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Bible Study: 666 Decoded

Fortunately the work on this was already done a long time ago, and we don’t have to go scouring ancient manuscripts for names. If we take the Greek phrase “Nero Caesar” and transliterate it into Hebrew, it turns out that the letters add up to, you guessed it, 666.

A couple pieces of information make this a very likely interpretation. First, a contemporary Aramaic (not Hebrew) document makes a similar calculation, and also arrives at 666 as his number. Second, there is a variant in several ancient copies of Revelation where 666 is replaced by 616. Why is this?  If we take the Latin form of “Nero Cesar” and transliterate it into Hebrew, the letters adds up to that number. It seems clear that someone in the ancient world was making the connection between this passage and Nero through gematria, most likely under the influence of the Greek to Hebrew connection.

 

What does this mean?

For some readers of Revelation this might seem like a strange turn. Isn’t Revelation a book about things in future? But Nero was emperor from 54-68 AD, well before Revelation was written (early 90s AD). Why is the beast being identified with a past ruler? I think the answer is that Nero serves as an example of the coming beast. The code is saying, “if you want to get a better idea of how the beast will rule, just look at Nero. He is one of the same type.” But John, the author of Revelation, cannot do this explicitly without risking the wrath of the Roman government.

And why would Nero be identified as a prototypical “beastly” individual? The answer is easy. Nero was famous for his cruel treatment of Christians and initiated the first major Roman persecution of Christians. This included having them eaten by dogs, crucifying them, and lighting them on fire on poles to serve as human lampposts. He is probably also the emperor under whom Paul and Peter were martyred. So the coming beast, also, like Nero, will be a brutal enemy to Christians. Here is Tacitus’ account of Nero’s treatment of Christians after a great fire in Rome in AD 64,

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt [for the fire] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired (Tacitus Annals XV.44).

 

A Caution

Lest anyone get the wrong idea I must insert a caution. I am not by any stretch of the imagination suggesting that we go crazy on the numbers of the Bible with gematria . This is the only place I see it at work, and the reason is that the passage explicitly encourages us to do the calculation.

Most of the historical data I’ve mentioned here is provided in the Word Biblical Commentary on Revelation 6-16 by David Aune.

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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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