What is the meaning of 666?
Multitudes today assume that 666 is a number representing a modern-day beast about to be revealed. Placing the beast in the twenty-first century, however, may well pose insurmountable difficulties. First, John, the author of Revelation, told a first-century audience that with “wisdom” and “insight” they would be able to “calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666” (Revelation 13:18). Obviously no amount of wisdom and insight would have enabled a first-century audience to calculate the number of a twenty-first-century beast. It would have been cruel and dangerously misleading for John to suggest to first-century Christians that they could identify the beast if, in fact, the beast was a twenty-first-century individual or institution.
Furthermore, unlike today, transforming names into numbers (gematria) was common in antiquity. For example, in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars Roman historian Suetonius identifies Nero by a numerical designation equal to a nefarious deed. This numerical equality (isopsephism) is encapsulated in the phrase: “Count the numerical values of the letters in Nero’s name, and in ‘murdered his own mother’ and you will find their sum is the same.” In Greek the numerical value of the letters in Nero’s name (Greek: Nevrwn, English transliteration: Neron) totaled 1,005, as did the numbers in the phrase murdered his own mother. This ancient numerical cryptogram reflected the widespread knowledge that Nero had killed his own mother.
Finally, while “Nero” in Greek totaled 1,005, the reader of John’s letter familiar with the Hebrew language could recognize that the Greek spelling of “Nero Caesar” transliterated into Hebrew equals 666. Moreover, the presence in some ancient manuscripts of a variation in which 666 is rendered 616 lends further credence to Nero as the intended referent. The Hebrew transliteration of the Latin spelling of “Nero Caesar” totals 616, just as the Hebrew transliteration of the Greek, which includes an additional letter (Greek: “n”=50, English transliteration: “n”=50), renders 666. Thus, two seemingly unrelated numbers lead you to the same doorstep—that of a beast named Nero Caesar. Twenty-first-century believers, like their first-century counterparts, can be absolutely certain that 666 is the number of Nero’s name and that Nero is the beast who ravaged the bride of Christ in a historical milieu that included three and a half years of persecution. In the end, Peter and Paul themselves were persecuted and put to death at the hands of this Beast. Indeed this was the only epoch in human history in which the Beast could directly assail the foundation of the Christian Church of which Christ himself was the cornerstone.
The Number of the Beast in Revelation 13 in Light
of Papyri, Graffiti, and Inscriptions
Craig R. Koester1
LUTHER SEMINARY, ST. PAUL, MN
Revelation’s portrayal of a tyrannical beast concludes with a riddle, which identifies the
beast’s number as six hundred sixty-six (Rev 13:18). Among the factors that complicate
the interpretation of the riddle are first, there is a notable textual variant that reads 616
instead of 666. Second, there are differences over the appropriate method of interpretation.
Third, even those who agree about method may reach different conclusions. Many scholars
find the most plausible interpretation to be that the number summarizes the numerical value
of ‘Nero Caesar’ written in Hebrew characters, while others find this proposal
unpersuasive. This article provides fresh support for the ‘Nero Caesar’ interpretation
examining recently published graffiti from the agora at Smyrna, papyri from Oxyrhynchus,
Ketef Jericho, and Murabba‘at, and inscriptions from the synagogues at Sardis and Dura
Keywords: Revelation, beast, gematria, riddle, six hundred sixty-six, inscriptions, Dead
Revelation’s portrayal of a tyrannical seven-headed beast concludes with a riddle: ‘This calls for
wisdom. Let the one who understands calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a
person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six’ (Rev 13:18). Readers from antiquity to the present
have found the riddle intriguing and yet challenging to interpret.
2 The issues have at least three
dimensions: First, there is a notable textual variant that reads 616 instead of 666. Second, there are
questions about what method should be used to interpret the number. Third, even when interpreters
agree on the text and the method, they may reach different conclusions about the solution to the
In current scholarship, the most prevalent view is that the best reading is 666 rather than
616. The preferred method is gematria, which means finding a name in which the numerical values
of the letters yield a total of 666. The most common conclusion is that the number equals the sum
of the letters in ‘Nero Caesar’ when the words are transliterated into Hebrew characters. Yet on
each of these points there are dissenting voices, and their questions invite continued investigation
into the problem with special attention to two aspects: One is widening the range of ancient sources
to include texts that have been overlooked or have only become available rather recently. These
include graffiti from the agora at Smyrna, papyri from Oxyrhynchus, Ketef Jericho, and
Murabba‘at, and inscriptions from the synagogues at Sardis and Dura Europos. The other aspect
involves identifying the social factors that affect the interpretation of the riddle and the
transmission of the text in its various forms. Consideration of these factors will show that the most
common interpretation of the riddle remains plausible, while enhancing our understanding of how
the riddle functioned in different ancient contexts.
