Glad You Asked: What is 666 in the Bible?

On this episode of the podcast, writer and educator Alice Camille talks about the significance of numbers in the Bible, in general, and the meaning of 666 in particular.

Because the Bible is a conglomeration of diverse texts written in varied historical contexts to meet the needs of diverse audiences, its symbols and motifs might seem strange to contemporary readers. Often, readers may be tempted to impose their own interpretations on some of the more arcane details from Hebrew or Christian scripture. 

One such esoteric biblical motif is the number 666. While the original significance of 666 in biblical passages may be difficult to ascertain at a glance, that hasn’t prevented generations of readers from imposing their own meanings on this particular set of numerals. Frequently, 666 is associated with the devil, with evil forces and antichrist figures, even with various conspiracy theories. But what does 666 actually signify when it is used in scripture? Is it definitively associated with evil? How would the audiences for whom these ancient texts were written understand the number? 

On this episode of the podcast, writer and educator Alice Camille talks about the significance of numbers in the Bible, in general, and the meaning—or meanings—of 666 in particular. Camille is a nationally known and award-winning writer, religious educator, and retreat leader. She has worked in parishes and campus ministry, and published extensively on scripture, including for U.S. Catholic, in the monthly Testaments column.

Learn more about this topic, and read some of Camille’s writing, in the links below. 

The following is a transcript of this episode of Glad You Asked:

Emily: Alice, thank you so much for joining us again on Glad You Asked.

Alice: I’m always glad when people want to learn more about the Bible.

Rebecca: So to begin, could we talk a little bit about how numbers are significant in the Bible in general? Could you give some examples of numbers that have special meanings?

Alice: Yes. First, it’s important to clarify that numbers are significant because people have always liked to count things. You know, it’s good to know that writing, which was invented over 5,000 years ago, was originally created not to record history, but to keep count of our stuff. It’s as simple as that. So, we have a whole book of the Bible called Numbers for this reason because while technically it’s just another segment of the ancient story, the book of Numbers also betrays our human fascination with keeping censuses and lists and catalogs. 

It’s clear that biblical people became sort of obsessive about counting because there’s a moment in the Bible where God tells King David, pointedly, not to count the people of the nation, not to take a census at all because counting presumes ownership. That’s why we all have a bank statement. You know, but the people belong to God, not to David, so he is not to count the people. 

Still, as we know from the nursery rhyme we learned as children, “kings will remain in their counting houses, counting all their money.” People will continue to count. Taking the census of an empire is the same thing. It will be a big deal in the time of Jesus, we know. And all through the Bible, we continue to get reports of events by the numbers. But numbers are suggestive in more ways than just the literal count. You get a sense when you look at a number like four. Four represents the four directions, the four rivers that flow from the Garden of Eden. So four is totality. Four is everything there is. If your town is destroyed fourfold, that means it was wiped out from every direction. If you have four gospels by four evangelists, we can trust that we have the whole story.

But other important numbers in Scripture are three and seven, 10, 12, 40, 70, 1000, anything with a lot of round numbers after it, 144,000. All of these represent some form of completeness, that all expectations will be fulfilled if you have this number. So, for example, Jonah spends three days in the belly of a whale. It’s enough for him to learn whatever it is he has to learn.

And the Israelites march around Jericho seven times. And we have 10 commandments and 12 tribes of Israel and 40 years in the desert, 70 years of exile in Babylon, or God’s mercy extending across a thousand generations. All of these numbers are intended to suggest sufficiency and completeness. And they’re all going to be repeated in the New Testament. Jesus is raised on the third day. Four horsemen bring the apocalypse. Mary Magdalene is relieved of seven demons. Jesus chooses 12 apostles. Jesus fasts for 40 days in the desert. Seventy disciples are sent on a mission. And of course the angel of revelation binds Satan for a thousand years. So all of these numbers from the Old Testament are repeated in the New Testament. They all are to recommend totality or wholeness.

Emily: Did the significance of these numbers come from anywhere outside scripture? Were they significant already to the people, the cultures that were writing the scripture? Or did they come into being within scripture itself?

