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I can be described by a number of numbers. I have a Social Security number and a Canadian social insurance number. I am one number to the Society of Biblical Literature's computer and another to CompuServ Information Service. We expect this in our computer age, but we are surprised to find people in the Bible described in terms of a number and correctly suspect that the numbers are something more than identification for filing purposes. In the previous chapter I introduced the concept of the "beast coming out of the sea." His description was problematic, but the one thing about him that has caused more difficulty and speculation than any of the others is his enigmatic number noted in Revelation 13:18.
It is not surprising that numbers had meaning in the symbolic world of John's vision, for they had more than numerical meaning in his outer world as well. Numbers and letters were interchangeable. For example, many rabbinic scriptures to this day do not use Arabic numerals, but instead use Hebrew letters to stand for the various verse and chapter numbers. This led some rabbis to interpret Scripture via gematria, the turning of names into numbers and vice versa. For this reason many scholars believe that the fourteen generations counted three times in Matthew 1 are related to the name David, for DVD in Hebrew (the vowels were not written) would be 4 6 4, or 14. The Greeks did a similar thing with their own alphabet. In the early Christian Sibylline Oracles Jesus is enumerated as 888. It was only with the spread first of Roman and then of Arabic numerals that this practice died out for most of the Western world.
We would expect, then, that the number 666 would stand for something, especially that it would stand for a name. One theory is that it stands for Nero Caesar. Nero is selected because he persecuted Christians and a legend arose after his suicide that he had not died, but had fled to the east and would return in triumph. Two false Neros tried to fulfill this legend and failed. Still, Nero Caesar in Greek totals 1,005, so one has to transliterate the Greek name into Hebrew to get the required 666. Did John, who wrote in Greek, expect his readers to know Hebrew or Hebrew letter values?
Two other methods to obtain the name of an emperor have been attempted. One added the values of the initial letters of the names of all of the Roman emperors up until a certain point (something that the Sibylline Oraclesalso does). Another used the abbreviation for the title of Domitian, another persecuting emperor. Unfortunately, for the first theory at least one of the emperors must be left out of the list to get an even 666 from the emperors' initials, and while we know of the abbreviations of Domitian's title, they do not appear together anywhere, which weakens the second theory.
Another solution has been via the observation that 666 is the triangular number of 36 (1 2 3 4 and on up to 36). The number 36 is the triangular number of 8 (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 36). The beast, of course, is the eighth king (Rev 17:11). Triangular numbers were seen as sinister in contrast to the square numbers, which are assigned to the martyrs (Rev 7:4) and the heavenly city (Rev 21:16). While this math is interesting and fits the Greek concern with geometry (because they did not have a mathematically useful system of numerals), it does not come up with a name. Nor can we be sure that such a complicated system was in John's mind. After all, there are other triangular numbers in Scripture that are not sinister at all, such as the 153 fish in John 21:11.
None of the solutions above has been found completely satisfactory. Perhaps the best observation is that 666 consistently (three times) falls short of the number of perfection, 7, and the number of Christ, 888. Rather than refer to a specific name, 666 may indicate that the person will be a parody of Christ. He will not come up to perfection, but as the prostitute of Revelation 17 mimics the faithful woman of Revelation 12 and the dragon in Revelation 12 mimics Christ in Revelation 19, so the beast mimics the incarnate Christ, being the embodiment of evil (the devil not being capable of true incarnation). Beyond this we can only observe that when such a personage appears, those who are wise in John's terms (which means first of all that they have divine insight) will recognize him and see that 666 does indeed fit.
In transliteration the Hebrew alphabet runs ' B G D H V for the numbers 1-6.
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