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Six Hundred Sixty-Six

Six Hundred Sixty-Six


Every decade or so, end-times hysteria grips American evangelicals. Justified or not, a new scapegoat is found and said to be ‘the beast’ of the Revelation of John. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Bill Gates, George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Barack Obama, and the World Wide Web have been contenders in the past.

Revelation of John 13.18

And the number is six hundred sixty-six.

Readers invent an interpretive system that enables them to make the connection they ‘always knew’ was right. No one seeking to identify a present or future villain with ‘the beast’ will ever succeed, because the Revelation’s author expected his original readers to be able to do it.

Alphabet Numerals

What is taken for granted by many today are the way we write numbers. Most of the world today uses Arabic numerals: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9. In the Revelation’s time, however, this was not the case. Many Indo-European peoples used letters from their alphabets as numerals. The Romans, for example, used I, V, X, L, C, D, and M to represent 1, 5, 10, 50, 100, 500, and 1000.

The Greeks used their entire alphabet, including a handful of letters now considered obsolete.























































Using my first name as an example, in Greek it would be spelled ΜΑΡΚΟΣ. The number of my name would be calculated as 40 + 1 + 100 + 20 + 70 + 200 = 431.

The Israelites likewise used the Hebrew alphabet as their numerals. (One variant system used the terminal forms of letters to pad out the last of the hundreds.)













































My name transliterated into Hebrew would perhaps be מרך. This would be calculated 40 + 200 + 20 = 260.

Because the Greeks and Israelites used their entire alphabets to transcribe numbers, this meant every word, every sentence, every name carried numeric value. In Greek this practice is called isopsephy, while in Hebrew it is called gematria. Examples of this can be found all around the Revelation’s era.

Ignoring the Text

Many modern interpretations of the mark of the beast insert ambiguity where it does not exist in the text. This almost always requires the interpreter to outright ignore how Rev 13 describes the mark.

Often, the number 666 is interpreted as a series of three individual sixes, ‘six six six’. This is how some people found the mark of the beast in the three guard bars of common barcodes (simultaneously displaying their ignorance of binary). A popular fiction series identified the mark of the beast as any mathematical equation involving three sixes (i.e. ‘six times six plus six’, ‘six plus six plus six’, and so on, were all equally the mark). Some readers claimed ‘Ronald Wilson Reagan’ was the beast, because each of his three names was six letters. More observant individuals bothered to research Greek numerals; they noticed that 6 is represented by the letter Digamma (Ϝ), which was roughly equivalent to the modern letter W. They came to the conclusion that ‘six six six’ means ‘WWW’, the World Wide Web itself being the mark of the beast.

The Greek system explicitly identifies numbers as being in the ones, tens, or hundreds place. Where the ancient Greek copies don’t simply write out the number, ΕΞΑΚΟΣΙΟΙ ΕΞΗΚΟΝΤΑ ΕΞ, they still give it as ΧΞϜ. It is never given as ΕΞ ΕΞ ΕΞ, nor as ϜϜϜ. Because of this, reading the mark as a sequence of three sixes in the ones place is impossible. Both ΕΞΑΚΟΣΙΟΙ ΕΞΗΚΟΝΤΑ ΕΞ and ΧΞϜ can only be read as the sum of 600 and 60 and 6: six hundred sixty-six.

Graffiti & Riddles

It was common in the Greco-Roman culture of the first century to encode riddles by their numerical value. One graffiti found in ancient Pompeii reads ΦΙΛΩ ΗΣ ΑΡΙΘΜΟΣ ΦΜΕ. Those final three letters are not a Greek word, but a number: 500 (Φ), 40 (Μ), and 5 (Ε). The text says ‘I love her whose number is 545’.1

The Roman emperor Nero was known for his violent outbursts. The ancient historian Suetonius reports that a riddle emerged after Nero’s rule:

A new calculation: Nero killed his own mother.2

In Greek, Nero’s name was spelled ΝΕΡΩΝ, adding up to 1005. This happened to equal the same total for the phrase ΙΔΙΑΝ ΜΗΤΕΡΑ ΑΠΕΚΤΕΙΝΕ, ‘killed his own mother’.

