The Number of the Beast

The number of the beast is 666 by William Blake

I am not a Biblical scholar or even a Bible reader. So, my interest in the idea of 666 being the “number of the beast” is certainly closer to the Dan Brown this-is-an-interesting-mystery part of me.

In manuscripts of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation (13:17-18) cryptically asserts that 666 is the “number of a man,” associated with the beast. This beast is an antagonistic creature that appears briefly about two-thirds into the apocalyptic vision. Some manuscripts of the original Greek use the symbols chi xi stigma (or digamma), while other manuscripts spell out the number in words.

The number was a way of identifying the beast without saying its name, but even saying the number 666 is reportedly a way to invoke Satan.

In much more modern popular culture, 666 has become a way of referencing the Antichrist or the Devil. In the Harry Potter book and film series, evil is represented by the character Voldemort. Almost no witch or wizard dares to speak that name. He is referred to as “You-Know-Who”, “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” or “the Dark Lord”.

In the ancient texts, the number of the beast identifies the beast from the sea, the first of two symbolic beasts described in the Book of Revelation’s thirteenth chapter. In most New Testament manuscripts, the number is rendered as 666.

One interpretation is that the number has a symbolic correlation to the Emperor Nero, whose Greek name transliterated into Hebrew has the numeric value of 666. In Revelation’s narrative, the “mark of the beast” is used to identify the beast’s acolytes (a person assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession).

Some groups interpret Revelation to mean that the mark will take the form of a number or symbol that will be revealed only during the End Times.

Revelation 13 actually describes John’s vision of two beasts. The first beast emerges from the sea having seven heads inscribed with blasphemous names (possibly reflecting the titles given to Roman emperors such as “Lord and Saviour”, “Saviour of the World”  which would be blasphemies in the eyes of Christians).

A second beast emerges from the earth and “speaks like a dragon”. The second beast will ensure that everyone is required to bear the mark of the first beast on their right hand or forehead, “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.” [Revelation 13:17]

Catholic scholars’ interpretation side with those who believe the Greek alphabet is an inaccurate way to interpret the meaning and prefer the using the Hebrew alphabet. When Nero Caesar is spelled in Hebrew letters it identifies the cipher 666. So, their conclusion is that Nero is the beast and it is not a prophesy for identifying a future Antichrist

The program Radiolab has an episode about the Oxyrhynchus Papyri which contains a fragmentary papyrus of Revelation which is considered the earliest known witness to some sections (late third / early fourth century). This papyrus assigns to the Beast 616, rather than the usual 666 and the variant 616 is found in critical editions of the Greek text, such as the Novum Testamentum Graece.

Is it strange that Emperor Nero’s Latin name written into Hebrew is 616?

In the novel, The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein, the Biblical number of the beast turns out to be, not 666, but (6^6)^6, or 10,314,424,798,490,535,546,171,949,056, which is the initial number of parallel universes accessible through a “continua device” in the book. It is later theorized by the character Jacob that the number may be merely the instantly accessible universes from a given location, and there is a larger structure that implies an infinite number of universes.

Engraving by Gustave Doré illustrating Canto XXXIV of Divine Comedy, Inferno,
by Dante Alighieri showing Lucifer, King of Hell
This is a cross-posting with my site about word origins, Why Name It That?


Published by


A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

Add to the conversation about this article

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.