Alice: Yes, yes. In the sense that numbers are more than just counting devices. They also have symbolic value. I mean, it helps for us to remember that even our modern alphabet has a finite number of letters. There’s 26. And we can assign a numerical value to each of these letters, which is how many of us invented secret codes back when we were kids. The Hebrew alphabet also has 22 letters, the Greeks had 24, classical Latin had 23. Any of us who have ever worked with Roman numerals or have a watch that has Roman numerals on it, you know each number is actually represented by letters in the Roman period. So you can take a word, you can count out its numerical value, and you come up with a number that represents the word. Or you can do it the opposite way. You can look at a number, unpack its letters, and come up with a word.

Rebecca: So what about the number 666? Does that have a particular significance that the audiences of the book of Revelation would already have understood?

Alice: Well, the number 666 utilizes the pattern that I just described, which is known with a fancy word, gematria. So they’re counting the letters as numbers and then transforming the numbers back into letters. Ancient Hebrew only wrote the consonants down. It was always presumed that if you could read, if you were literate, you knew which vowel sounds to make between the consonants.

Unfortunately, that’s not true anymore, which is why we have the word Yahweh, which has been often pronounced as Jehovah, because the vowels are pretty much up for grabs. So in Matthew’s opening genealogy, he uses three sets of 14 generations to describe the time from Adam to the birth of Jesus. And all of this seems to point to King David. Now, how does he do this? Well, the D in David is valued at four. The V is valued at six. The second D also valued at four, so that makes 14 altogether. Remember, they’re not counting the vowels. So 14 generations from Adam to David, 14 from David to the exile, 14 from the exile to Jesus in the genealogy of Jesus. So Matthew seems to be saying with all these 14s that Jesus is the anticipated Son of David, D-V-D 14, and therefore the anointed one of God.

He is the Messiah. 666 is a little more complicated though, because if you run those numbers through the Hebrew alphabet you’ll come up with N-R-O-N-Q-S-R which would have been pronounced Neron-Kaizar which is Nero Caesar, the most reviled Roman Emperor at the time that the book of Revelations is written. So they were pointing to Nero Caesar, and anybody who knew numerology and how it works and knew the Hebrew, would know that’s what 666 represents.

Emily: So how did we get from Nero Caesar to ideas like 666 being the mark of the beast?

Alice: The beast. Okay, so the beast shows up in the book of Revelations from chapter 11 through 19. There are actually two beasts, in fact. The first one rises up out of the sea and the second one has power over the land. Now the sea in the Bible always references original chaos. You know, the waters of the abyss that govern before God organized creation. So the sea is always the source of confusion, and the beast on land transfers this malevolence into secular power and secular control. Now at the time that Revelation was written, the only real authority in the world, in the known world anyway, was Rome. So the reference is even made more clear in chapter 17 when the harlot is riding the beast and the beast has seven heads that are associated with seven hills, it says, and Rome is built on seven hills. So that’s very clear. The so-called mark of the beast though might be better thought of as the characteristics of the beast or the characteristics in the world that betray the presence of the beast, the presence of evil. Now I don’t want to confuse this issue, but just think of the four marks of the church which we always talk about, you know, one holy Catholic and apostolic. When you see these four characteristics present, you know you’re dealing with the authentic church. So similarly, the mark of the beast would be an indication that you’re dealing with something really unholy when you see these characteristics.

Rebecca: So how does the beast and the number 666 connect with this other idea we have of the Antichrist? Who is the Antichrist?

