“Calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.” Revelation 13:18
If there is one portion of Scripture even the worst atheist will believe, it is the number of the beast—666. We see this number in movies, television, and other places to convey the idea of evil. It comes from Revelation 13:18.
“Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666.”
The number six in the Bible represents man’s sin and rebellion against God [RELATED: “What the Number 6 Means in the Bible and Why You Should Care”]. The fact that it is three sixes in a row means utter and complete evil. According to the previous verse, Revelation 13:17, no one will be able to buy or sell anything unless one has “the mark or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.”
The beast is better known as the Antichrist. The term “beast” represents both the Antichrist and his world system. He will demand loyalty from everyone in his kingdom, and proof of loyalty will be the mark of 666, according to Revelation 13:18.
But what if the number is not 666? Does the Bible have a typo? Some argue it does.
In the first century, a system of Jewish interpretation called gematria, where letters are assigned numerical values, was widespread. For instance, a=1, b=2, c=3, etc. If one were to add up the numbers in a word or phrase, the sum would equal a number with specific meaning to help the reader better understand the given information. Many in the Jewish faith use this method to understand the Torah better.
In his book Mysteries of the Messiah, Rabbit Jason Sobel makes heavy use of gematria to illustrate how every word of the Bible points to Jesus. Consider these three biblical phrases as an example:
- “The firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:5)
- Jesus’ death and resurrection through the Greek word egeiro, meaning “raise” (John 2:19)
- “Adonai has made His salvation known” (Psalm 98:2)
If you add up each letter’s value in each phrase, all three equal 913. Because each phrase shares the same number, Rabbi Sobel states how everything points to God creating the world to bring about the salvation of His people through His firstborn Son.
Similarly, Revelation 13:18 invites us to calculate the number of the beast.
A perfect example of a “beast” was the Roman emperor Nero. He was a bloodthirsty ruler who persecuted Christians relentlessly and tortured them in ways that would make Hitler blush. He was so thoroughly evil that some people consider him the “first antichrist” or a pre-runner to the real Antichrist who is yet to come.
Many people who study gematria say his name and title—Nero Caesar—add up to 666. But some scholars claim the number is not 666 but 616.
Nero’s official title was usually pronounced in Latin and not Hebrew. While the Hebrew term is Nero Caesar, the Latin term is Neronoun Caesar, which means both versions have their own numerical value. Nero Caesar equals 666, and Neronoun Caesar equals 616.
Some scholars attribute the difference in numbers to the last two letters of Neronoun (“un”), which has a numerical value of 50. The letters “un” were sometimes dropped to help readers positively differentiate between the ruthless and evil emperor and anyone else. Thus, 616 and not 666. Either way, both numbers refer to the same man though they are conveyed in two different ways.
Which is correct then? Is the number 666 or 616?
Difference of Opinions
Though original and complete manuscripts of the New Testament largely do not exist save for one, over 2,300 early Greek manuscripts do contain many if not most portions of it. Of these manuscripts, about 280 contain some if not all the book of Revelation. Although most of the manuscripts say the number of the beast is 666, others do not.
The earliest known manuscript is an ancient papyrus fragment called P115. Dating from around 300 A.D. and discovered by archaeologists in an ancient garbage dump in Egypt in 1895, P115 contains some or all of twelve chapters from Revelation, including 13:18. This manuscript states 616 as the number of the beast.
Another manuscript called Codex C/04, written in Greek letters in the 5th century, also says 616.
According to text criticism theologists Kurt and Barbara Aland, four manuscripts (two pre-sixth century and two no longer existing post-eighth century) say the number is 616, while one 11th century manuscript says it is 665.
More recently, notes in the New Revised Standard Version and New American Standard Bible say, “Other ancient authorities read six hundred sixteen” and “One early manuscript reads 616,” respectively.
However, three manuscripts called the Chester Beatty Papyri also include chapters 9-17 from the book of Revelation, which says the number is 666 in Greek letters.
To make things more complicated, scribes routinely copied early manuscripts by hand. It is possible, despite a scribe’s best efforts, textual variations occasionally occurred, which some believe happened to Revelation 13:18.
Early Church Writers
In addition to manuscripts, early church writings and translations also help us discern the correct number of the beast.