2. ON THE TEXT CRITICAL PROBLEM
Forms of the number 666 are well-attested in many textual witnesses and across the various text
types.3 Codex Alexandrinus (A) is generally understood to preserve the best text of Revelation,
and it spells out the number six hundred-sixty six. That reading also appears in the text used in the
commentary by Oecumenius, which dates from the early sixth century. Next in importance is the
text type that includes Sinaiticus (א ,(which dates from the fourth century and spells out six hundred
six six, as well as Papyrus 47 (𝔓47), which is from the late third century and uses the letters chi,
xi, stigma (χξϛ) to signify 666. The vast majority of Greek manuscripts have some form of this
reading, and it is widely attested in the Latin, Coptic, and Syriac versions. For Irenaeus, who wrote
at the end of the second century, six hundred sixty-six was the preferred reading (Haer. 5.30.1),
and it was used by Hippolytus (Antichr. 48), Andreas of Caesarea, and most other ancient writers.
The alternative reading ‘six hundred sixteen’ has only limited attestation in ancient
manuscripts, but it does appear in Codex Ephraemi (C), which dates from the fifth century and is
generally ranked along with Alexandrinus as one of the best textual witnesses. The discovery of
Oxyrhynchus papyrus 4499, which dates from the late third or early fourth century, adds support
for the alternative reading. Now labeled New Testament papyrus 115 (𝔓115), the Oxyrhynchus text
uses the letters chi, iota, stigma (χιϛ) to signify 616. The papyrus is noteworthy because it seems
to belong to the high quality text type represented by Alexandrinus and Ephraemi, which has
prompted some text critics to raise again the question of which reading should be preferred in Rev
Papyrus 115 calls attention to the fact that in the second century the reading 616 was used
more widely than extant manuscripts would suggest. Irenaeus insisted that ‘the most approved and
ancient copies’ of Revelation said the beast’s number was six hundred sixty-six, yet he said ‘some
have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the
name, deducting fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one’
(Haer. 5.30.1). By the time Irenaeus wrote, the reading six hundred sixteen had circulated widely
enough that certain unnamed ‘others’ considered the ‘erroneous and spurious number’ to be
authentic. He could excuse those who unwittingly accepted the alternative reading if they truly did
not know any better, but he was critical of those who ‘for the sake of vainglory’ used the alternative
reading to promote their own theories about the name of the beast, who was understood to be the
Antichrist (Haer. 5.30.1).
Irenaeus depicts a social context in which he thinks the original reading 666 was changed
to 616 through an error in copying. But once the text was changed, the variant was preserved and
disseminated by people who had theories about the name signified by the number. The popularity
of the alternative text was linked to the plausibility of its interpretation. Irenaeus noted that 666
could signify various names. As examples he noted Euanthas, Lateinos, and Teitan, but he could
not commend any of the names with certainty (Haer. 5.30.3). By way of contrast, he said that those
who favored 616 would ‘lay down for certain that names containing the spurious number are to be
accepted’ (Haer. 5.30.1). In the categories of textual criticism, Irenaeus wrote in a social context
where 666 was the more difficult reading, because he was not sure what name would yield that
total. The variant 616 was apparently the easier reading because some people had definite theories
about its meaning.
The number 616 survived in some Latin and Armenian versions, and seems to have been
popular in North Africa.5 The Liber genealogus is a chronology that stems from North African
Donatist circles in the fifth century and it does offer a definite interpretation of 616. In the section
on Nero the writer says that the kind of persecution that happened in the past under Nero will
happen again through the Antichrist. He then shows how the numerical values of the letters in
antichristus can equal 154, and if that number is multiplied by four—because there are four letters
in the name Nero—it equals 616, which he takes to be the authentic reading of Rev 13:18. He
discusses the proposals of other writers, whose theories yield the alternative total of 666, but he
insists that 616 is the superior reading of the passage in Revelation, in part because he could see
how the number fit a theory that linked the Antichrist to Nero.6
One of the Donatist Christians who assumed that 616 was the correct reading was
Tyconius, whose commentary on Revelation was widely used in antiquity. Later writers who drew
from Tyconius usually adjusted the reading to the more common 666, but the alternative still
appears in Caesarius of Arles (ca. 540), who made it the basis of his interpretation. He said that
when Rev 13:18 referred to the number six hundred sixteen as ‘the number of a man,’ it meant that
it was the number of Christ, the Son of Man. He pointed out that in Greek the number 616 was
signified by the letters χιϛ, which he took as a monogram of Christ’s name. He apparently mistook
the final stigma (ϛ) for a final sigma (ς), which gave the impression that the three letters
corresponded to the first, middle, and last letters in ‘Christos’ (Χριστός). According to Caesarius,
the church rightly held Christ’s name in reverence, but the heretics—who were followers of the
beast—also invoked Christ’s name for their own false teachings. That is why he thought
Revelation depicted Christ’s number 616 being used for the beast.7 The preservation and
interpretation of the text were interrelated.
