666: The Number of the Beast (or is it 616?)
On June 6th, 2006, if you cared to waste $10, you could have gone to see a remake of the movie The Omen on the day it was released to theaters. The movie The Omen is about a child who is supposedly Satan incarnate. The movie poster for this remake of The Omen is a blood-red poster with a child dressed in black. Extending from the child’s body is a shadow that extends out from his feet, and the shape of the shadow is that of an upside-down cross. Prominently displayed in the middle of the poster is the film’s release date: 6†6†06.
Most people, Christian or otherwise, recognize the number 666 to refer, in some capacity, to Satan, or evil. Hence, the advertising strategy of the remake of The Omen detailed above.
The reason people associate 666 with Satan or evil is because Scripture does. The pertinent passage is found in Revelation 13:18 which reads, “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.”
If you were to do an internet search of the number 666, you would find a host of absurdities concerning the topic. You would find stories about tragedies taking place on Hwy 666, creepiness concerning houses with 666 as the street address, and a host of deceitful websites that claim to reveal what the number 666 really means…and for real this time. All these stories and theories tell us two things about the number 666: (1) the world is fascinated by the topic, (2) there is much confusion regarding the matter.
It is the intention of this article to demystify the number 666 and offer some clarity regarding the issue.
Allow me to be upfront at this point and warn you that the truth about the number 666 as discussed in Revelation 13:18 isn’t nearly as scandalous, mysterious, or edgy as most people would have you believe. In fact, compared to the crackpot theories floating around the internet, the truth is kind of boring.
So what do we know about 666? We know three things for sure.
Is it 666... or 616???
First, we know that the number 666 itself is in question. What do I mean by that? Well, before Gutenberg created his printing press and its “moveable type,” all Bibles that existed were written by hand. The problem with people copying the Bible by hand is that inevitably “variations” would occur. An “O” might get replaced with a “Θ,” or an “Ο” might get replaced with an “Ω” (O and Ω sound similar) etc. etc. Consequently, no two biblical manuscripts are identical. The place where two manuscripts diverge is called a “unit of variation” or a “textual variant.”
In Revelation 13;18 there is a “textual variant” at the number 666. Some manuscripts don’t read the number 666 at all but instead they read 616. In fact, the oldest extant manuscript containing Rev. 13:18 is a papyrus fragment called P115. This fragment reads 616 as the number of the beast, and if you wish to, you can see an image of this fragment for yourself by searching “P115” on Wikipedia.
Already at the time of the church father Iranaeus (a.d. 130–202), the church was aware of this “variation” between 666 and 616 in biblical manuscripts. Irenaeus writes about it at some length in Against Heresies 05.30.1. Irenaeus defends 666 as the correct number (as do most scholars today), and dismisses 616 as being the error of a copyist, which very well may be the case.
But how could such a variation arrive? It could be a slip of the pen. For example, in English numbers can be designated in multiple ways. For example, someone could use numerals to indicate the number (i.e. 666) or they could write it out with words (i.e., six-hundred-sixty-six). So it is with Greek. They could write out the number with words, or they could indicate the number using numerals. Except, in Greek, they didn’t use Arabic numerals like we do in English, they used letters of the Greek alphabet, and each letter was assigned a value (e.g., α = 1, β = 2, γ = 3, etc.). Thus, the Greek copyist could write χξϛ (with a horizontal line over all the letters indicating that they are to be reckoned as numbers) to indicate the number 666, or by changing the ξ with an ι they would have χιϛ or 616 (as is found in P115). A slip of the pen between a ξ and an ι is not unreasonable thing to imagine to have happened. So…this is one way in which the variation could have occurred. There is another way the variation could have happened, but we’ll deal with that later.
How Do You Calculate It?
The second thing we know beyond any doubt is that that regardless of whether the number is supposed to be 666 or 616, the number is supposed to be “calculated” (ESV) or “counted” (NIV) or “ψηφισάτω” (Greek). Rev. 13:18 (ESV) reads, “This calls for wisdom: let the on who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” What does that mean? How exactly does one “calculate” the number? John, the author of Revelation (Rev. 1:1), does not tell us how the calculation is to be done. He assumes his audience knows, but many years removed from John’s sociological, ethnic, and theological context, we don’t know for sure. Scholars have offered up possible solutions. Some arguments (like most historical discourse) are more convincing than others.
The most common—and in my opinion most convincing—“solution” to the “calculation” puzzle involves a fairly common Hebraic practice that is called gematria. At the risk of over-simplification, gematria is when the numerica value of words are calculated on the basis of the combined numerical values of each individual letter. For example. My name is Tim. If the letter A = 1 and B =2 and C = 3 etc., then the value of the letters in my name would be T = 20, I = 9, M = 13, and “calculated” together, my name is equal to the number 42 (which is funny to anyone who has read Douglas Adams).
