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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Was the Number of the Beast 666 or 616?

Some media play has been given to the existence of an alternative manuscript tradition for Revelation which has the "number of the beast" being 616 rather than the infamous 666. Despite the breathless coverage of the issue by some, this is hardly news. Irenaeus, writing in the second century, devoted an entire chapter to the number of the beast and therein explained why he favored the number 666 rather than 616.

What is new is that MSM outlets like National Geographic and the Gaurdian have carried the story as if it is a new discovery. Yes, an early manuscript fragment uses the alternative 616 rather than 666. But as noted above and here, we already knew that both traditions existed in the second century so this does not really tell us much we did not already know. Some scholars think 616 was original, more think 666 was original, and some are agnostic about the issue.

Does it matter? Not really. Both 616 and 666 mean the same thing. As Ralph at the Sacred River explains, they are both numeric representations for variant spellings of "Nero Caesar." The meaning of the Book of Revelation is the same either way.

So while this is an interesting textual criticism question, it is not really a theological one.

2 comments:

I personally don’t think Nero Caesar is the correct interpretation of “666”. Revelation was written in Greek. The Greek number of Nero Caesar is not “666”. You only get “666” if you transliterate the Hebrew spelling of Nero Caesar into Greek. The regular Hebrew number gives you “676” so you have to use the Hebrew letters and transliterate them into Greek letters to get “666”. The regular Aramaic number gives you “667”. (D.A.Aune, Revelation 6-16-Word Biblical Commentary p.770.) The problem is why would a Greek text written for Greek readers use a Hebrew code. If the goal is concealment, then that goal can be successfully accomplished using Greek alone. No Hebrew gymnastics would be required.

I think the answer is much more simple. Revelation builds on Daniel.

In the book of Daniel, the interpretative key comes first and the visions of the beasts follow.

The key to understanding the beasts of Daniel lies in the dramatic parable of the life of King Nebuchadnezzar.

Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylon, in its time, easily the greatest kingdom in the world. But in many ways, this king was "everyman". He had much to be thankful for, but he wasn't thankful at all. The gifts of God- the gifts of life, the gifts of abundant life- had only made him proud. When he surveyed his dominions, his accomplishments, he would say to himself: "my power and the might of my own hand have got me this". (Daniel 4:30; cf. Deuteronomy 9:10-17) He had fallen deeply in love, with himself. Metaphorically speaking, he worshipped himself. He refused to recognize his sin and to repent of it. (Daniel 4:27) Not surprisingly, his actions called down the judgement of heaven on him. And that judgement was not long in coming. It was repeated three times (first in a dream, then in an interpretation, and finally in reality) so that the message would not be forgotten.

“Let his mind [the mind of the king] be changed from that of a human, and let the mind of an animal be given to him.” (Daniel 4:16)

The king lost his humanity. He was stripped of his robes and changed into a beast. Externally, he retained the form of a man; but internally, he had become a beast. The judgement of heaven was that he would roam the fields of the earth seven years, until he recognized his sin and repented of it.

The moral here is really quite simple. In many ways, sin is its own punishment. We become the persons we choose to be; we become our choices.

(1) As we do righteousness and show mercy to the oppressed (Daniel 4:27), we become truly and fully human. That is what it means to bear the image of God, the image of Christ.

(2) But as we play God, we dehumanize ourselves. Whenever we act in ways that are less than truly and fully human, we make ourselves into beasts. And that is what it means to bear the image of beast.

Our punishment is that we will remain beasts, until we repent and give up our self-worship, our desire to play God and lord it over others.

The key to understanding the beasts of Revelation lies in the number of the beast.

“This calls for wisdom; let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is 666." (Revelation 13:18)

Let us examine the phrasing closely.

(1) Number means character.

(2) Because the number of the beast is the number of a person, the character of the beast is the character of a certain type of person.

(3) That character is embodied in the number 666.

Let us examine that number. 666 is a combination of two numbers: 6 and 3. Simply put, 666 is 6 taken 3 times, 6 6 6. Biblically speaking, numbers have significance.

(1) Six is the number of man. The reason is simple. Man was created on the sixth day. (Genesis 1:31)

(2) Three is the number of God. The reason is equally simple. God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19)

(3) Six taken three times, 6 6 6, is man making himself God.

Simply put, to play God is to make oneself a beast.

Now the followers of the beast receive the mark of the beast on their foreheads and on their hands. (Revelation 14:9) The anatomy here is significant.

In Jesus' time, a man of God, when he turned to God in prayer, wore "teffilin" or phylacteries on his head and arms. One phylactery was worn over the head so that its centrepiece, a cube, rests on the forehead. The second phylactery was worn on the arm so that the centrepiece, a cube, rests near the heart, and the wrappings that flow from the cube flow down the arm and end in the hand. Each phylactery represented an aspect of the love of God. Each cube contains a copy of the Shema, the central confession of the faith, a confession of love:

“Hear O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.” (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)

The thought is quite simple and quite beautiful. The love of God should always be foremost in our minds (our foreheads), ever close to our hearts, and should issue forth in all our actions (our hands).

The followers of the beast are a demonic parody of the man of God. Their love is not for God, but for themselves. They recognize one God, themselves, and serve themselves with all their heart, all their soul and all their might. The thought is quite simple and quite ugly. The love of Self is always foremost in their minds (their foreheads), ever close to their hearts, and issues forth in all their actions (their hands). That is why the mark of the beast is always on the forehead and on the hands. The fact that it is a demonic parody suggests to me that it is a distorted mirror image. When the reflection is seen in a mirror, the “teffelin” which is normally seen on the left arm and hand is now seen on the right arm and hand.

So what is it to play God? The name of God, as revealed to Moses in the burning bush, is this: "I AM WHO I AM" (Exodus 3:14). When human beings play God, when human beings claim to be God, they are making a certain type of claim.

(1) The claim is not metaphysical. They are not claiming to be all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present.

(2) The claim is moral. They are claiming that there is no sin in their life for which they need repent.

As "God", they claim to be "perfect" the way they are; they have no need to change. As "God", they say: "I am what I am"; I am "perfect" the way I am; I have no need to change. And that is why making oneself God, playing God, is very nearly the unforgivable sin. For the man who truly believes he does not need to change his ways, that man will never repent, never be forgiven, never come to understand the love of God. That man will never become truly and fully human; he will remain a beast throughout eternity.

Just a point of clarification.

In order to get “666” using a Hebrew transliteration into Greek, you have to use a Latin original and misspell it, transliterate it into Hebrew and then translate it into Greek.

The Latin original using consonants only is “NRWN QSR” or Neron Caesar. That’s a misspelling of the Latin. The Latin original using consonants only should be “NRW QSR”.

You then take the Hebrew equivalents of those consonants.

N= 50
R= 200
W= 6
N= 50
Q= 100
S= 60
R= 200

Thus, the Latin misspelling “Neron Caesar” translated into Hebrew generates “666”.

And, the correct Latin spelling “Nero Caesar” translated into Hebrew generates “616”.

And finally, you translate the Hebrew “six hundred and sixty-six” into Greek. (Barclay, Great Themes of the New Testament, p. 97).

It is difficult enough for a Greek audience to understand a Hebrew “isopsephia”, but you have to have that Hebrew “isopsephia” based on a botched Latin form for the whole thing to work.

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