Friday, July 20, 2018

The number of the Beast

This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666 (Rev 13:18).

I'm going to consider three interpretations of this famous verse.

1. A cryptogram for Nero or Nero redivivus. 

Many scholars and commentators identify the Antichrist figure in Rev 13 & 17 with Nero redivivus. That's a respectable interpretation, but not without difficulties:

i) Why would John resort to a cryptogram? Is the motivation that John is concealing the seditious nature of indictment in case his prophecy falls into the hands of Roman authorities? That John is thereby protecting Christian recipients of his Apocalypse? 

But that generates a dilemma. If the identity of the Beast is sufficiently transparent to John's target audience, then it would be sufficiently transparent to Roman authorities. 

ii) There's the question of whether a Nero redivivus figure is an artificial modern scholarly construct. In the Sibylline oracles, Nero doesn't return from the dead. Cf. Jan Willem van Henten, "Nero Redivivus Demolished: the Coherence of the Nero Traditions in the Sibylline Oracles", Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 11/21 (April 2000), 3-17.

iii) It's difficult to correlate the eight kings in Rev 17:10-11 with Roman emperors. Any particular correlation is arbitrary. Cf. C. Koester, Revelation (Yale 2014), 72-73. So interpreters who favor that identification must use a file to make the evidence fit the Neronic identification. 

2. Generic numerology

On this view, the Beast aspires to, but falls short of, the divine number seven. So this is part of John's stock numerology. The Beast comes tantalizingly but frustratingly close to the goal, making his failure all the more aggravating. That's my own interpretation. And that's open to a past or future fulfillment. 

3. Future Antichrist

i) For the sake of argument, I'd like to explore another identification. A challenge of prophetic hermeneutics is that we can only judge whether or not a oracle has been fulfilled by our own place in history in relation to the oracle. Candidates from the time of the oracle up to our own time. From the past to the present. In the nature of the case, we lack access to future candidates. 

So, for instance, Nero or a Nero redivivus figure might be best available candidate, given where we stand, but he might still be the wrong candidate. As I already noted, in reference to Rev 17:10-11, Nero/Nero redivivus isn't a tight fit with the 1C evidence at our disposal. Scholars who favor that identification can't simply take the evidence as it stands, but must file it down. 

By contrast, a future figure might be an exact fit. Easily recognizable. If he was on our list of candidates, he'd be the obvious candidate. But the only available candidates are past and present candidates. Nero wins by default because he comes closest to the profile, even though scholars who pick Nero have to wedge him into the evidence. 

ii) As commentators note, 666 is a triangular number. There are different ways to visually represent triangular numbers. In addition, triangular numbers overlap square, cubic, and hexagonal numbers, viz.,

In theory, the Antichrist might have a symbol or organization that subtly exemplifies some variations on triangular numbers. That's more sophisticated than gematria. And it's something only future readers would be able to discern, given advances in modern mathematics. 

Because prophecy is future-oriented, identification of the fulfillment often depends on a combination of past and future knowledge. Not just what the original audience was in a position to grasp. At the same time, this can be a trap since mathematical solutions invite excessive ingenuity, and offer too many solutions. 


  1. Do we have to choose? Couldn't it be a dual reference: primary/immediate reference to Nero, but also functioning as a general type with multiple historical instantiations? That would partly explain the use of a cryptogram. The point is not to conceal the identity, but to prevent a narrow, exclusive identification.

  2. The commentaries I have read have suggested that Revelation was written during the reign of Domition. During one of the worst persecutions of the early Church around 96AD. The christians at the time would have thought that the Beast was Domition and the Harlot that sits on seven hills was the Roman empire. Revelation would of comforted the saints on their eventual victory.

    But it is only now that the technology exists for one man to enslave the world. Putin said recently that there js an arms race on to develop AI and nanotechnology. The man who wins the arms race will rule the world.