For many Evangelical Christians who believe the end of the world is coming soon, there is perhaps nothing more fascinating than trying to decipher what could be “signs of the times”. Topics such as the Tribulation, the Rapture, and the Anti-Christ capture the imagination of pop-culture Christianity, but perhaps none more so than the Mark of the Beast. Is it a barcode? Is it a microchip? Is it a one-world currency?
It [the beast] forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.
There are so many interesting questions: Who is the Beast? What is his Mark? Where does the number 666 come from? When will it come? How will it be given to everyone? While there have been a lot of theories throughout the last few decades, Biblical scholars have come to a widely believed consensus. We will examine this theory and you can decide for yourself what you think.
What is Revelation?
The book of the Bible called Revelation was originally a letter written in the first century by a man named John while living in exile on the island of Patmos to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia (Revelation 1:4). Ancient and modern interpreters have typically dated Revelation to the reigns of Nero (AD 54–68) or Domitian (AD 81–96). Many readers struggle with or misinterpret Revelation because they misunderstand its literary genre. The initial verses indicate that this work belongs to three kinds of ancient literature: apocalypse, prophecy, and epistle, each of which is important for considering the sort of book Revelation is and how we should interpret it.
The name “Revelation” comes from the Greek word “apokalypsis” which means “to make fully known, or reveal.” This is why the letter starts off with the phrase, “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Much of the letter is written in the style of “apocalyptic literature” which was popular in post-Exilic Jewish culture. Apocalypses feature revelatory visions within a narrative framework; they utilize symbolic, figurative, and metaphoric language; and interpret present, earthly circumstances in light of supernatural, heavenly realities. The English word “apocalypse”, which originally didn’t mean “end of the world”, comes from this ancient style of writing.
Revelation was written to real historical Church communities living near the end of the first century and had applicable purpose and meaning for their lives. John starts his letter stating that the revelation was to show God’s servants “what must soon take place” and to “take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near“ (Revelation 1:1-3). John was describing through the genre of apocalyptic literature what was about to happen soon—in the first century. John is explicit throughout his letter that there is an urgency to his message. It is said eight times that the events described will happen soon (Revelation 1:1, 2:16, 3:11, 11:14, 22:6, 22:7, 22:12, 22:20). He also uses phrases like “the time is near,” “without delay,” and “about to” (Revelation 1:3, 2:10, 3:2, 3:16, 10:6, 22:10). We cannot ignore the time-frame that John had in mind that God communicated to him. As we will see, it is key to interpreting what he is talking about with the Mark of the Beast.
The Two Beasts
Revelation was written by a political prisoner. If the letter’s contents had something bad to say about his captors, John had to make it mysterious, coded, and not easy to understand. Nearly all of Revelation is highly symbolic, nearly none of it is literal. A lot of these symbols are mysterious, many can be deciphered, and some are even self-interpreted by the text itself. When he is able, John flat out tells us what some of the symbols represent (Revelation 1:20, 4:5, 5:6, 5:8, 7:13-14, 11:4, 14:3-4, 17:9-10, 19:8, 20:5, 20:14). As we will see, John gives us many clues for how to interpret what he means about the two beasts described in Chapter 13 of Revelation.
The First Beast out of the Sea
The first beast looks like a leopard but with feet like a bear and a mouth like a lion (13:2). It has 7 heads and 10 horns with 10 crowns; each head has a blasphemous name (13:1). This beast’s power, throne, and authority comes from the dragon (13:2). The beast has such great authority that no one can wage war against it, which causes everyone to worship it (13:4). One of the seven heads of the beast had a fatal wound but was healed (13:3), though this head is also described as the entire first beast (13:12). The beast was allowed to exercise its authority for 42 months (13:5). Everyone who doesn’t belong to the lamb worships the beast (13:8). This beast was given power to wage war against God’s people and to conquer them (13:7).
The Second Beast out of the Earth
The second beast has two horns like a lamb but speaks like the dragon (13:11). This second beast causes everyone to worship the first beast and performed great signs (13:12-13). It deceived people into worshiping the first beast or else suffer death (13:14-15). It forced everyone to receive a mark on their forehead or right hand in order to buy and sell (13:16-17).
Who Are The Beasts?