In weighing the evidence for various forms of the text, it seems plausible to think that the
variation arose accidentally in the process of copying. In manuscripts where the number was
written in alphabetical signs, a copyist could have inadvertently changed the middle letter xi to an
iota or it could have been vice versa: χξϛ for 666 versus χιϛ for 616. It could also be that a change
was made intentionally. Some textual critics take 616 to be the more difficult reading. They note
that the author of Revelation had a penchant for symmetrical figures like 144,000, which is based
on twelve squared, so a copyist could have changed the original 616 to 666 in order to make the
number fit that pattern. But since one can find names and titles that yield the total of 616 using
gematria, the number could be considered authentic.8
Nevertheless, a stronger case can be made that 666 is the preferred reading. As noted above,
Irenaeus wrote in a context where 666 seemed to be the more difficult reading, since he was not
sure what the number meant whereas others had theories that fit the variant 616. In the literary
context in Revelation itself, there is a clear contrast between the followers of the beast and the
followers of the Lamb. In the immediate context, the followers of the beast receive the mark with
the number of its name on their foreheads or right hands (13:18), while in the next verse readers
are reminded that the followers of the Lamb have his name and his Father’s name on their
foreheads (14:1). The Lamb’s followers number 144,000, which is twelve squared times a
thousand (14:1; cf. 7:4-8). By way of contrast, the beast’s number is 666. It is based on twelve
halved, which is six, and the sixes are multiplied by ten and a hundred, not by a thousand. The
impression is that being marked with the beast’s 666 is a debased alternative to belonging to the
9 Given the author’s strong preference for symmetrical numbers, it seems most
probable that 666 was original, and this is supported by the breadth of its attestation across the text
types. If the variant was due to an intentional and not an accidental change, it may have come from
a copyist who could not think of a name that equaled 666 but could think of one that yielded 616,
which led to altering the text to support the theory concerning the name.
3. ON THE METHOD OF GEMATRIA
Investigation into the various forms of the number in the textual tradition leads to questions about
the literary function of the number in its context in Revelation. The writer refers to the number of
the beast as the key to a riddle. John challenges ‘those who understand’ or literally ‘have a mind’
to calculate the number (13:18b). Riddles were used in Scripture, in Greek drama, and as games
at Greek and Latin social gatherings.
10 A riddle challenges people to see something the way the
author sees it. The person who poses the riddle is initially in the position of having superior
knowledge; he knows something the others do not. Accordingly, those who take up the challenge
seek to demonstrate that they are equally knowledgeable by solving the riddle. The subject matter
of the riddle needs to be familiar enough for the hearer or reader to have a chance of guessing the
solution, yet the riddle maker poses the question in a manner that requires people to see the familiar
in an unexpected way.
3.1 The Use of Gematria in Riddles
The riddle in Revelation 13 appears at the end of a vision depicting a tyrannical beast rising from
the sea to rule the world. A second beast rises from the land and forces people to receive a mark
with the sea beast’s name or number if they want to engage in commerce. The vision makes use
of satirical imagery to shape the readers’ perspectives on the dominant powers in political,
religious, and economic life. The riddle is part of this effort. A riddle piques curiosity, making
readers want to know what the author sees. When John says that those who have a mind (νοῦς)
should be able to solve the riddle (Rev 13:18), he issues a challenge that readers will want to
accept, since they will want to show that they have understanding. This challenge also assumes
that at least some of the readers will be able to guess the solution if they come to see what the
author sees. Revelation later suggests something similar, when the author assumes that readers will
have the mind (νοῦς) needed to connect the beast’s seven heads with the hills and kings of Rome
if they are given enough information (17:9).
Playing on the numerical values of words was a known practice within riddles (Greek
Anthology 14.20, 105). What is essential is that the riddle does not reveal new information; rather,
it challenges readers to make connections between things they already know. When gematria is
used, there are three steps in the process: First, readers must discern the traits of a person from
some wider context. Second, they must think of a name of a person who might fit the traits. Third,
they must see whether they can make the name fit the number. Although some assume that John
used a numerical code to conceal his meaning from outsiders, this is not the case.11 Revelation
follows the practice of other ancient writers who provided enough information to help readers
make the connections suggested by the gematria.
One example is an apocalyptic text that lists Roman rulers by noting well-known aspects
of their reigns and then giving the numerical values of their first initials: One has a first initial of
ten (alpha for Augustus), and he hands power to another with an initial of three hundred (tau for
Tiberius), and so on. (Sib. Or. 5:1-51). The satirist Lucian creates a parody of an oracle about
Alexander the false prophet by noting the place of the prophet’s birth, giving the numerical values
of the first four letters as clues to his name and indicating that the name was also that of a valiant
defender, enabling them to think of ‘Alexander’ (Lucian, Alex. 11). An early Christian text says,
‘the son of the great God will come, incarnate, likened to mortal men on earth,’ with a name
equaling 888. The author assumes that the clues will enable readers to recognize that the Greek
letters in the name Jesus (᾿Ιησοῦς) add up to 888 (Sib. Or. 1:324-29).
3.2 Gematria in Graffiti at Smyrna
The popularity of gematria has long been known from graffiti found at Pompeii and other places
in the ancient world. In 2003 graffiti using gematria was found in the agora of ancient Smyrna.
