The number 666 supposedly refers to the “Antichrist.” Who is this Antichrist? Is it the incarnate son of the devil to come at the ‘end of the world? Church Father Origen of Alexandria (185–254 CE) thought he is “the son of the wicked demon, and of Satan, and of the devil”: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antichrist. Indeed, most Christians believe that in the ‘end times,’ that is, just prior to Jesus’s Second Coming, the devil will impregnate a woman (or a jackal as in “The Omen” movies)—the same way Jesus, the Son of God, was conceived by the Holy Spirit. They also believe that he will possess (both politically and magically) great power on earth and cause global havoc to our noble spiritual values. This article tries to answer these questions.
Source and Interpretation
Let us first see where “666” and the concept of the “Antichrist” come from.
(1) In the last book of the Bible, the “Book of Revelation,” we read,
“Here is wisdom [needed (NAB)]. Let him that hath understanding count [calculate] the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is six hundred threescore and six .” (Revelation 13:18, KJV, emphasis mine)
Notice especially the clause, “it is the number of a man.” Now, keep in mind that most Christians believe the Bible is God’s word and that the Book of Revelation, especially, foretells what will happen in the end times.
(2) Church Father Irenaeus of Smyrna (c. 130–202 CE) was “certain” that this number represents the number of the name of the Antichrist: in the introduction to book 5 chapter 30 of his treatise Against Heretics, he writes,
“Although certain as to the number of the name of Antichrist, yet we should come to no rash conclusions as to the name itself, because this number is capable of being fitted to many names.” (https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103530.htm, emphasis mine)
Now, let us see what modern biblical scholars think. The New American Bible is a Catholic Bible that prides itself of 1,200-odd biblical scholars with an advanced degree in biblical studies irrespective of religious affiliation—the Catholic Biblical Association of America (CBA). Commenting on Revelation 13:18, it has,
“Each of the letters of the alphabet in Hebrew as well as in Greek [the language in which Revelation was originally written] has a numerical value. Many possible combinations of letters will add up to 666, and many candidates have been nominated for this infamous number. The most likely is the emperor Caesar Nero, the Greek form of whose name in Hebrew letters gives the required sum. (The Latin form of this name equals 616, which is the reading of a few manuscripts.) Nero personifies the emperors who viciously persecuted the church.” (NAB, Revelation 13:18n)
Notice the clause, “the Greek form of whose name in Hebrew letters gives the required sum,” as well as the ‘hint’ Revelation’s author gives the reader, “Let him that hath understanding.” The book was written in code form under the very noses of the watchful Roman colonizers: only ‘insiders’ could understand the real meaning.
Every one of the Greek letters of the alphabet, when written with a horizontal bar on top, represented a number instead of a letter. Here’s the list of Greek numerals: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_numerals. Scroll down to the first table and look at the “Byzantine” column for the numbers 6, 60, and 600, respectively: so 666 would look something like ‘XES’ (i.e., χξϛ) (in Greek numerals, χ represents 600, ξ represents 60 and ϛ represents 6). Unlike our 666, it’s not something like ‘SSS’ (i.e., ϛϛϛ).
In the introduction to the Book of Revelation, the New American Bible states,
“Revelation … abounds in … symbolism … one of the chief characteristics of apocalyptic literature. … Such literature enjoyed wide popularity in both Jewish and Christian circles from ca. 200 B.C. to A.D. 200. This book contains an account of visions in symbolic and allegorical language … it was composed as resistance literature to meet a crisis. The book itself suggests that the crisis was ruthless persecution of the early church by the Roman authorities; the Harlot Babylon symbolizes pagan Rome, the city of seven hills (17:9). … The author of the book calls himself John (1:1, 4, 9; 22:8), who because of his Christian faith was exiled to the rocky island of Patmos, a Roman penal colony.” (NAB, pp. 385–86, emphasis mine)
So, it’s easy to see why the book was written in ‘code form.’ Note also that the author uses Babylon, the nation that exiled the Jews and caused them so much heartache, when referring to Rome; but ‘insiders’ knew what he was talking about. In 17:9, the author again gives the reader a clue:
“Here is [a clue for (NAB)] the mind which hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.” (Revelation 17:9, KJV, emphasis mine)
616—The Number of the Beast
The New American Bible also states that,
“The Latin form of this name equals 616, which is the reading of a few manuscripts.”