One fourth-century Latin writer named Tyconius states the number is 616. In contrast, two other church writers named Origen and Hippolytus in the 3rd century emphatically state the number is 666.
But the one writer that most scholars and theologians point to is Irenaeus (130-202 A.D.). This second-century bishop was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John, the writer of the book of Revelation. It is highly likely Irenaeus received direct knowledge of John’s writings from his mentor.
In his book, Against Heresies 05.30.1, Irenaeus makes a strong statement regarding the correct number of the beast.
“Such, then, being the state of the case, and this number being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; while reason also leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six…(portion deleted)…I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads (author’s note: a decad is 10) they will have it that there is but one. [I am inclined to think that this occurred through the fault of the copyists, as is wont to happen since numbers also are expressed by letters; so that the Greek letter which expresses the number sixty was easily expanded into the letter Iota of the Greeks.] Others then received this reading without examination; some in their simplicity, and upon their own responsibility, making use of this number expressing one decad; while some, in their inexperience, have ventured to seek out a name which should contain the erroneous and spurious number.” (Roberts 558, courtesy of End Times Ministry)
Irenaeus refers to the belief of 616 as the correct number, but he wholly calls it false. He blames it on copying errors, typos, and a failure to study the legitimacy of the most reliable writings and manuscripts that claim the number as 666, especially those copied by people who personally knew the apostle John.
The Bible is Without Error
Despite the Bible telling us the number is 666, some people still believe the correct number is 616. Irenaeus cautions us against this notion.
“Now, in the first place, it is loss to wander from the truth and to imagine that as being the case which is not; then again, as there shall be no light punishment [inflicted] upon him who either adds or subtracts anything from the Scripture, under that such a person must necessarily fall. Moreover, another danger, by no means trifling, shall overtake those who falsely presume that they know the name of Antichrist. For if these men assume one [number], when this [Antichrist] shall come having another, they will be easily led away by him, as supposing him not to be the expected one, who must be guarded against.”
Irenaeus echoes the apostle Paul reminding us that the Holy Scriptures are without error (2 Timothy 3:16, Titus 1:2). No one is permitted to change it in any way. Then he gives a warning.
If people choose to believe the number is 616 and not 666 as Revelation 13:18 says, the Antichrist will quickly lead them astray from God because they will have been looking for someone with the number 616. Those people may not see the kingdom of heaven as they hope. So, we must trust the Scriptures and be cautious.
Who Will Be 666?
So, who will have the number 666? For years, people have tried to figure out which name (other than Nero’s) could fit the calculation.
One scholar from the University of Michigan named Henry Sanders tried to solve the puzzle. In 1918, he wrote a paper called “The Number of the Beast in Revelation” for the Journal of Biblical Literature. Sanders recorded all the different names that might fit the number, including those proposed by other scholars and theologians throughout time. Mr. Sanders’ extensive list included Hebrew, Greek, and Gothic names covering more than four pages. In the end, he had no conclusion.
In reality, we do not know what the actual name of the Antichrist will be. Until now, Nero has fit the calculation most perfectly (though Domitian runs a close second). And if this is so, then God has given us a preview of what is to come in the final days of the Tribulation.
Hope for Avoiding 666
The thought of the Antichrist might strike fear in some Christians. It will no doubt be an extraordinarily horrible time to be alive. However, Irenaeus gives us a word of hope.
“[I]t is . . . more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfillment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned.”
In other words, let us not focus on who has the calculated name. We will find out when the Lord fulfills the prophecy. So don’t worry for now.
But there is far better news. It’s called the Gospel.
Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross, He has made a way for us to receive salvation at any time, a full pardon of all our sins no matter how terrible they may be. We can be washed white from our sin and receive His gift of eternal life with Him. For some of us, eternal life will begin when Jesus returns in the pre-Tribulation period in what we call the Rapture.
If you are in Christ, that is, if you have admitted your sins and received His salvation, you will avoid the Antichrist entirely. You will never experience his evil or live under his iron rule. Instead, you will be rejoicing in heaven with our Lord and our fellow saints and readying yourself to return with Him to defeat Satan forever (Revelation 19:14).
One particular story told by a Christian blogger also gives us hope.
“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:
‘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.’”