Before we go looking into the future or into the recent past, we should take seriously all the times that the author of Revelation tried to tell his readers that the events he was about to describe would take place soon. If what he wrote was true for those he wrote the letter to (the seven churches), then we should start our search for the beasts in the time period that John claims. This, after all, has been the way the majority of Church history has understood Revelation.1
This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which [the great prostitute] sits. They are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for only a little while.
The imagery of beasts has a nature of fluidity to it in John’s writings. Sometimes it seems to describe a person or multiple people, other times it seems to describe a nation (Revelation 13:18, 17:9-10). Through much of Church history, people have understood the beasts in Revelation 13 & 17 to refer to Rome and emperor Nero. Rome was widely known as the “City on Seven Hills” or, as it was called in antiquity, the Septimontium, connecting it with Revelation 17:9. John describes the Great Prostitute as sitting on seven heads which are the seven hills (Rome). But John also says there are seven kings. So he has already deciphered some of his symbolic language already for us. He tells us that of those seven kings, five have fallen, one is, and the other has not come yet but when he does it will just be for a little while. Here is how that lines up with Rome’s history and its first seven emperors:
“Five have fallen”
- Julius Caesar (49-44 BC)
- Augustus (27 BC-AD 14)
- Tiberius (AD 14-37)
- Gaius (AD 37-41)
- Claudius (AD 41-54)
- Nero (AD 54-68)
“not yet come, but then only for a little while”
- Galba (June AD 68 – January AD 69, a six-month reign)
If John is describing the first seven emperors of Rome, then Nero would be the king who “is”. The fact that his successor, Galba, only remained emperor for six months lends a lot of credibility to this theory, but there is a lot more to consider. Does Nero fit the description of a “beast”?
Caesar Nero the Beast
Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, more commonly known by his adoptive name, Nero, stands in the sixth spot in the line of Roman kings that John the Revelator mentions in his description of the beast. Nero is considered by historians to be a complete psychopath. In AD 64 he burned down a third of Rome and blamed it on the Christians, launching a nation-wide persecution campaign against them. Nero was notorious for being grotesquely violent. He murdered his own family members, including his parents, brother, and aunt. He kicked his pregnant wife to death. He married a boy named Sporus and castrated him. He enjoyed homosexual rape and torture. His bizarre and perverted lust for violence was noted by the historian Suetonius, who wrote that Nero even devised a kind of game, in which, covered with the skin of some wild animal, he was let loose from a cage and attacked the genitals of men and women, who were bound to stakes.2
As described by ancient historians, Nero is a singularly cruel and unrestrained man of evil. Many ancient writers cite the bestial character of Nero. Tactus spoke of Nero’s “cruel nature” that “put to death so many innocent men.” Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder described Nero as “the destroyer of the human race” and “the poison of the world.” Roman satirist Juvenal speaks of “Nero’s cruel and bloody tyranny.” Apollonius of Tyana specifically mentions that Nero was called a “beast”: “In my travels, which have been wider than ever man yet accomplished, I have seen many 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 has gorged himself on this diet.” Lactantius speaks of him as “an execrable and pernicious tyrant” and a “noxious wild beast.”3
The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months.
John claims that the beast exercised its authority for 42 months, but Nero reigned for 164 months. At first glance, it seems that Nero doesn’t fit Revelation’s description. But what if John is referring specifically to the beast’s “power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them” (Revelation 13:7)? Nero started his persecution of Christians about the middle or latter part of November AD 64. The intense persecution of the early Church ended with Nero’s life. Nero’s madness would eventually lead to his suicide on the ninth of June, AD 68. This means that the persecution lasted 3 ½ years, or 42 months. This fits John’s description perfectly (Revelation 13:5).
The Death and Resurrection of Rome
Revelation claims that “If anyone kills with the sword, with the sword they will be killed” (13:10). Nero killed with the sword and was killed by the sword: his own. Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian line of emperors; the line ended, and it would have seemed, symbolically, as if the head of the empire had been wounded to death. Immediately after Nero’s suicide, due to the newly created power vacuum, the Roman Empire was hurled into civil wars of horrible ferocity and dramatic proportions. These civil wars would strike everyone as being the very death throes of Rome. Before the world’s startled eyes, the seven-headed Beast (Rome) was toppling to its death as its sixth head (Nero) was mortally wounded with the sword.
