Secrets of 666, the ‘devil’s number’
IT'S described as "the number of the beast". But the New Testament's description seems somewhat tame to the image it's been given in recent years. 666 is now generally known as the mark of the 'Antichrist'.
It's appeared in books and movies. It even takes pride of place in some Halloween themes.
So what is it about this three digit number that makes it so spooky?
It's simple. It's circular. It's symmetrical.
Which makes the sense it holds some secret meaning all the more palpable.
As does the context the Apostle John wrote it in:
Revelation 13:16-18 (King James Version):
16 And he causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:
17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.
18 Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
If you think the number is part of a secret message, you'd be correct.
It's actually laid out in front of you, anyway: "Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast".
The catch lies in understanding.
'The mark of the Beast' is a cry that can be heard echoing around advances in technology, such as barcodes, credit cards and microchips, as well as proposals for new public identification systems and online records.
So is it a warning about a looming social injustice brought about by an apocalyptic Antichrist?
Or is it an old code which has become so clouded by the passage of time that its meaning now bears little resemblance to its original intent?
'HIM THAT HATH UNDERSTANDING'
666. Does the number hold a prophecy? Or is it something more direct and personal to the original authors in AD70?
Is it both?
The key to understand is the context of its times.
Those reading the apocalyptic writings - attributed to John the Apostle - would have immediately recognised the reference to "The Beast", and its association with numbers.
The Old Testament figure Daniel mentioned "Four Beasts" - each representing empires that were a threat to Israel.
So the simple mention of such a Beast would, of course, evoke the context of the time - the occupying Roman Empire.
Rome ruled Europe, North Africa and much of the Middle East. Nations such as Greece and Israel had been subjugated. Nero Caesar held the throne at the time John was writing. And he was the first to orchestrate the persecution of the upstart Christian religion.
Roman Emperors were, therefore, seen as evil incarnate.
However, it was apparent there were not 666 Roman Empires or Neros. So the number must mean something else.
The key is therefore buried somewhere in its origins.
And that origin is the language - and the era - it was written in.
The original 'number of the beast' didn't even look the way it does now.
In Roman numerals, it appeared as DCLXVI. In Latin Greek - the language the book of Revelation was written in - it was χξϛʹ. In Hebrew, it was נרון קסר.
So there goes at least some of the spooky symmetry.
Decoding the number of the beast requires understanding that both the Hebrew and Greek languages used alphabetical letters to represent numbers. They didn't have stand-alone symbols as we do now - or the clunky combination of characters the Romans used.
So, just writing down a number could generate a riddle. One the clueless Romans had little chance of catching on to.
THE NUMBER OF THE BEAST
The Hebrew "666" נרון קסר is a sum. Each part of that sum equals a character.
N = 50 R = 200 W = 6 N =50 Q = 100 S = 60 R = 200
From here, the code begins to add up.
It spells out NRWN QSR.
Given that the emperor at the time was Nero Caesar, it wasn't hard to guess which 'beast' carried that number.
It's an explanation that even survives suggestions that 666 isn't the original number of the beast anyway. Some early copies of the book of Revelation state the mark was "616".
But, given the language cipher, it appears that was the outcome - by authors who still understood the original meaning - to translate the Hebrew text into Greek Latin. In Latin numerals, Nero Caesar adds up to 616 - not 666.
But why bother being so oblique about the target of your mystical criticism?
The answer is apparent even in modern times.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has banned all images of Winnie the Pooh because some dared associate the pair's cuddly features. Such associations are desirable: those that openly criticise Xi wind up in prison, or worse.
It was the same under Ancient Rome.
Like Napoleon and Hitler, Emperor Nero was despised by those who fell under the yoke of his empire. And his excessive behaviour did little to mollify his own population, let alone those in the dominions.
His enforcers and collaborators were quick to stomp on any suggestion of subversion. The rows of crucifixes alongside most arterial roads bore silent witness to this.
So anyone who blatantly wrote "Nero Caesar is the source of all evil" could expect an unpolite knock on the door, backed up by a host of Roman Centurions.
And the 'mark' of the Beast bore personal relevance to those John was writing to.
All provincial citizens were required to carry a Roman occupation document that certified the carrier had sworn allegiance to Emperor Nero. Without it, people were not allowed to buy or sell anything, including food. And swearing that allegiance left a stain on the conscience of all who opposed him.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
Biblical scholars argue the Apostle John wrote Revelations as a captive on the Island of Patmos even as a Jewish uprising against their Roman overlords was being crushed.
Jerusalem was likely besieged. The final battle had yet to be fought.
But the prospect of almost 2000 years in exile was looming on the horizon.
His letters were full of ominous warning about events that "must shortly take place".
Naturally, anything he wrote had to be obscure to get past his Roman captors. Being blunt would merely lead to a beating - and the burning of any letter before it was sent.
As simple as the cipher was, his Roman guards apparently saw no link between 666 and their commander-in-chief.
But, as time passed, languages changed. And the same vagueness that hid the meaning of the "mark of the beast" from John's captors began to conceal his intent from more general readers.
The murk of history has added a similar sinister tone to another of John's famous quotes.
In Revelation 18:9-10, he intones:
"Here is the mind which has wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman sits, and they are seven kings; five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; and when he comes, he must remain a little while."
Some modern evangelical movements associate the 'seven mountains' as being the pillars of society. But, in John's time, the obvious meaning was less nebulous.
Rome was famous for its seven hills.
"Five have fallen, one is …" is an oblique reference to Nero, the sixth emperor of Rome.
And calling him a "Beast" was not anything new.
Nero had killed his parents, his brother and his pregnant wife. So he had … a reputation, even before he burnt down Rome.
"In my travels … I have seen many wild beasts of Arabia and India; but this beast, that is commonly called a Tyrant, I know not how many heads it has, nor if it be crooked of claw, and armed with horrible fangs …. And of wild beasts you cannot say that they were ever known to eat their own mother, but Nero gorged himself on this diet."
So wrote Apollonius of Tyana. And he wasn't even a Christian, or Jew.