These riddles and calculations could become very elaborate, with full lines of poems or epigraphs made to have the same numeric value. Another example of graffiti in ancient Smyrna displays this sort of thing: ΙΣΟΨΗΦΑ / ΚΥΡΙΟΣ Ω / ΠΙΣΤΙΣ Ω, which means ‘equal in value / lord 800 / faith 800’. Both ‘faith’ and ‘lord’ equal eight hundred, so the implication is a person must have faith in the Lord (it is suspected this may be a Christian graffiti).

Holy Numbers

The practice of encoding names with their numbers was common enough it can be found in Judean and Christian texts. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy that runs from Abraham to Jesus. However, this genealogy purposely drops some names and counts one name twice, in order to produce three segments that each last fourteen generations. Why fourteen? Because the author was writing ‘an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David’. In Hebrew the name ‘David’ is spelled Dalet Vav Dalet (דוד), which is 4 plus 6 plus 4.3

A second century Christian forgery, claiming to be a letter from Paul's companion Barnabas, contains this dizzying passage:

Barnabas 9.13–14

Children of love, learn then about all things that Abraham, who first instituted circumcision and practiced that rite, richly looked forward in spirit to Jesus. For he received the doctrines of the three letters. For it says: ‘And Abraham circumcised eighteen men and three hundred.’ What, then, was this knowledge that was taught to him? Learn the ‘eighteen’ first, and then after a pause the ‘three hundred’. The ‘ten’ and the ‘eight’ are denoted in this way: ‘ten’ is Ι, and ‘eight’ is Η. You have Jesus. And because the cross was to express the grace by the letter Τ, he also says, ‘and three hundred’. Therefore, he signifies Jesus by two letters and the cross by one.

The author jumps on the specific wording used by Genesis to count how many people Abraham circumcised. Because the number 18 is given first, Barnabas decided it was a secret calculation based on the first two letters of ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (Iesous, Jesus). With even more strained logic, the author claims 300 signifies the cross, because the Greek letter Τ represents the number 300, and Τ just happens to look like a cross.

Abraham circumcised 318 men, Ι plus Η plus Τ equals 318, therefore 318 predicts Jesus’ crucifixion.


The late Second Temple period produced many apocalypses, and this continued for centuries. The apocalyptic genre was built out of evocative symbolism, and sometimes the authors couldn’t help but incorporate numerical riddles into their works.

Fourth Ezra, written just around the same time as the Revelation, concludes with this command from God to Ezra:

4 Ezra 14.45–48

the Most High spoke to me, saying, ‘Make public the twenty-four books that you wrote first, and let the worthy and the unworthy read them; but keep the seventy that were written last, in order to give them to the wise among your people. For in them is the spring of understanding, the fountain of wisdom, and the river of knowledge.’ And I did so.

A typical interpretation of this text is that ‘the twenty-four books’ refers to the common collection of Hebrew scriptures we now call the Tanakh. What are the other seventy books, though? Speculation abounds that they are other apocalyptic texts. The number becomes a little suspicious, though, when we find that the Hebrew word meaning ‘secret’, sod (סוד), happens to equal 70. The seventy books are secret books.4

Another apocalypse, 3 Baruch, was written in Greek. In biblical numerology, numbers are frequently chosen for the symbolic value they are credited. For example, four usually denotes the earth because of the four directions or the four rivers of Eden. The numbers in 3 Baruch tend not to fit these known traditional meanings. This has led to some suggesting 3 Baruch’s numbers are examples of gematria at work.

