true believer.

Most Christians believe 666 is a diabolical sign, and one whose universal presence signifies that the end of the world is near. For example, some Christians believe that the widespread and global use of barcodes is an indication that we are living in the 'last days', as they all contain the number 666 in them.

Barcode with so-called left, middle and right #6 lines highlighted in red (Source: www.av1611.org)

Now despite the hysteria amongst some Christians concerning the global use of barcodes, the fact is that they do not contain the number 666 in them. The red lines are actually 'guard rails', and their purpose is simply to help scanners read barcodes by indicating which direction the beam is crossing it. Although the guard rails (red lines) have a similar appearance to the number six (blue line), thus implying that the number 666 is found in barcodes, technically these lines do not have any numerical value associated with them. As the inventor of the U. P. C. (Universal Product Code) George J. Laurer notes on his website:

'There is nothing sinister about this nor does it have anything to do with the Bible's "mark of the beast"... It is simply a coincidence, like the fact that my first, middle, and last name all have 6 letters.' (QUESTIONS about the U.P.C. and the New Testamant, www.laurerupc.com)

Another interpretation of the number 666, is that it is a reference to the Pope, who is the head of the Roman Catholic Church. This is a particularly popular reading of the Revelation 13 passage amongst some groups of Christians, as the first beast is said to represent the Roman Empire. To show exactly how 666 is a reference to the Pope, the Remnant of God website argues that the number represents the phrase Vicarius Filli Dei, which is said to be a papal title:

Vicarius Filii Dei (Vicar of the Son of God) represented by letters, which also function as numbers

  • V = 5
  • I = 1
  • C = 100
  • A = 0
  • R = 0
  • I = 1
  • V = 5
  • S = 0
  • F = 0
  • I = 1
  • L = 50
  • I = 1
  • I = 1
  • D = 500
  • E = 0
  • I = 1

Vicarius Filii Dei (112 + 53 + 501) = 666

However, although some Christians claim that the title Vicarius Filii Dei is used by Catholics to address the Pope, and is even found on his miter, it is actually not an official papal title used by the Church and as such this interpretation of the number 666 is dubious.

Seventh Adventists (who began to promote this interpretation of 666 in 1866), officially abandoned the claim that 666 represents the title Vicarius Filii Dei in 2002, due to an overwhelming lack of evidence.

Finally, some have suggested that 666 represents various political figures, such as Adolf Hitler and former president of the United States Ronald Regan, It has even been jokingly suggested that as the sixth letter in the Hebrew alphabet (waw) is phonetically represented by the letter w, this means that (in theory) every website on the Internet starts with 666!

Cartoon of Satan sitting in front of a computer - Source: www.godandscience.org

Source: www.godandscience.org

The origin and meaning of 666 (Ask a question series)

Notes

[1] Although many Christians believe the same John (the Apostle) wrote both the Book of Revelation and the Gospel of John, some New Testament scholars now believe they were written by different people. One of the chief reasons for this is that the Greek used in the Book of Revelation is much simpler and less refined, compared with that used in the Gospel of John.

[2] For example:

Gentaria table

Gematria table (Source: www.aloha.net)

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