As I’ve said, among Hebraic people, gematria was fairly common practice. Because the gospel of Jesus Christ was proclaimed first in Jerusalem, then Samaria, then to the ends of the earth by apostles of Jewish origin, and because the apostle John was Jewish and wrote Revelation (and in a Semitic style at that); it’s reasonable to conclude that John had the practice of gematria in mind when he wrote, “let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast.”
Furthermore, because John provides the number 666 and says that it is the number of a man, most people reasonably conclude that the number 666 (or is it 616?) is the numerical value of some person’s name who was an enemy to the Christian faith.
Who's the Man!?
Third, what we know beyond any doubt is that the number is “the number of a man.” But what man? Henry Sanders, a scholar at the University of Michigan tried to answer this question. In 1918 Sanders wrote a paper noting all the different names that had been proposed by scholars and theologians to be that which the number of the beast represents. He lists: ευανθας, τειταν, λατεινος, παλαιβασκανος, βενεδικτος, κακος οδηγος, αληθης βλαβερος, αμνος αδικος. ο νικητης. Some of the names posited were Latin names such as Antemus, Arnoume, and diclux. There was the Gothic name γενσηρικος, and for three more pages Sanders details all the additional suggestions put forth by scholars within the church from its inception until 1918.
The most widely held belief today is that the name of the man that best represents the number of the beast is Nero. The late Dr. Bruce Metzger, an oft-times brilliant NT scholar notes, “The Greek form Neron Caesar written in Hebrew characters (נרון קסר) is equivalent to 666, whereas the Latin form Nero Caesar (נרו קסר) is equivalent to 616.” This is often seen as the most compelling argument because it accounts for 666/616 “textual variant” found within the ancient manuscripts. This would suggest that the difference between 666 and 616 is not a slip of the pen, but rather two different ways of conveying the same information.
So... What's the Big Deal?
Remember when I said the truth about 666 is kind of boring? Are you beginning to understand what I mean?
So what’s the practical payoff in all of this?
Well, frankly, there isn’t much of one. Let’s imagine for a moment that we could definitively identify the man whose name is the number of the beast. How does that information change your life? If some scholar proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the number 666 refers to ευανθας (Euanthas), what has changed for you in your spiritual battle against Satan and the cosmic powers over this present darkness? Nothing. Absolutely nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed because the solution is still the same. Regardless of what man the number of the beast represents, the solution to Satan and his evil tactics and temptations is always Jesus Christ. If the number of the beast is 616 instead of 666 we still combat Satan with Jesus Christ and His Word. If the name is Euanthas, or Nero, or even Brett Favre, we still combat Satan with Jesus Christ and His Word, for that’s the only thing we’ve got.
Of everything God’s Word tells us about Satan, Revelation 13:18 offers us the least amount of practical advice or insight. We would do far better to focus our attention on studying Satan’s tactics of temptation employed against Eve in Genesis 3. We would do far better heeding the words of St. James in James 4:7, or St. Peter in 1 Peter 5:8–9, or St. Paul in Ephesians 4:27 and 6:11.
Cling to Christ and His Word
If you want to combat Satan to great success; then trust God the Father, have faith in His Son Jesus Christ who has cast out the prince of this world (John 12:31) and destroyed his work (1 John 3:8). If you want to combat Satan, then receive forgiveness, read God’s Word, and pray. If you want to supplement these things with additional reading, I encourage you to read Martin Luther’s Large Catechism. Read that with an eye toward what Martin Luther has to say about Satan and how Christians can resist him. You’ll notice Luther never once references Revelation 13:18, but that’s because he doesn’t need to. Luther can find Christ and hope and confidence more clearly elsewhere in Scripture—and so can you.
I don’t talk much about the number 666. It’s not because I’m afraid of the number, it’s because I don’t find the conversation to be a particularly fruitful one. Give me a cup of coffee and St. Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, and now we’ve got something we can talk about until Christ returns.
O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe
With all of this said, I do have one “666” story that I want to share with you. It’s a story that gives me great delight. In the congregations which I serve, we use a hymnal called Lutheran Service Book (LSB). If you happen upon that hymnal I encourage you to turn to hymn 666. The title of that hymn? O Little Flock, Fear Not the Foe. Through the grapevine, I have been told that the editors of this hymnal made a conscious decision to assign this hymn to this potentially scandalous number. Recognizing the might we have in Christ over Satan, this hymn thumbs its nose at Satan’s crippled and temporary power. Stanza three is my favorite and I’ll conclude my article with these edifying words. Stanza three reads:
“As true as God’s own Word is true, not earth nor hell’s satanic crew against us shall prevail. Their might? A joke, a mere façade! God is with us and we with God—our vict’ry cannot fail.”
This blog post has been adapted from its previously published version originally found in Around the Word, Winter, 2013–2014, volume 1, number 4: the final issue of a publication that has now ceased.
Rev. Timothy A. Koch, Pastor of Concordia and Immanuel Lutheran Churches in Cresbard and Wecota, South Dakota.