The examples come from a portion of a Roman-style basilica that collapsed during an earthquake
in 178 C.E. Although the structures were soon rebuilt, the section with the graffiti was apparently
not used after the earthquake. Initial analysis of the graffiti has been done by Roger Bagnall. He
concludes that the oldest graffiti in the agora come from the late first or early second century C.E.
and the latest came from sometime before basilica collapsed in 178 C.E.12
Socially graffiti has a subversive quality. The large structures in the agora and elsewhere
in the city were created by people of means, whose names were formally inscribed in dedicatory
inscriptions. Graffiti runs counter that sense of propriety. Those who create the graffiti assert their
views in a manner and place of their own choosing. The subject matter is sometimes crude and the
sketches and sayings may be grotesque. Graffiti reflects a sense of non-compliance toward the
more dignified ordering of society.
A similar refusal to conform is reflected in Revelation’s use of satirical images for those
with political and economic power in the Roman Empire. Satire works by taking familiar aspects
of a subject and altering their appearance into something absurd or grotesque. In chapter 13 the
writer shows the general public standing in awe of imperial rule because of its apparent
invincibility, its ability to conquer, and its domination of many nations (13:4, 7). The empire is
supported by those who dominate the marketplace, where people buy and sell (13:17). The public
spaces in Asia Minor included many inscriptions honoring the benefactions of Rome and its
supporters. But instead of conforming to public respect for Rome, the writer of Revelation engages
in satirical critique. Like a satirical graffiti artist, he depicts Roman rule as a savage and grotesque
seven-headed monster (13:1-10), and caricatures the influential supporters of Rome an insidious a
subordinate beast (13:11-18).13 It is in this broader context of satire that he includes gematria to
help undercut the pretensions of those in authority. It fits the approach of non-compliance, and like
the graffiti in the agora at Smyrna, Revelation’s gematria appears in a context dealing with
commerce and public life.
To some extent the use of gematria at Smyrna is similar to that in Revelation, because it
involves names. One example is: φιλῶ ἧς ὁριθμὸς Ατη, which means ‘I love her whose name is
1308.’ Another example is: φιλῶ ἧς ἀριθμὸ[σ] ψλα, ‘I love her whose name is 731.’ Similar
examples have been found at Pompeii.14 Revelation follows the practice by stating that the beast’s
number corresponds to its name. The difference is that the examples of graffiti have no literary
context. Anyone attempting to decipher them would have to supply the context based on familiarity
with popular feminine names of the time. By following that approach, Bagnall proposes that the
number 1308 signifies Tyche, which was a common name (τ = 300, υ = 400, χ = 600, η = 8). He
also suggests that 731 might be the name Anthousa, which was not as common, but he cannot think
of other possibilities. To facilitate interpretation, Revelation does what the graffiti artists do not do
by providing a literary context in which the traits of the beast are more clearly identified.
Another instance of gematria is found in a graffito that links words by pointing out their
equivalent numerical value. It reads:
ἰσόψηφα Equal calculation
κύριος ω lord, 800
πίστις ω faith, 800
The initial expression ‘equal calculation’ (ἰσόψηφα) is related to the verb for ‘calculate’ (ψηφίζω),
which is used for the number of the beast’s name in Rev 13:18. As we will see below, some
interpreters question whether Revelation expects readers to use gematria, but the graffito makes
that objection unlikely. When one adds up the values of the letters of a word the result is its
‘calculation’ (ψῆφος, T. Sol. 15:11). When different letter combinations yielded the same total, it
was an ‘equal calculation’ (ἰσόψηφος; Greek Anthology 11.334; Artemidorus, Onir. 4.24). The
idea is that pointing out the equivalent numerical value suggested a relationship between the words.
For example, Suetonius records a ‘new calculation’ (νεόψηφον) in which the Greek the name
‘Nero’ is shown to have the same numerical value as the words ‘he killed his own mother.’ The
equation underscored that being a matricide defined Nero’s character (Suetonius, Nero 39).15 The
language used in the graffito at Smyrna and in Revelation fit that common understanding of what
it means to ‘calculate’ the value of a word.
What Bagnall finds intriguing is that correlating the values of ‘lord’ and ‘faith’ might have
a Christian character. He does not elaborate the case for this interpretation, but apparently assumes
that the ‘lord’ would be God or Christ and that ‘faith’ would be the way people relate to God or
Christ. Based on the location of the plaster layer in which the graffito was etched, Bagnall thinks
it dates from sometime before 125 C.E. Further research is needed to bolster the likelihood of this
being a distinctly Christian graffito from such an early date. But it does seem clear that the
technique of equating words based on numerical value was known in Smyrna in the second
century, and that this technique could be used to assert a connection between faith and lordship.
Revelation makes an analogous connection, but with a critical edge: the author’s polemical
portrayal of the beast calls the faithful to resist complying with certain forms of Roman lordship.
3.3 Interpreting the Riddle in Rev 13:18
The literary setting in Revelation 13 gives readers basic information about the traits of the beast,
whose name is the solution to the riddle. The beast has seven heads and ten horns, like the satanic
dragon he serves (12:3; 13:1). The similarity shows that the beast is the embodiment of evil. Like
the beasts in Daniel 7, the beast in Revelation resembles a lion, bear, and leopard; it exercises
authority for forty-two months, blasphemes heaven, and makes war on the saints (Rev 13:2, 5-7).
The blasphemous names on the beast’s heads seem to recall the Roman practice of giving emperors
titles like ‘god,’ ‘son of god,’ and ‘lord and god,’ while portraying the public worshiping the beast
is suggestive of the imperial cult, which was common in Asia Minor throughout the first century
C.E. (13:1, 8).
