Revelation 13:18 says that the one who “has understanding” should calculate the “number of the beast.” This number is then further identified as the “number of man,” specifically, 666. Preterists have often interpreted Revelation 13:18 as a reference to Nero, but is that what John means when he says that the mark of the beast is 666?
Symbolism and the Mark of the Beast
Not everyone sees 666 as a reference to Nero. Many notable scholars have read the mark of the beast symbolically. Beale, for example, argues in his commentary that the mark of the beast is 666 because six is the number of imperfection. Thus, when six is used three times in the mark of the beast, it is emphasizing the completeness of imperfection.
Although this view is possible, it is unlikely. John’s command to “calculate” (ψηφισάτω) the number of the beast is a term that was used for numerical calculation. The term derives from ψῆφος, which means pebble. Using pebbles to count was a common ancient means of tabulation. Thus, the statement of John is that the number of the beast is related to his name (Rev 13:17). This calculation would presumably lead to identification of a specific individual.
Gematria and the Mark of the Beast
Many scholars have looked to gematria to help understand the mark of the beast. Gematria is a process by which letters in a name are given numerical values or vice versa. It essentially becomes a cipher. This was actually a well-known practice, although it is debated how prevalent this is in Scripture. Some NT scholars think the genealogies in Matthew 1 could be an example of gematria, where three lists of 14 generations each correspond to the numerical value of David’s name.
The Sibylline Oracles, an early A.D. pseudepigraphal work, gives an example of gematria used with the name of Jesus.
To mortals in the earth; and he doth hearSibylline Oracles, 1:395–400.
Four vowels, and two consonants in him
Are twice announced; the whole sum I will name:
For eight ones, and as many tens on these,
And yet eight hundred will reveal the name
To men insatiate; and do thou discern
In thine own understanding that the Christ
Is child of the immortal God most high.
This is the calculation given for the Greek name Jesus (Ιησους).
Other scholars have reported graffiti from Pompeii (destroyed 79 AD) which reads, “I love her whose number is 545.”
Although we need to do so cautiously, I think gematria could provide an appropriate understanding of the mark of the beast as 666. It was culturally well attested at that time, and it seems to make sense of John’s command to count of the number of the beast (which is related to the number of its name).
The Mark of the Beast and Nero
There are many scholars that identify 666 with Nero either directly or by allusion. The typical understanding is to take Nero’s name and title in Greek, and transliterate it into Hebrew (קסר נרון), and then take the numerical value.
This looks good at first, but as I have written before, Bible codes are very unwieldy animals. There are at least five arguments to make us rethink Nero’s identification with the mark of the beast.
1. For Nero to fit with 666, his title must be used.
For the mark of the beast to be equated with Nero, the title Nero Caesar must be used. There are many names and titles that could be chosen to identify Nero, but this is the combination that must be utilized.
This flexibility in using titles with Nero seems a little too convenient. Allowing this flexibility with titles allows both Domitian and Vespasian to also equate to 666. In fact, Domitian’s abbreviated title found on coins reads as follows: Α ΚΑΙ ΔΟΜΕΤ ΣΕΒ ΓΕ.
2. Revelation 13:17-18 specifies only the name, not the title.
This point coincides with the previous point. Revelation 13:17 specifies the link between the name and number. If titles are allowed, that goes beyond the purview of the text, and it also allows too much flexibility. So, we should expect Nero to be used by itself. By way of illustration, when we think of the name of the President of the United States, we do not say, “His name is President Abraham Lincoln.” We would say, “His name is Abraham Lincoln.”
It should also be noted at this point that Irenaeus (ca. 180 AD) was the first one who attempted to use gematria to find the referent for 666, and the names he hypothesized did not include titles (Adv. Haer. 5.30.3; Evanthas, Lateinos, and Teitan). Nor did he mention Nero as being a possible fulfillment.
3. For Nero to fit with 666, a Hebrew transliteration is required.
The numerical value of Caesar Nero in Greek is 1005. This is identified explicitly by Suetonius (ca. 121 AD), who wrote that the value of Nero’s name is the same as the phrase, “He killed his own mother” (Suetonius, Nero, 39.2). Revelation was written to a Greek speaking audience, and it is widely acknowledged that the knowledge of Hebrew was not as prevalent during this time (Aramaic was far more common). So, to utilize the values of gematria for Hebrew while writing Greek to a Greek speaking audience makes little sense.
4. For Nero to fit with 666, a defective shortened spelling is required.
For the gematria value of Caesar Nero to equal 666, the Hebrew transliteration must be used (קסר נרון). However, this is defective spelling for קסר, which is normally spelled קסיר (with a י in the middle). This would equal 676 instead of 666. There is only one Judean scroll fragment found at Murabba‘at which might have the defective spelling. However, in his dissertation on Hitchcock notes that the fragment is missing the letters following the ק. Although the damaged scroll does not have space for the full spelling ק(סיר), it is also not indisputable that the missing letters are סר. Therefore, there is no clear testimony of Hebrew spelling Caesar as קסר. At the same time, as Hitchcock notes, in the Talmuds, Mishnah, Tosephta, and Tannaitic Midraishim, the spelling is full (קסיר).
It should also be noted that the o vowel in Nero (ו in נרון) has the potential to be defective and drop out. The fact that preterists assume Nero is spelled with its full letter form seems to be an example of selective bias.
5. The early church did not understand 666 to be a reference to Nero.
We have already mentioned how Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp (who was a disciple of John) did not understand 666 to be a reference to Nero. Additionally, there is a textual variant in Revelation 13:18 where some manuscripts read 616. Irenaeus knew of this variant and called it an inferior reading, and said it was probably due to a copyist error (Adv. Haer. 5.30.1). It would be a rather simple copyist error, confusing ι for ξ (which in handwritten manuscripts would be an easy mistake to make. Notably, at least one other Greek manuscript reads 665. These variants show that there was not a unified understanding of the referent of this number, and therefore Nero was not recognized as the intended referent.
Some preterists try to take the 616 variant reading as further evidence for Nero, since the Latin form of Nero’s title translated into Hebrew equals 616. However, we have the same problems as defined in the previous points. This is demonstrated by the fact that other scholars have identified the 616 variant with Caligula. And it can also be associated with Titus. Besides the logical and methodological problems, this textual variant can easily be explained as a copyist error.
In commenting on this issue, Beale quotes Salmon:
“First, if the proper name by itself will not yield it, add a title; secondly, if the sum cannot be found in Greek, try Hebrew, or even Latin; thirdly, do not be too particular about the spelling.… We cannot infer much from the fact that a key fits the lock if it is a lock in which almost any key will turn.”Salmon, Historical Introduction, 230–31, quoted in Beale, 721.
The Mark of the Beast and Future Fulfillment
Although many scholars have attempted to see Nero as a fulfillment of the Revelation 13:18, there are too many problems with the methodologies which would allow Nero to be the fulfillment. However, I do think that gematria is possibly the key to understanding Revelation 13:18. Rather than a reference to Nero, I would say it remains to be fulfilled in the future. I think that eschatological passages from Daniel and 2 Thessalonians 2 in particular demonstrate that the beast of Revelation will be a future figure. However, if it is talking about a future individual, then it is likely not possible to identify a particular referent at this time.