Third Baruch 4.7 mentions a snake drinking from three hundred sixty rivers. The Greek word for ‘snake’ is ΔΡΑΚΩΝ. When transliterated into Hebrew (דרקון), the word equals 360. Likewise, in 3 Baruch 4.10 it is said four hundred nine thousand Giants died in the flood. When the Greek word for ‘flood’, ΚΑΤΑΚΛΥΣΜΟΣ, is transliterated into Hebrew (קטקליסמס), it equals 409. The passage also lists out a series of river names, but they are listed according to Hebrew alphabetical order. The author of 3 Baruch wrote in Greek, but calculated the number of these words in Hebrew.5

The Sibylline Oracles contain many examples of hiding Roman emperors behind transparent ciphers. The reigns of the emperors are prophesied after-the-fact, and each emperor is identified not by name, but by the numerical value of the first letter of the Greek spellings of their names. See how it is done in these examples taken from 5.16–40:

The very first lord shall be, who shall sum twice ten with the first letter of his name […] and he shall have the initial sign of ten

And in like manner after him to reign is one who has the alphabet’s first letter

But after a long time shall he transmit his power unto another, who shall have three hundred for his first initial sign

Then shall one rule who has the initial sign of the number three

And then shall be a lord who shall for first initial have twice ten

And one whose mark is fifty shall be lord, a dreadful serpent breathing grievous war

The first emperor is represented by the letters for 10 and 20: ΙΟΥΛΙΟΣ ΚΑΙΣΑΡ (Julius Caesar). The second emperor’s name begins with the first letter of the alphabet, ΑΥΓΟΥΣΤΟΣ (Augustus). The third emperor’s name begins with the letter for 300, ΤΙΒΕΡΙΟΣ (Tiberius), the fourth’s with 3, ΓΑΙΟΣ (Gaius, aka Caligula), the fifth’s with 20, ΚΛΑΥΔΙΟΣ (Claudius), and the sixth’s with 50, ΝΕΡΩΝ (Nero). The list keeps going.

Sibylline Oracles 1.393–400 also gives us this amusing coincidence:

Then also shall a child of the great God come to men, clothed in flesh and fashioned like mortals on the earth. And he does hear four vowels, and in him two consonants 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

In other words, the son of God will have a name consisting of four vowels and a consonant used twice, and his name will equal eight hundred eighty-eight. As mentioned above, ‘Jesus’ is ΙΗΣΟΥΣ in Greek. The four vowels are Ι (10), Η (8), Ο (70), Υ (400), and the twice-used consonant is Σ (200). The Christ’s name equals 888, while the Revelation’s anti-Christ figure has a name equaling 666.

Sibylline Oracles 8.148-150 declares of Rome that:

You will fulfill thrice three hundred and forty-eight years when an evil violent fate will come upon you fulfilling your name.

Rome will rule for 948 years in fulfillment of its Greek name (ΡΩΜΗ = 100 + 800 + 40 + 8), before being destroyed by Nero.


We come back to Revelation 13:

Revelation of John 13.16–18

And it makes all the small and the great and the rich and the poor and the freemen and the slaves—it gives them a mark on their right hand or on their forehead, so no one can buy or sell if they do not have the mark. It is the beast’s name or the number of its name. Here is wisdom: let the one who has perception calculate the beast’s number since it is a man’s number. And the number is six hundred sixty-six.

The mark is a number which must be ‘calculated’, since it is the number of a man. Or, more accurately, the mark is a man’s name, and the number is a code which may be found by calculating the numerical value of the man’s name. The Revelation’s author did not have in mind a person living thousands of years later. There is nothing in the text permitting readers to identify the mark of the beast with barcodes, credit cards, or a phrase on the pope’s mitre. The number is not ‘six six six’. What the author describes is too specific and exact to be anything other than isopsephy/gematria, so common to his time and place.

How are we to identify the man whose name the author has calculated? We have a handful of clues:

  • Rev 17 identifies the beast’s heads as ‘seven kings’.
  • The seven heads are also identified as ‘seven hills’ upon which the 'great city’ which rules the world is to be found.
  • The 'great city' is symbolized as a prostitute called ‘Babylon’.
  • Rev 13 sees one of the beast’s seven heads slain by a sword, but the beast as a whole surprisingly survives the fatal wound.

When these clues are taken together, they consistently point in just one direction.