One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed.
The year following Nero’s death has historically been called the “Year of the Four Emperors.” Galba reigned 7 months and was killed the Praetorian Guard. Otho took his place but killed himself 3 months later. Vitellius would become emperor next for 8 months before being killed by his own soldiers. Vespasian took the throne next and would reign 10 years before dying of natural causes. But during the unrest of AD 69, many thought the Roman Empire was about to die. This was a very painful year for Rome, and many thought the beast of the Roman Empire had been wounded unto death. This was the most tumultuous time in Roman history so far. But Rome wasn’t finished, in what appeared to be a miraculous turn-around, the Empire was revived under Vespasian and then Titus. When they came into power, they established the Flavian dynasty of Caesars. Instead of the beast dying, it was resurrected. The beast seemed to have a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed (Revelation 13:3).
The Mark on Hands and Foreheads
It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark…
Since there is a lot of Old Testament symbolism used as code in Revelation, we should look there first for any references to a “mark” on hands or foreheads. Typically, in Scripture, the “right hand” is a symbolic term used to denote a position of power. The Lord is said to be at one’s “right hand” (Psalm 16:8, 73:23, 121:5; Isaiah 41:13, 45:1, 63:12; Acts 2:25), so the right hand is symbolic for who your Lord is, who you obey and have allegiance to. The “right hand” symbolizes the power of God (Exodus 15:6, 12; Psalm 16:11, 17:7, 18:35, 20:6, 48:10, 60:5, 63:8, 77:10, 98:1, 118:15-16, 139:10; Isaiah 41:10, 48:13, 62:8; Ezekiel 21:22; Habakkuk 2:16; Acts 5:31), and also specifically the power of Jesus (Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62). Jesus is said to be at the “right hand” of the Father (Psalm 110:1, 5; Matthew 22:44; Mark 12:36, 16:19; Luke 20:42, 22:69; Acts 2:33-34, 7:55-56; Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 13; 8:1, 10:12, 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). The combination of a seal/sign/mark on the hand and forehead is also seen numerous times in Scripture (Exodus 13:9, Deuteronomy 11:18).
It will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.
Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.
The mark of the beast isn’t the only mark in Revelation either. In contrast to the mark of the beast, in chapter 9 we read about the mark of God.
They were to hurt only the men who did not have the mark of God on their foreheads.
The concept of marking is a spiritual metaphor of ownership. For example, Paul talks about those marked by the Holy Spirit in Ephesians 1:13. Revelation is comparing and contrasting those owned by the Beast with those owned by God. There is no reason to interpret the “mark” as literal when we don’t interpret the beast to be a literal animal with 7 heads. Even if you do want to take the mark literally, as some do, there are more clues that may help us understand what the mark was.
Needed to Buy and Sell
While the word “mark” clearly has symbolic meaning, what if it also has literal meaning? After all, John says that his contemporaries were unable to buy or sell without this mark. The word for mark in the Greek is “charagma” which means “engraved, etched, or imprinted.”4 Around the time that Revelation was written the Roman currencies being used had engravings of Caesar on them (Mark 12:16). During the reign of Nero his portrait appeared on coins appearing like the god Apollo, often inscribed with the words “son of god”.5 To John, as a former Jew, this was considered blasphemous (Exodus 20:4).
Everyone, rich and poor, slave and free, had to use this Roman currency marked with the image of Nero.
Rome openly proclaimed that its rulers, the Caesars, were divine gods or sons of god. All those under the jurisdiction of Rome (such as the early Church) were required by law to publicly proclaim their allegiance to Caesar by burning a pinch of incense and declaring, “Caesar is Lord.” Upon compliance with this law, the people were given a papyrus document called a “libellus,” which they were required to present when either stopped by the Roman police or attempting to engage in commerce in the Roman marketplace, increasing the difficulty of “buying or selling” without this mark.6
What’s more, worshipping or nor worshipping the empire and its Caesar was quickly becoming the dividing line between people who were considered acceptable in the community and people who weren’t. Many local officials introduced a daily formal requirement that unless you offered the proper tribute to Rome you weren’t even allowed through the market gates.7 This would be the equivalent of having to pledge your allegiance to the American flag before going into the grocery store. After homage was paid to the empire and its king, ashes were placed on the hand or the forehead of the individual and entrance into the markets was permitted. This was called “taking the mark”.8 Since Christians declared that Jesus was Lord, meaning that anyone else was not, taking the mark was a sign of betrayal against God. Followers of Jesus were faced with a difficult choice: stay true to the Lamb and risk losing your livelihood or offer your allegiance to the beast and everything will be alright.