Much of what is said about the beast can be applied to various Roman emperors, who were
said to wield authority over every people and nation (13:7), but some aspects are especially
reminiscent of Nero. The beast is said to have been slain with the sword and yet to be alive (13:3,
12, 14). Interpreters often note that Nero was said to have committed suicide by placing a dagger
to his throat, yet rumors arose that he was still alive and would return.
16 Of all the first-century
emperors, Nero was remembered for his brutal persecution of Christians (13:7; Tacitus, Ann.
15.44).17 He was called a ‘beast’ (Sib. Or. 8:157; Philostratus, Vit. Apoll. 4.38), and some thought
he would come back as the embodiment of Satan (Sib. Or. 3:63-74; Mart. Asc. Isa. 4:2-8).
According to Rev 17:9, the beast’s seven heads represented the seven hills on which the city that
rules the world is built, an allusion to Rome. Yet the beast also burns that city with fire, a charge
that was uniquely leveled against Nero, who was implicated in a fire that destroyed much of Rome
(17:16; Tacitus, Ann. 15.38, 44).
The literary description of the beast gives readers the clues needed to theorize that its name
has some connection to Nero. When the writer challenges them to ‘calculate’ the number of the
beast’s name, readers must look for some way of spelling Nero’s name that will have the letters
needed to yield the correct numerical total. The most natural move would be to use Greek letters,
but in Greek the name Nero has a numerical value of 1005. When Nero Caesar is written in Hebrew
letters קסר נרון ,however, it does equal the requisite 666. This approach has many proponents.18
Some find added support for the Nero Caesar hypothesis in that in Latin the name is written Nero
rather than Neron as in Greek, so that it lacks the final n. In Hebrew transliteration a nun has the
value of fifty, and when that is subtracted from 666 it yields 616. So forms of Nero Caesar actually
work for both 666 and 616.19 The point is that readers must form a hypothesis about the name from
the literary context, and the riddle is a challenge to see if readers can find a name with a numerical
total that fits the context.
By weaving traits of Nero into the portrayal of the beast, the writer of Revelation asserts
that in the violent practices of Nero, the Roman Empire shows its true character. Nero’s reign
ended in 68 C.E. and Revelation was probably composed some years later, perhaps 80-100 C.E..20
Recent studies of Revelation have emphasized that the author wrote in a context where many of
his readers regarded Roman rule as benign. The messages to the churches refer to some who were
prospering in the Roman era economy (3:17) and others who were ready to accommodate Roman
religious practices (2:14, 20).21 To challenge the readers’ complacency, the writer draws on
traditions about Nero’s brutality in order to show that the imperial political and economic order is
not benign but threatening. Weaving the memory of Nero into the portrayal of the beast by means
of a riddle is part of the writer’s challenge to the readers.
It is notable that one graffito at Smyrna noted that two different words had equal numerical
value, in that case κύριος and πίστις. Interpreters have noted that this technique also works in
Revelation. If the Greek word for ‘beast’ (θηρίον) is transliterated into Hebrew letters as תריון its
value is 666 (ת = 400, ר = 200, י = 10, ו = 6, נ = 50). Revelation explains that this number
corresponds to a man’s name. Since the Hebrew forms of ‘beast’ and ‘Nero Caesar’ both equal
666, the calculation might underscore that the two are the same: the beast is a Nero-like figure.
The genitive form of ‘beast’ (θηρίου) in Hebrew letters is תריו ,which is 616, a number that fits the
shorter form of Nero’s name.
3.4 The Problem of Finding Alternatives
Those who do not find it plausible to see Nero Caesar as the solution to the riddle have had
difficulty developing convincing alternatives. Some agree that gematria is a suitable method, but
suggest that the riddle points to Claudius (41-54 C.E.), whose name can be made to equal 666 by
adjusting the spelling and using Roman numerals.
23 Another proposal is that the titles of Vespasian
(69-79 C.E.), who helped to crush the Jewish revolt against Rome, could yield the required total if
abbreviated and transliterated into Hebrew.
24 Both of these solutions seem forced. Domitian (81-
96 C.E.) was said to have been a Nero figure, but he fits the number only when one uses a complex
series of abbreviations for his name and titles.
25 His successor Nerva (96-98 C.E.) has a name that
can be made to fit the number, but Nerva does not seem to have been particularly beastlike.26
Other interpreters question whether the author expected readers to use gematria when
interpreting the riddle. They propose that referring to the beast’s number as ‘the number of a
person’ (ἀριθμὸς ἀνθρώπου) should be understood generically as ‘a human number’ (RSV). In
21:17, the word ἀνθρώπου does have the generic sense of something ‘human’ rather than
indicating a specific ‘person’ or ‘man,’ and that same connotation could also work in 13:18.
Interpreters who follow the generic interpretation propose that 666 is used to signify humanity in
general, since people were created on the sixth day (Gen 1:26-31). In antiquity, Irenaeus developed
this idea by arguing that all of human history would last for a total of six thousand years, and that
666 summarized the whole of human apostasy during that period (Haer. 5.28.2).
