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Bible Study: 666 Decoded

What is this mysterious number, so familiar to horror film buffs, Satanists, and fundamentalist apocalyptic speculators alike? The answer is very intriguing, satisfying and perhaps ominous. It’s also a great illustration of all the different things that can sometimes go into biblical interpretation.

The passage in Revelation that mentions the number of the beast is an explicit riddle and demands that we try to figure it out. In Revelation 13:11-17 we are presented with a description of “the beast,” that mythical creature who will bring the whole world under the sway of its power, to then be defeated by God in the battle of Armageddon (Rev. 19:19-20). Then John adds,

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 (Rev. 13:18).

 

The answer lies in gematria

Image: Ben White

Who could resist this challenge? Historically many have attempted to decode the number on the assumption that it is an instance of gematria, using numbers as codes for words. This made a lot of sense in the ancient world where letters were used as a matter of course to represent numerals. In gematria the number was arrived at by adding together the values of each letter of a word. If you assigned numbers to letters in English (a=1, b-2, etc.) then my name, Rob, would add up to 35 (18+17+2). The number of Rob is 35.

Here are some ancient examples,

  • Graffiti at Pompeii reads, “I love her whose number is 545.” Can you imagine the girls excitedly adding up their own letters in their heads? But only ΦΜΕ got the twiterpations.
  • An early Christian used the number 888 to represent Jesus (Ιησοῦς: Ι = 10; Η = 8; Σ = 200; Ο = 70; Υ = 400; Σ = 200).
  • The names of many emperors or their initials were also represented by numbers.

But another level of complexity is that you have to know which language the code applies to. In Greek, 666 doesn’t seem to line up to anything very significant. Just a few common names, as Ireneaus, the second century church father, discovered. The key here is that the calculation must be done in Hebrew.

Let’s switch for a moment to a different word in the sentence to get started with our calculations. The Greek word for “beast” used in the text of the New Testament is theirion (θηρίον). If this word is transliterated to Hebrew (תריו֝), it adds up to 666. Of course, this does not tell us much, since it is stated explicitly in the text that 666 is the number of the beast. But maybe it does tell us something about method. Maybe it means that in order to find the name behind the code 666 you have to transliterate a Greek name to Hebrew and then add up the letters.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Winter 2018

About the Author: Rob Haskell grew up in Argentina as the son of missionaries. He has done college ministry and worked in missions in Latin America, training pastors. Rob has a ThM in New Testament from Regent College. He is author of a Spanish language book on hermeneutics (Interpretacion Eficaz Hoy) and co-editor of Local Theology for the Global Church, a book produced by the World Evangelical Alliance Theological Commission. Currently he makes websites at his company, Intuito Websites, and teaches regularly at his local church in Bellingham, Washington. He enjoys a busy life as a single parent and an avid hiker.

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