Six hundred and sixty-six might be the most famous and misunderstood number ever written. For us to understand its true meaning, we need to explore the practice of gematria.
The letters of the alphabet in the ancient Hebrew and Greek are assigned numerical equivalents. The letters of a person’s name, for example, can be added up to yield a number. On a wall excavated in ancient Pompeii, a city frozen in time by the hot ash of Mt. Vesuvius’ deadly eruption in A.D. 79, a graffiti reads: “I love the girl whose name is phi mu epsilon (a sum of 545 in Greek).”
Jesus’ name has a numerical value in Greek gematria too:
Jesus = IhsouV = 10+8+200+70+400+200 = 888
The Greek letters of Caesar Nero (Neron Kaiser) when transliterated in Hebrew letters adds up to 666.
666 = Nun + Resh + Vav + Nun + Kuf + Samekh + Resh
50 200 6 50 100 60 200
All of the excellent commentaries that I’ve read on Revelation agree. Multiple possibilities for 666 are explored, but they all lean toward the “Nero Caesar” interpretation as the best. But Nero was long dead when John wrote his apocalypse. That’s where Revelation 13:3 comes in.
Revelation 13:3 One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast.
Nero (pictured) was a persecutor of Jews and Christians. He committed suicide in A.D. 68. The Emperor Domitian (ruled A.D. 81-96), who was given the nickname “The Beast” by Romans, Greeks, Christians and Jews, enforced the emperor worship initiated by Nero.
The emperor cult in Ephesus was set up by Domitian in A.D. 89, and this may be the crucial event that sparked a Christian reaction. How could Christians (who say that Jesus is Lord) go to the
and worship him as lord? And note this. Many saw Domitian as a reincarnation of Nero, i.e. the beast “whose mortal wound had been healed.” (Revelation 13:12) Temple of Domitian
Domitian was called “the bald Nero” because of his, well, baldness, and because of the persistent rumor that he was Nero returned. (Domitian is not bald in paintings and statues because he decreed that any artist who portrayed him as bald would be killed.) This false “resurrection” of the mortally wounded Nero-666-beast in the person of Domitian was a lying mockery of the resurrected Jesus who is envisioned by John as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered.” (Revelation 5:6) If under Domitian’s rule John was arrested and imprisoned, you can imagine that the Ephesian church (and the other six churches as well) had no warm feelings for their falsely resurrected, God-pretending, beastly emperor.
What is the mark of the beast on the hand and forehead all about? Here’s the quote:
Revelation 13:16-17 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that 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. (see also Revelation 14:9-11, 16:2, , 20:4)
This quote claims that you can’t buy and sell anything without the “mark of the beast” on your hand or your forehead. We can forget all the wild, futuristic speculations about this and just do a little bit of history.
Here’s the actual Suetonius quote:
“With no less arrogance he began as follows in dictating a circular letter in the name of his procurators, "Our Master (Lord) and our God bids that this be done." And so the custom arose of henceforth addressing him in no other way, even in writing or in conversation.” (Suetonius: De Vita Caesarum—Domitianus, c. 110 A.D., XIII)The equivalent of Dominus (Master) in Latin is Kyrios (Lord) in Greek.
Most emperors, if not all, were deified beginning with Julius Caesar. But the title “lord and god” is associated only with Domitian. This association is perhaps the main reason that the Book of Revelation is dated to Domitian’s reign. John used that exact phrase to refer not to the Nero/Domitian/Emperor Cult/666 beast, but to God:
Revelation 4:11 "You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created." (italics mine)
o` ku,rioj kai. o` qeo.j h`mw/n
the lord and the god of us
This is beyond coincidence and firmly dates the Book of Revelation to Domitian’s reign. It also clarifies John’s concerns.
For obvious reasons John is concerned about the emperor, his idolatrous cult, his idolatrous title, and his idolatrous image in temples and on currency.
Domitian’s head and arm (pictured from the Selçuk museum) are all that remain of the actual statue of him that the citizens of Ephesus literally worshiped. This is the very “image of the beast” in Revelation 13:15.
Above these arches (pictured) on this grassy hill is where the temple dedicated to the worship of Domitian once stood in ancient Ephesus, a city where the early Christians were under pressure to worship a statue and call it “lord and god.”
Question. Would you as an Ephesian Christian go as was required by law to Domitian’s Temple on the commercial agora and bow to a statue of the emperor saying, “Our lord and our god”?
Question: How would you feel as an Ephesian Christian about the image of Domitian or other emperors on your money (pictured)? How would you feel about the Roman coinage bearing the titles Divus (Divine) and Theos (God) for its emperor? Would you carry and spend money bearing Caesar’s graven image and blasphemous titles? If a coin has Domitian’s image on it, would you save it, spend it, or exchange it for another currency?
