The Way It Happened

Revelation 13:18, The Number of the Beast

This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.

//Most learned scholars of Revelation today recognize that, at least on some level, John names first-century Roman Emperor Nero Caesar as the Beast of Revelation. This verse provides one clue of many.

Here we find our infamous reference to the number 666 and John’s command that the churches of Asia figure it out. Everyone knows this number identifies the Antichrist (as the Beast has since come to be known—Revelation never uses the term Antichrist). Clearly, John knows the Beast’s identity and expects the seven churches to understand. A first-century spelling of Nero Caesar’s name, written in Hebrew characters, sums to that exact value. Though perhaps hidden from Greek and Latin readers, this could not have gone unnoticed by Jewish Christians.

For anyone not familiar with this type of cryptogram, the basic idea builds upon the way Hebrew letters function as phonetic symbols for building words but also serve as numerals. All alphabetic symbols represent both a letter and a number. Roman numerals present perhaps our most familiar example of this, but in the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, all letters also stood for numbers, making this numerical wordplay quite popular. The letters of the Beast, N-R-W-N Q-S-R, written in Hebrew, become 50+200+6+50+100+60+200=666. This type of numerology, particularly among Rabbinic writings, proved irresistible for scriptural interpretations.

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