In a variation of this approach, some interpreters relate the number six to notions of
imperfection. The assumption is that seven is the number of completeness. In Revelation, some
series of visions are arranged in groups of seven with the seventh vision signaling the completion
of God’s purposes (Rev 8:1; 11:5; 16:17). By way of contrast, the sixth seal, trumpet, and bowl
show divine judgment (6:12-17; 9:13-21; 16:12-16). If seven is the number of God’s completeness,
then six always fall short. The beast may aspire to become a divine seven, but it remains a human
28 A problem with the generic approach is that ancient authors did not generally regard six as
an imperfect number.29 In Revelation itself, both the beast and dragon in Revelation have the
perfect number of seven heads (12:3; 13:1). By way of contrast, the creatures around God’s throne
have only six wings (4:8).
Alternatively, some propose that the directive to ‘calculate’ the number of the beast must
involve some more specific combination of numbers. They note that 666 is the sum of all the
numbers from one to thirty-six and that thirty-six is the sum of the numbers from one to eight. The
eight is deemed significant because the beast of Rev 13 is identified with the eighth king in 17:11.
The problem is that this merely links the beast in Rev 13 with a king in Rev 17 without revealing
anything more about it.
The more plausible approach is based on the idea that the verb ‘calculate’ (ψηφίζω) was
commonly used for adding up the numerical values of letters in words, as noted above. Note that
the most important factor is that the context must provide enough information for the readers to
guess the answer, and only then find ways for the number to equal that answer. A helpful
comparison is a text that refers to the ‘the one who is,’ a being who is said to have the earth under
his feet, the stars around him, and a name that equals 353. The context makes clear that the number
refers to God, even though no one has been able to determine how it refers to God (Sib. Or. 1:137-
46). Similarly, Revelation 13 weaves together images from Scripture, Jewish tradition, and Roman
culture, and among these are elements reminiscent of Nero. It is the literary context that makes the
connection with Nero’s name plausible. The challenge is finding a specific way to link his name
to the number.
4. ON THE METHOD OF TRANSLITERATION
Transliterating Nero’s name and title into Hebrew characters has been a way to connect Nero to
the beast’s number. A major question is whether some of Revelation’s early readers would be able
to do the calculation in Hebrew letters, since the book itself is written in Greek. It is important that
on two occasions the author does make explicit reference to Hebrew, and in both cases he
transliterates Hebrew names into Greek characters. The names are Abaddon (Rev 9:11) and
Harmageddon (16:16). The issue is whether the author could actually expect a select group of
readers, who had ‘understanding,’ to do that in reverse, by transliterating Greek names into Hebrew
characters (13:18). There were Jewish communities in most if not all of the cities in which
Revelation’s intended readers lived, and at least some of the readers were probably of Jewish
31 Therefore, it is helpful to ask how Jewish inscriptions and papyri might contribute
to our understanding of the possibility that some readers might have been able to do the necessary
calculation using Hebrew letters.
4.1 Inscriptions from the Synagogue at Sardis
The most important collection of material comes from the city of Sardis, which was home to a
large Jewish community. Josephus says that in the first century C.E. the Jews at Sardis asserted
their right to have a place of worship, to adjudicate their own affairs, and to have a supply of
ritually clean food.32 Inscriptions have been found in the remains of the city’s large synagogue,
which was built in the third century C.E. Most of the inscriptions are in Greek, which was the
dominant language.33 But there are a few Hebrew inscriptions from the late third and early fourth
centuries C.E., which show that even in that period the community retained some familiarity with
the language. Little weight can be given to the use of the word ‘peace’ (שלום ,(which was a
formulaic expression. The same is true of ‘vow’ (נדר ,(an expression that has its counterpart in the
many Greek inscriptions that identify a donor who contributed something to the synagogue in
fulfillment of a vow.
What is more interesting is the use of Hebrew characters for names. One of these is
apparently the traditional Hebrew name Yoḥanan, which is well-attested in Jewish inscriptions
from the Persian period to Roman times. But another is a Hebrew transliteration of the Latin name
34 Frank Moore Cross notes that the emperor Alexander Severus (222-235 C.E.)
was known for his favorable treatment of Jews, and that contributed to the popular use of the name
Severus in Jewish communities, as reflected in Jewish inscriptions from the third and fourth
centuries. Although the Sardis inscription could refer to an emperor in the Severan dynasty, it
seems more likely that it refers to a Jewish patron named Severus, who made a donation to the
synagogue. What is helpful for our work is that it shows how a Latin name was transliterated into
Hebrew characters at Sardis at a time when Greek was the dominant language of the community.
Another notable example is the use of Hebrew in graffiti. The letters appear on a stone that
was not found in the synagogue but in a fill some distance away. The chiseling is rough, although
the letters are formed fairly well. The graffito reads: ‘I, Shemaryah son of (E)lijah—I wrote this.’
Initial studies proposed that the inscription referred to a son of ‘Leho,’ corresponding to the Latin
name Leo, but Cross makes a good case that it should be read ‘Elijah.’