Alice: Right, good question. There’s no way to exaggerate just how monstrous the Emperor Nero was in his time. You know, he is the first emperor to have Christian blood on his hands. He’s very obviously against Christ in this sense because he’s against the Christians. Nero is the killer of Saints Peter and Paul, not to mention having had a torch ceremony in his gardens which was composed of the living bodies of Christians that were set on fire for his garden party. Nero blames the great fire that burns Rome down on a Christian attack, but it’s largely agreed by historians that Nero actually caused the fire himself. And then later on when Nero commits suicide, the rumor arises that he’s going to be resurrected from the dead. And three imposters actually do claim to be the return of Nero, until about twenty years after his death, and this claim would have been blasphemous to the Christians. So all of this makes Nero clearly the Antichrist to them. But then we come to a late text called the testament of Hezekiah. Now Hezekiah in the Bible is a king during the generation of the prophet Isaiah. But his so-called testament was written around the end of the first century AD part of a larger document called the Martyrdom and Ascension of Isaiah, clearly not written by Isaiah because this is written 800 years after Isaiah died. And it’s Isaiah in this testament of Hezekiah that prophesies about the end of the world, and it’s Isaiah that brings up the Antichrist, as well as a future king that pretty much fits the description of Nero in his time. This text would have been written at the same time that Nero was killing the Christians. But another text, the Sibylline Oracles, which was composed by both Christians and Jews in the early second century, also identifies Nero as an Antichrist figure. Even as late as Augustine in the fourth century.

We’re still dealing with rumors that Nero is the Antichrist who is going to return soon. But Augustine, in his wisdom, he’s reluctant to give a jerk like Nero that kind of power. So he says, no, Nero is not the 666. He is not the Antichrist. Other church fathers like Irenaeus dismissed the idea that Nero could be the Antichrist because there were a lot of atrocities that were committed in the first four centuries by emperors like Caligula or Domitian or even Pompey the Great. All of these guys would qualify as Christ killers or Christ killing powers in the early Christian world. Any of them could have been the Antichrist that is indicated.

Emily: So we associate 666 specifically with Revelation, but is it alluded to in other Bible passages as well?

Alice: 666 itself is not, but the Antichrist, which by the way is a word that’s never mentioned in Revelation, the word Antichrist does appear in the first and second letters of John, which was composed possibly in the early second century after Jesus. So to John, the Antichrist is anybody who denies the Father and the Son, or anybody who denies that Jesus is the Divine Son.

So being anti-Christ, against the Spirit of Christ, obviously can’t be explicit in the Old Testament since Christ hasn’t come into the world yet to face a counter-spirit of that kind. However, the roots of this idea could be traced to the prophecies of Daniel, specifically in chapter 11. Daniel’s prophecies, of course, are a source of many elements that we find in the book of Revelation. It says that a king of the north will come and persecute the saints and put many to death. And this northern king is going to make himself a god, and he’s even going to place an abomination in the Jerusalem temple. Well, this king was meant by the writers of Daniel to represent Antiochus VI. He was a bad guy at the time that these prophecies were written. But later on in the first century AD, the historian Josephus identifies Antiochus VI as basically a forerunner of Nero, and he says they were both basically Antichrist. It really depends on what generation. I think if we looked for an Antichrist spirit, some spirit that was against the Christ today, we could come up with a variety of people. If you play with the numbers enough, you can make it work.

Rebecca: And a lot of people like to do that, often reading the Bible very literally and assuming that it’s always a prophecy having to do with us right now. And it seems like they’re missing some historical context there. So what historical context is important for understanding the book of Revelation and the symbolism there, like 666?

Alice: Well, I think the most useful idea that I have read on the subject is that the original mark of the beast has economic significance in the book of Revelation. This is a very interesting idea to me. If you have this mark, it says in Revelation, or if you’re identified with the name of the beast in any way, it says you’re going to be able to navigate the economic system profitably. And if you don’t carry the mark, you won’t be able to fare well or engage the wealth of the system, the wealth of the nation. So it’s about power, and it’s about wealth. We can choose to spend our time with numerology, I think, trying to identify which world leader or which pope or which celebrated historical figure has the right numerical count to be the beast. You know, we can spend our time counting the names of pop stars and decide which one is the beast.

Or, I think we can acknowledge that the beast already moves among us. Because the giveaway, according to the book of Revelation, is always who is prospering in a manifestly unjust economy.

Emily: I think that’s a good place to leave the conversation. Alice, thank you so much for being our guest and for such a great conversation.

Alice: Thank you.

Glad You Asked is sponsored by the Claretian Missionaries.