Question: If you were a Christian woman in
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9 When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’” (Luke 15:8-9)
Question: If you were a Jewish Christian man in Ephesus, and if you, in literal obedience to selected texts from Exodus and Deuteronomy (below), wore as required (for women it’s optional) by oral tradition phylacteries or tefillin (photo below)—boxes with the same select verses enclosed—strapped to your forehead and hand when you prayed, then would you put the beast’s image in your hand (a Roman coin), or in the case you are a woman, on your forehead? Here are those texts, one of them the famous “Shama”:
Exodus 13:9 It shall serve for you as a sign (mark) on your hand and as a reminder (mark) on your forehead, so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips . . . (italics mine)
Exodus 13:16 It shall serve as a sign (mark) on your hand and as an emblem (mark) on your forehead . . ." (italics mine)
Deuteronomy 6:4-8 Hear (shama), O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. 5 You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign (mark) on your hand, fix them as an emblem (mark) on your forehead, (italics mine)
Deuteronomy 11:18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign (mark) on your hand, and fix them as an emblem (mark) on your forehead. (italics mine)
How do we know that phylacteries were worn by Jews in the days of Jesus and Paul? Fragments have been found by archaeologists. (pictured – fragments found at Qumran dated to the 1st Century B.C.) Jesus’ words recorded in Scripture also confirm the use of phylacteries in his day.
Matthew 23:5 “[The scribes and Pharisees] do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” (italics mine)
Now, do 1st Century phylacteries and coins shed light for you on John’s symbolic marks on the forehead or the hand? I wonder if John is calling on the Christians of western Asia Minor to avoid using Roman currency so that they don’t participate in any practice that might support the 666-beast and his boss, the dragon. Makes sense to me. Many other currencies were available. Is John using coded language to instruct his churches not to replace the scriptures on their forehead and hand with the image and name of the beast on coins—coins that can be worn on the forehead or must be carried in the hand in order to shop and spend? I think so.
I suppose it’s possible that John, writing to 1st Century Christians in
Asia Minor, could be prophesying the use of modern supermarket bar codes or electronic surgical biochip implants in your head or hand, as some modern biblical literalists insist. But which sounds crazier to you, that John would be warning his own church members about participating in Roman idolatry or that John would be warning 21st Century Americans about shopping at Wal-Mart?
In Revelation 13, the first beast from the sea then is the imperial power of Rome, the Roman Emperors themselves, specifically Nero “reincarnated” as Domitian. The second beast from the earth (called “the false prophet” in Revelation , , and ) then is the Commune Asiae (made up of civic representatives from each city) who managed and enforced Domitian’s emperor cult. (Caird, p. 171) The Commune even used tricks like ventriloquism to make the emperors’ images speak (), thus deluding the superstitious pagan citizenry of
and other Asian cities wherein Christians strove to resist idolatry and endure persecution. I believe John wants us to see his concern for his seven churches. He wants us to see his beloved church members, friends he knows by name, fellow Christians forced to Domitian’s Temple, compelled to face Domitian’s statue, and pressured to call it “Lord and God.” They are face to face with the beast of idolatry. Ephesus
A POSTSCRIPT ON “THE ANTICHRIST” – There is no justification for equating Revelation’s 666-beast with the antichrist. Why? There are two simple reasons.
First, the term antichrist does not appear in the Book of Revelation at all. That’s a surprise to most people. Antichrist is a term not to be found in Revelation. I presume that if John had meant for the 666 beast to be called antichrist, he would have said so, but he didn’t.
Second, the term antichrist is explained fully as something else in the Letters of John. There, antichrists (plural and not capitalized) are clearly church dividers. They are Christian pretenders who left the church because they didn’t believe Jesus came in the flesh. The beast of Revelation, however, is clearly a veiled or coded reference to Domitian as Nero “reborn” or his emperor cult or both. See 1 John 2:18, 2:22, 4:3; and 2 John 1:7, which are the only mentions of antichrist in the Bible. And note, it’s antichrists, plural, not the proper name of an individual. If it were the proper name of an individual, the “a” would be an “A”.
We might fairly say that Domitian, who calls himself god and is not, who was believed by some to be Nero raised from the dead but was not, is an opposite of Christ who was raised and who was God, a photographic negative of Christ, or, if you will, an anti-Christ. This is the only sense in which it is fair to relate the antichrists of the Johannine Epistles and the 666-beast of Revelation.
A POSTSCRIPT ON “THE LAWLESS ONE” – A majority of interpreters over the years has also equated the 666-beast with “the lawless one” of 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4:
“Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.”
The NAB notes are helpful in putting this “lawless one” in a historical context. (What a novel idea!) 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 offers “a reflection of the language in Daniel 7:23-25; 8:9-12; 9:27; 11:36-37; 12:11 about the attempt of Antiochus IV Epiphanes to set up a statue of Zeus in the Jerusalem temple and possibly of the Roman emperor Caligula to do a similar thing (Mark 13:14). Here the imagery suggests an attempt to install someone in the place of God, claiming that he is a god (Ezekiel 28:2). Usually, it is the Jerusalem temple that is assumed to be meant; on the alternative view . . . . the temple refers to the Christian community.”
Both the Revelation’s 666-beast and 2 Thessalonians’ “lawless one” refer to pagan idolatry and emperor worship. It’s about those who used their power to play god. True, Domitian did that. So have many others. And so will many others. It was a danger to Christians then, and still is today, when a government dictates culture and religion.