35 What is intriguing is that
the graffito shows Hebrew being used outside of formal synagogue dedications as a form of selfassertion. Together, the inscriptions noted above show that Hebrew characters were used for
traditional Jewish names and for transliterated Latin names in the Jewish community at Sardis. It
is at least possible that some of Revelation’s early readers would have been familiar with this
4.2 An Inscription from the Synagogue at Dura Europos
Another objection to the use of Hebrew transliteration for the solution to the riddle in Rev 13:18
concerns the spelling of the title ‘Caesar.’ The number 666 requires that the title be transliterated
as קסר but in the Talmud it is spelled קיסר with an additional yod.36 That longer spelling has a value
of 676 and would not fit the number of the beast in Revelation. Yet the shorter spelling of the title
is better attested in ancient sources than has usually been recognized.
An example that has been overlooked is an inscription from the synagogue at DuraEuropos.37 The synagogue includes tiles that recorded the names of those who had contributed to
the renovation in the building in both Greek and Aramaic, which shows that the community was
familiar with both languages. The inscription of interest is written in Aramaic and dates from 244
or 245 C.E.. The transliteration of ‘Caesar’ is found in the opening section where the date of the
renovation is given: ‘This building was erected in the year five hundred and fifty-six, which is the
second year of Philip Julius Caesar (קסר ,(during the presbyterate of Samuel the priest, son of
Yedaya the archon.’ The lines that follow tell of the work that was done and express good wishes
toward those who made it possible. This example is shows how the shorter spelling was used to
transliterate the imperial title in a diaspora synagogue where both Greek and Aramaic were known.
It also shows how the transliterated title was used was giving dates. That usage is also apparent in
a number of documentary papyri from the Dead Sea Scrolls.
4.3 Papyri from Murabba‘at and Ketef Jericho
Four texts are of special interest for the study of transliteration of the imperial title and all of them
seem to involve matters of commerce or finance. Interpreters have regularly noted that in Rev
13:16-18 people must receive the mark with the beast’s name and number if they want to buy and
sell. So it is helpful to consider how the imperial title was spelled in texts that deal with repayment
of a loan, transactions related to property, and the sale of crops.
The first text is a promissory note from Murabba‘at that dates from the reign of Nero (ca.
55-56 C.E.). The text is written in Aramaic and uses the full name and title Nero Caesar in the
form קסר נרון ,which would correspond to the number 666 in Revelation (Mur XVIII,1).38 Although
interpreters have sometimes noted the relevance of the spelling for interpretation of Rev 13:18,
almost nothing has been said about the nature of the text, which concerns repayment of a loan:
… in the second year of Nero Caesar [קסר נרון … [at Ṣiwaya, Absalom son of Ḥanin from
Ṣiwaya has declared in my presence, that he borrowed from me, Zechariah son of
Yoḥannan son of H… a resident of Keslon, twenty denarii [which I will give ba]ck … and
if I do not repay by the end of the appointed time, I will pay you one fifth interest and will
repay you fully, even if it is a sabbatical year. And if I do not do it, restitution will be made
to you from my property, and you will have the right of seizure on anything I acquire.
Jewish promissory notes like this have been found at Elephantine and elsewhere among
the Dead Sea Scrolls, and they are mentioned in rabbinic texts. The basic form seems to have
changed little over time.39 Typical elements include: the date, the debtor’s declaration that he has
received the money, the obligation to repay on time, the statement that the debtor’s possessions
will serve as surety, and the signatures. What is helpful for our work is that giving the date of a
financial transaction was a common feature in such texts, and in the Roman period the dates often
stated the name and title of the emperor.
A second text is from Ketef Jericho and it shows a similar pattern.40 It is among the last of
the Dead Sea Scrolls to be published, and it expands our evidence for the shorter spelling of the
imperial title in commercial documents from the late first and early second century C.E. The
opening line reads, ‘[On the ( __ day of the month), year ten] and eight of Traianus Caesa[r].’ The
text is very fragmentary but the name Traianus is certain. In the title ‘Caesar’ there is a lacuna after
the samek, but it is clear that the word is spelled קסר and that it does not use the additional yod that
we find in the Talmudic spelling. The date seems to be the eighteenth year of Trajan’s reign, which
would be 116 C.E. The contents of the document are difficult to discern, but the editors suggest
that it had to do with something written, a garden, and perhaps buying or selling.
Our third text is a Hebrew deed from Ketef Jericho. The papyrus dates from the late first
century C.E.41 The text is poorly preserved, but the lower section of the recto side seems to preserve
a date. The title ‘Caesar’ seems to be discernable with the spelling קסר .The letters earlier on that
same line apparently correspond to part of Domitian’s name. The editors propose that the
expression be read ‘Domitianus Caesar,’ which would fit in the space available. As a deed, the text
presumably dealt with payments and property ownership, although the details of the transaction
can no longer be determined.