Six Hundred and Sixty-Six
…unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.
The mark required to buy and sell has a clear meaning. The mark of the beast is the name of a man represented by a number: 666. The mark is the number 666 and John’s readers were told to calculate it. This number may be the key to understanding who the beast is. So let’s talk about numbers and how they were used in the first century.
In ancient days alphabets served two purposes. Their first purpose was to create words, but secondly, the letters were also assigned a numerical value. You may have already heard of “Roman numerals” such as “I” (1), “V” (5), “X” (10), and so on. Most ancient languages at the time functioned in the same way. That is how John’s mark of the beast, who is a man, can be both a name/word and a number. Because of the two-fold function of letters, numerical “cryptograms” were fairly common in antiquity. Among the Greeks it was called isopsephia (numerical equality); among the Jews it was called gimatriya (mathematical). Any given name or word could be reduced to its numerical equivalent by adding up the mathematical value of all of the letters of the name. For example, a cryptogram discovered in excavations from Pompeii, which was buried by a volcanic eruption in AD 79. In Greek the inscription written was: philo es arithmos ph m e (“I love her whose number is 545”).9 This, of course, is just one interesting example of countless that can be found in Hellenistic and Rabbinic literature.
If we were to take Nero’s name in Greek (Νέρων Καῖσαρ) and add up the letters in his name it adds up to 1005. That doesn’t quite match 666. But remember, John was a political prisoner in the custody of the Greek-speaking Romans. It would have been wiser for him to use another language like Hebrew, which was much less commonly known at the time.10 In Hebrew, Nero’s name (נרון קסר) when transliterated into English letters is “Nrwn Qsr”. This is the way it was found to be spelled in Hebrew in the Talmud and other Rabbinical writings.11 When converted to numbers, Nero’s name adds up to exactly 666.
|Hebrew Letter||Numerical Value|
If that isn’t convincing enough: there is an intriguing textual variant that appeared very early in Revelation’s manuscript history. These variants rendered the mark of the beast number as 616 rather than 666. Many highly respected scholars believe this change was intentional, rather than due to a scribal error.12 This change to 616 occurred when the Bible was being copied in Latin and appears in other historical writings.13 In the Latin form Nero Caesar (נרו קסר) adds up to 616 instead of 666. This change allowed for the cryptogram to be deciphered by contemporary Christians whose main language was Latin. Early Christians wanted their brothers and sisters to know who the beast was and were willing to update the Bible in order to do that.
Following The Beast
While John and his first readers identified the beast with Rome, Nero, and other Caesars, the woman who sat upon them all was called “Babylon the Great”. Throughout Scripture, Babylon is used as the archetype of human-government and the evils of powerful empires. John is saying what all his readers already knew: Rome was another Babylon. Today we have to realize that just as Babylon was the world’s most powerful empire, and Rome was the world’s most powerful empire, America is the world’s most powerful empire. Revelation is, first and foremost, a critique of empire.14 America is the newest Babylon and Revelation calls us out of it.
Fallen! Fallen is Babylon the Great!
She has become a dwelling for demons
and a haunt for every impure spirit…
The kings of the earth committed adultery with her,
and the merchants of the earth grew rich from her excessive luxuries.
Come out of her, my people,
so that you will not share in her sins,
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
and God has remembered her crimes.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is that there is a new nation where God is King. This nation is in opposition to Babylon. Scripture claims that empires like America are ruled by Satan. The letter we call the book of Revelation was and is a promise to God’s people that Jesus will be victorious over empire. Our baptism is the sign of our new citizenship in God’s nation and our exodus out of Babylon. The Kingdom of God frees us from empires like America that kill thousands of innocent people daily. By focusing on barcodes, micro-chips, and possible one-world currencies we miss the beast right in front of us.