Indeed, the original manuscripts (like ‘Papyrus 115’) seem to have had 616 rather than 666: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_of_the_beast.
I thought I’d add the following video to convince the reader that the number 616 is indeed the original ‘number of the beast.’ The speaker of the following video is the founder and executive director of the ‘Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts,’ senior professor for the ‘Research of Studies of the New Testament’ at the ‘Dallas Theological Studies,’ and consultant for several Bible translations. Between 1:05:15 and 1:08:45, he confirms and discusses the textual difference (616 versus 666) in two manuscripts that he viewed personally. As one can see in the following video, the number 616 was found underneath (overwritten by) the number 666: so it must be an earlier or older version of the Bible: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zZ5cgQUJnrI. The speaker is a believer in the Bible’s infallibility. I suggest one views the entire video: it shows how reliable the copying of biblical manuscripts has been over the centuries.
Irenaeus knew about this discrepancy but he dismisses it as a scribal misprint; he writes,
“I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one. (I am inclined to think that this occurred through the fault of the copyists, as is wont to happen, since numbers also are expressed by letters; so that the Greek letter which expresses the number sixty was easily expanded into the letter Iota of the Greeks.)” (https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103530.htm, emphasis mine)
However, the Greek letter ‘xi,’ ( ξ ) representing the number 60, looks like a ‘3’ facing the other way; it’s a far cry from an ‘iota’ ( ι ), which looks like an ‘i.’ In my opinion this explanation is farfetched: especially when one considers the fact that the same ‘error’ (never a different/random letter) is made on several (“some,” per Irenaeus) manuscripts.
It wasn’t a typo! At the turn of the first century CE, there were two predominant languages: Greek, the literary language, and Latin, the language of the people in the entire Roman Empire. Most ordinary people wouldn’t have known who the ‘beast’ was if they had to know Nero’s name in Greek rather than in Latin. So, the original number was 616, but then later scribes, realizing it was a Greek document anyway, probably thought it was more appropriate to refer to Nero’s name in Greek (using Hebrew letters, of course—code-form, remember?).
In the interest of fairness, in their footnote on Revelation 13:18, the biblical authors of the New American Bible also opine that,
“It has also been observed that ‘6’ represents imperfection, falling short of the perfect number ‘7’ [for the Jews—e.g., the days of the week], and is represented here in a triple or superlative form.” (NAB, Revelation 13:18n)
I’m afraid I must disagree with this interpretation because, as I already mentioned in passing above, the biblical author would have written something like ‘SSS’ (i.e., ϛϛϛ) for ‘666’, not something like ‘XES’ (i.e., χξϛ). The ‘imperfect number’ for the Jews is ‘6’ ( ϛ ), not ‘60’ ( ξ ) or ‘600’ ( χ ).
The Roman emperor Nero is a thing of the past, not of the future: there are no prophecies in the Book of Revelation; so don’t be scared of whatever it says. This confirms what I showed in two of my previous articles concerning “Bible Prophecies”: there is no such thing as biblical prophecies.
Irenaeus of Smyrna, Against Heresies translated by Alexander Roberts and William Rambaut. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885). Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103530.htm.
New American Bible: Revised Edition; “translated from the original languages with critical use of all the ancient sources” by (1200-odd biblical scholars with an advanced degree in biblical studies irrespective of religious affiliation of) the Catholic Biblical Association of America (CBA), authorized by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, and approved by the United States Confraternity of Catholic Bishops. Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 2010: ISBN 9780899429519. (NAB)
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Oxford, UK, 1769. (KJV)
Wikipedia, s.v. “Antichrist,” last edited November 8, 2022: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antichrist.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Greek Numerals,” last edited August 16, 2022: https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_numerals.Wikipedia, s.v. “Number of the Beast,” last edited November 9, 2022: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_of_the_beast.
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