  • The Revelation’s beast closely resembles the fourth beast from Dan 7. The book 4 Ezra, an apocalypse written contemporary to the Revelation, similarly depicts an eagle that is specifically equated with the fourth beast from Dan 7. Fourth Ezra states that the eagle's many wings represent a series of 'kings' of this kingdom. Both 4 Ezra and the Revelation have in mind the Roman Empire and a series of its emperors.
  • Rome was widely known as 'the city of the seven hills'.6
  • Rome, depicted as a goddess sitting on seven hills in imperial imagery, was called 'Babylon' by Judeans and Christians for having destroyed Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE, as the historical Babylon had done centuries earlier.7
  • In 68 CE, the emperor Nero committed suicide, stabbing himself in the neck, thereby throwing the empire into collapse. A year later the empire was saved by the military commander Vespasian.
  • In the years after Nero's suicide, the Nero Redux legend emerged, claiming he never actually died, but had escaped to the east, outside the empire's domain. By the end of the century a variant developed, which said Nero indeed killed himself, but he would return from the dead.

The clues zoom in from the broad to the specific, beginning with the Roman Empire as a whole, then narrowing down its focus to Nero. During the Revelation’s time, the emperor Domitian was stylized as another Nero,8 so it may be that the author saw the current emperor as Nero Redux.

The Revelation does what the author of 3 Baruch does: he writes in Greek, but he thinks in Hebrew. The Greek word for ‘beast’ is ΘΗΡΙΟΝ; when spelled in Hebrew (תריון) it equals 666. In the same way, the Greek name for ‘Nero Caesar’ is ΝΕΡΩΝ ΚΑΙΣΑΡ; when written in Hebrew letters (נרון קסר) his name equals 666. The author is literally telling his readers that the man’s name equals the number of the word ‘beast’. ΝΕΡΩΝ ΚΑΙΣΑΡ and ΘΗΡΙΟΝ both equal 666.

The beast was Nero Caesar.

A Textual Variant

Some ancient copies of the Revelation give the number of the beast’s name as six hundred sixteen. The most likely explanation is that an astute reader recognized that Nero was the intended referent, yet lived in a region where ΝΕΡΩ (Nerō) was a more common spelling than ΝΕΡΩΝ (Nerōn). The Hebrew spelling drops the second letter Nun (ן), deducting fifty from the sum. Six hundred sixty-six minus fifty equals six hundred sixteen.9


1 Kieren Barry, The Greek Qabalah: Alphabetical Mysticism and Numerology in the Ancient World, 128.

2 Suetonius, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars 39.2.

3 H. Daniel Zacharias, Matthew's Presentation of the Son of David, 47.

4 Jonathan Campbell, ‘Josephus’ Twenty-Two Book Canon and the Qumran Scrolls’, The Scrolls and Biblical Traditions: Proceedings of the Seventh Meeting of IOQS in Helsinki (ed. George Brooke, et al.), 40–41.

5 Gideon Bohak, 'Greek-Hebrew Gematrias in 3 Baruch and in Revelation', JSP 7, 119–121.

6 Cicero to Atticus, Letter 6.5; Virgil, Georgics 2.535; Virgil, Aeneid 6.781–783; Sextus Propertius, Elegies 3.11.55–57; Horace, Secular Hymn 7,11; Ovid, Tristia 5.69; Martial, Epigrams 4.64; Sibylline Oracles 2.19, 11.145–154, 13.61, 14.138.

7 1 Peter 5.13; Fourth Ezra; Second Baruch; Sibylline Oracles 5.180–201.

8 E.g. Juvenal calls him 'a bald Nero' in Satire 4.38

9 David Aune, Revelation 6–16, 770–771.


  1. Anonymous16.6.22

    Mark, are there any clues as to where the author of the Apocalypse got the idea of an identifying mark for the purchasing or selling of goods. Are there any parallels in other literature or events that he may have drawn from?
    Cheers, Ian Wragg, Australia.

    1. Some scholars take notice of a libellus required of individuals during the time of Decius, which showed a person participated in the state religion, though we currently have no evidence of such a practice in the first century. It may be something the author anticipated would happen based on personal experiences, but we're really just left guessing.