Babylon is no more, Egypt is no more, Persia is no more, Greece is no more, Rome is no more; and one day America will be no more. Do not be owned by the beast, do not pledge allegiance to it and in doing so take its mark. Declare that Babylon has fallen. Come out of her, my people.
- All the earliest Christian writers on the Apocalypse, from Irenaeus down to Victorinus of Pettau and Commodian in the fourth, and Andreas in the Fifth, and St. Beatus in the eighth century, connect Nero, or some Roman Emperor, with the Apocalyptic Beast. Farrar, The Early Days of Christianity, 471– 472.
- Suetonius, Suetonius: The Lives of the Caesars, trans. J. C. Rolfe, 2 vols., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge and London: Harvard University, 1914), 2: 133 (6.29). Quoted in Gentry, The Beast of Revelation, 17.
- Tacitus, The Histories, trans. Clifford H. Moore, 2 vols., Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann / Cambridge: Harvard University, 1931), 2: 17, 15( 4.8,7); Pliny, Natural History, trans. Harris Rackham and W. H. S. Jones, 10 vols., Loeb Classical Library (London: Heinemann / Cambridge: Harvard University, 1938– 63), 2: 537 (7.8.46), 6: 359 (22.46.92); Juvenal, Satires, in Juvenal and Persius, trans. G. G. Ramsay, rev. ed., Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge and London: Harvard University, 1940), 177 (8.223); Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 4.38. Quoted in Gentry, The Beast of Revelation, 42. Cf. Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, the Epistles of Apollonius and the Treatise of Eusebius, ed. J. S. Phillimore, 2 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University, 1912), 1: 437– 39.
- William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1077.
- C. H. V. Sutherland, Coinage in Roman Imperial Policy, 31 BC – AD 68 (1951), p. 170, plate 16: 6. See also: Henderson, Nero, p. 394. M. Grant, Roman Imperial Money (1954) and Roman History from Coins (1958).
- Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- Tom Wright, Revelation for Everyone, For Everyone Bible Study Guides (London; Louisville, KY: SPCK; Westminster John Knox, 2011), 121.
- Welton, Jonathan. Raptureless: Third Edition 2015.
- ‘The name of the lover is concealed; the beloved will know it when she recognises her name in the sum of the numerical value of the 3 letters ph m e, i.e., 545 (ph = 500 + m = 40 + e = 5). But the passing stranger does no know in the very least who the beloved is, nor does the 19th century investigator know which of the many Greek feminine names she bore. For he does not know how many letters there are in the name which gives us the total of 545 when added numerically.’ Cited in Oskar Ruhle, “arithmeo” in Gerhard Kittel, ed., TDNT, trans. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 462. See also: Miller Burrows, What Mean These Stones? (New Haven: American Schools of Oriental Research, 1941), p. 270.
- ‘Even though most in John’s audience did not know Hebrew, some no doubt did and could have explained the mystery to others. More importantly, John knew Hebrew and no doubt understood the significance of this number in his vision by Hebrew consonants rather than by Greek letters.’ Robert W. Wall, Revelation, Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 173–175.
- Moses Stuart, A commentary on the Apocalypse, 1861.
- ‘When Greek letters are used as numerals the difference between 666 and 616 is merely a change from ξ to ι (666 = χξς and 616 = χις). Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Nero Caesar written in Hebrew characters (נרון קסר) is equivalent to 666, whereas the Latin form Nero Caesar (נרו קסר) is equivalent to 616.’ Bruce Manning Metzger, United Bible Societies, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Second Edition a Companion Volume to the United Bible Societies’ Greek New Testament (4th Rev. Ed.) (London; New York: United Bible Societies, 1994), 676. For a more thorough discussion of this textual variant and the significance of the number, see Aune, Revelation 6–16, pp. 722, 770–73; Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, pp. 384–407; and Smalley, The Revelation to John, pp. 350–53.
- Such as Irenaeus and the Donatist Tyconius. See: Textual Apparatus, ad. loc., in Aland, The Greek New Testament, p. 869. Also see: Metzger, Textual Commentary, pp. 751-752.
- Gorman, Michael J.. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation. Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers.