The Significance of 666
Categories: Apocryphal/Apocalyptic Writings
In Revelation 13:17-18 we read about the name and the number of the beast. The number is 666. What does this mean?
This passage comes in the context of the beast from the earth that puts a mark on everyone's right hand or forehead. It states, "…no one could buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name….this demands wisdom. Let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person, and its number is 666."
It helps to know that in all the ancient languages in John's time (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) each letter was also assigned a number. This practice is known as "gematria." The first nine letters are numbered 1-9. The second nine letters are numbered 10-90. The third set goes from 100-900. According to this pattern, every name would also have a corresponding number, and some people made much of this fact and studied the connections.
The 666 from Revelation 13:18 has intrigued scholars forever and there is no shortage of opinion as to what it means. It could, however, simply be a number. We all know that seven is the number of completeness (and is used often by John); the number six, therefore, would represent something that is incomplete. John also uses this number as a time of judgment. The repetition of 666 could simply be an intensive way of marking incompleteness, judgment, evil, etc. The number, then, is only symbolic.
Most scholars, however, think John was referring to a real person. If this is true, then it would have had to have been a person already known to them. The most obvious choice is that of Nero Caesar. The sum of his name is 666 if his first name includes an additional N, as in Neron. This spelling of his name has been verified in documents found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. So this is a major possibility. Without the additional N, Nero's name adds up to 616, which is also a variant number found in some ancient manuscripts. Either way, then, Nero Caesar would work.
Even though Nero had been gone for many years by the time John was writing Revelation (95-6CE), most people doubted the story of his demise. Many believed that the report of his suicide (68CE) was simply a ruse and that he escaped to the East. They always expected him to return with a bigger and better army to wreak havoc on the world. Since John believed additional persecutions lay ahead, it is not hard to imagine that he also believed Nero would be involved. And if it turned out not to be Nero in the flesh, then using his name was a reminder to all of everything that was evil.
While this makes sense to many scholars, the fact is that we might never know exactly what this meant for first century readers.