A fourth document is an Aramaic bill of sale from the late first century C.E.. It outlines
transactions pertaining to the sale of crops. Portions of both the upper and lower sections of the
document have been preserved.42
On the twenty-fifth of Tevet, year three (of) [our] lor[d ] … twenty-fice full-weight zuzein
(of) silver … to be harvested for you, baskets of dates to be given …
On the twenty-fifth of Tevet, [yea]r three (of) Domitianus Cae[sar…], Yehoseph son of
Yehoḥanan from […] sold [to Yehoḥanan son of] Yehosef, […] son of Yehoḥanan, […] of
date[s…] four talents, to be given to as, as before, […Yehoḥanan son(?)] of Yehoseph,
with purchase money […], 20 silver (money) of the purchase, out of which the money of
the orphans (will be given), to be paid as (agreed) before, palm orchard (of) four
talents…that you will pick for yourself five baskets of dates…this document, and to pick
(it) without payment […] to the legal guardian…the orphan is allowed to sell everything
that has already come into existence (for) the value equal to the market price of […]’
The document was written in the third year of Domitian’s reign, which was 84 C.E.. The initial
line of the upper section apparently refers to him as [ן[מר or ‘lord.’ In first line of the lower section
his name is given and that is apparently followed by the title ‘Caesar.’ Only the initial qof is visible,
but the editors reconstruct the word using the spelling קסר as in the other documents from Ketef
Jericho. The contents relate to business arrangements involving the harvesting and sale of dates.
As a collection, these Dead Sea texts show that the shorter spelling of the transliterated
word ‘Caesar’ was used in Hebrew and Aramaic commercial documents from the late first and
early second centuries, the period when Revelation was composed. Like the inscription from the
synagogue at Dura Europos, they show that it is plausible to think that readers able to transliterate
‘Caesar’ into Hebrew characters could have used the shorter spelling rather than the longer spelling
found in the Talmud. They also show that a common way for the emperor’s name and title to be
used in formal business transactions was in the dating of documents.
These observations suggest that a riddle involving an emperor’s name and title would be
appropriate in a context where people are buying and selling, as in Rev 13:16-18. At the same
time, there is no reason to make a one-to-one correlation of the beast’s mark with the practice of
using the emperor’s name to date commercial documents. The imagery in Revelation is evocative.
Some interpreters relate the mark to coins bearing the emperor’s name and image or to the imperial
seals used on official texts.43 Others relate it to a wider social pressure to participate in trade
associations, which sometimes publicly affirmed their respect for the emperor.44 The use of the
imperial name and title in Jewish commercial texts is simply one element within a larger social
context in which the author of Revelation was calling people to recognize how thoroughly
commerce was interlinked with Roman rule.45
The riddle in Rev 13:18 challenges readers to formulate a theory about the name signified by the
number 666 based on the clues given in the context. As we have seen, the context portrays a beastlike tyrant using imagery from biblical sources, later Jewish tradition, and themes from imperial
Rome. Some of the elements recall traditions about Nero, which should prompt readers to see
whether a form of Nero’s name will fit the number using the technique of gematria. The riddle
challenges readers to see something as the author sees it. In this case, the goal is to shape their
perspective so they see how that in the brutal practices associated with memories about Nero, the
Roman Empire of the author’s own time shows its true character. The sources noted above show
gematria being used in graffiti in the agora at Smyrna. Those who inscribe the names and numbers
on the walls assert an attitude of non-compliance, and the author of Revelation does the same. His
gematria is part of a larger satirical portrait that undercuts the pretensions of imperial rule and
those who support it.
The dominant language in Asia Minor was Greek, but inscriptions from Sardis show that
Hebrew continued to be used for names, including transliterated Latin names. Hebrew was also
used in graffiti, which allowed the person doing it to use language from the Jewish subculture as
a means of self-assertion. If the author of Revelation expected some of his readers to use Hebrew
characters to determine the name of the beast, he would have been appealing to those who could
associate with that Jewish subculture. To discern the meaning of the riddle, they would need to
move outside the language of the dominant culture and use letters from the language of a subgroup.
That approach fits the countercultural perspective of the writer’s message. In practical terms, the
imperial title ‘Caesar’ was transliterated into Hebrew and Aramaic characters as קסר in a dedication
in the synagogue at Dura Europos, as well as on commercial documents from the Dead Sea area.
Readers able to use transliteration to discern the answer to the riddle could have been familiar with
that spelling. In terms of social function, the ability to solve the riddle in this way would have
fostered a bond between the author and the readers, while differentiating them from those who
lacked this ability.
The social function of riddles may have played a role in the early dissemination of the
alternative reading 616. From a literary perspective it seems probable that 666 is the original
reading. Then, as Revelation circulated in the second century, the number was altered to 616, either
through an error in copying or intentionally to make the number fit a particular theory about the
name. Irenaeus considered 666 to be authentic and indicates that for him it was the most difficult
reading, since he was not certain what name the number signified. In his context 616 seems to have
become popular because some found it easier to equate with a theory about the name of the
Antichrist. Socially, riddles challenge people to solve a puzzle and thereby show that they are as
wise as the riddle-maker. Those who succeed gain a degree of prestige, while those who cannot do
so seem lacking. In Irenaeus’s context there were people who claimed they could solve the riddle
if it was based on 616, and that suggests that whatever the origin of the variant, it may have been
preserved and disseminated because some found it easier to solve, and that was socially more
appealing than acknowledging an inability to determine the meaning of 666.