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Contra Mundum: The Number of the Beast

December 1st, 2010 by Matt

The OmenRecently TV3 screened The Omen. This classic horror is a about a boy called Damian who is the predicted anti-Christ and appropriately has the number 666 on his head. This film epitomises how the book of Revelation is understood in contemporary culture; apparently it predicts a future person, the beast or the anti-Christ who will take over the world. Associated with this is the number 666 which is literally inscribed into people’s heads or hands.  I think this pop-theology is mistaken.

The relevant section in Revelation says:

And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority… The whole world was astonished and followed the beast. Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?” (Rev 13:1-2, 3b-4)

The text proceeds:

Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast … He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. This calls for wisdom. If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666. (Rev 13:11,16-18)

Most English translations mention the number 666, this is an accurate translation of the number contained in many Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Lesser known, is that some manuscripts contain the number 616 (the significance of this will be explored later).  What is noteworthy, is that the passages quoted above contain imagery, no one, to my knowledge, understands them to refer to an actual seven-headed monster.

In this type of genre, the ancient style of writing called Apocalyptic has imagery that is well known and can be fairly easy to interpret.  The first beast is said to [1] get its authority from the dragon, [2] resemble a leopard, a bear and a lion, [3] have 7 heads and 10 horns; we know also that [4] everyone will worship this beast and no one can defeat it in battle.

Understanding [1] is fairly straightforward. The dragon is identified as “the ancient serpent” an allusion to the story of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis; there the serpent is a crafty creature that tempts Adam and Eve to try to be like God and encourages them to disobey God’s commands.

The imagery in [2] is drawn from the book of Daniel:

Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. “The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a man, and the heart of a man was given to it.”  “And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, ‘Get up and eat your fill of flesh!’ “After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule.” After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast–terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns. (Dan 7:3-7)

What this imagery means is explicitly explained in the text:

I approached one of those standing there and asked him the true meaning of all this. So he told me and gave me the interpretation of these things: The four great beasts are four kingdoms that will rise from the earth. (Dan 7:16-17) [Emphasis added]

The lion, leopard and bear in Daniel symbolise kingdoms and are probably a reference to the Babylonian, Medio-Persian and Macedonian empires respectively. The first beast in Revelation 13 is a composite of these beasts and is therefore a world empire.

The symbolism in [3] is explained in the text:

This calls for a mind with wisdom. The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits. There are also seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while. The beast who once was, and now is not, is an eighth king. He belongs to the seven and is going to his destruction. The ten horns you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but who for one hour will receive authority as kings along with the beast. (Rev 17:9-14)

The seven heads have two meanings. First, they “are seven hills on which the woman sits,” the women in context symbolises a city. An ancient reader would have immediately got the point; in the first century Rome was famous for being a city built on seven hills. The world empire then is Rome.

Second, the seven heads symbolise “seven kings. Five have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come; but when he does come, he must remain for a little while.” If one follows the order of Suetonius and other apocalyptic writings, the first king of Rome was Julius Caesar, the second was Augustus, the third Tiberius, the fourth Caligula, the fifth was Claudius, the sixth who “now is” would then be Nero Caesar, the seventh who “has not yet come” but who will “remain for a little while” would be Galba who reigned for seven months. Nero a brutal maniacal dictator had among other things established the emperor cult in Rome setting up a statute of himself; the emperor and empire was worshipped as a god. [4] Tells us the empire is being worshipped and which no one can defeat in battle.

Now we get to the number 666. In Greek and Latin the letters and numbers are interchangeable; for this reason one can add up the letters of peoples names to get numerical figures that stand for their name. In Hebrew writings a system of Gematria developed (though it is also found in Greek and Roman writings) whereby a person would assign a numerical value to a word or phrase. Interestingly, when the Greek word Nero Caesar is translated into Hebrew, the system of Gematria yields the number 666. If one transliterates the Latin instead of the Greek one gets 616; Identifying the beast with Nero also explains why some manuscripts have 666 and others 616. In the first century, Greek was the international language of the Roman Empire and was native to much of the eastern empire. Latin, however, was the language of the Romans. If the beast was Nero, some Christian communities would cite his name in Greek and others would use Latin.

The second beast has “two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon.” The lamb in Revelation refers to Christ; this is an institution that appears Christian but in fact tempts people into doing wrong. It exercises “all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast” suggesting it was in fact acting on behalf of the Roman Empire advocating that people worship the Emperor. The reference to a mark on one’s hand and forehead is used in the Old Testament frequently as an idiom for devotion and appears to be used in this way in  Revelation 14:1, the very next verse. Consequently, the text warns against false prophets who – claiming to speak on behalf of God – command people to worship the state.

Revelation is about statism; it warns that when a state makes itself into an empire, dominates the world by military power and demands absolute allegiance and devotion from human beings, it has then become satanic. Religious organisations that advocate this sort of statism may appear Christian but are, in fact, a dangerous temptation. Fidelity to God means refusing to give absolute obedience to human rulers.  This message may not be popular on TV3 but it is an important message, one that should not be clouded or distorted by fantastical movies about a psycho child with an odd birth mark.

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled “Contra Mundum.” This blog post was published in the Dec 10 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

Contra Mundum: Pluralism and Being Right
Contra Mundum: Abraham and Isaac and the Killing of Innocents
Contra Mundum: Selling Atheism
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?
Contra Mundum: Fairies, Leprechauns, Golden Tea Cups & Spaghetti Monsters
Contra Mundum: Secularism and Public Life
Contra Mundum: Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness
Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament

Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro

Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus

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29 responses so far ↓

  • I almost went to sleep reading your Investigate Magazine contribution. The one good line was highlighted at the start and I was, on behalf or our South Auckland Seventh Dayers, disappointed that you did not identify the Catholic (Latin for Correct) church and theologians as the Anti Christ because of the Satanic Cruix when the Greek word means Straight! I do identify with a few things on the afore referred to blog keep up the good work love paul.

  • The Catholic Church as the Anti-Christ is Protestant mythology. Matt’s piece explained who the Beast of Revelation is. Revelation makes no reference to the Anti-Christ, the only mention is in one of John’s epistles but there the reference is to Anti-Christs [plural] which he identifies as existing in his time and indicates that they are anyone who denies or teaches that Christ did not come in the flesh.
    The Catholic church, for all the ways we Protestants part ways with it, does not deny or teach that Christ did not come in the flesh, neither was it established at the time John was writing, therefore, it is not one of the Anti-Christs John was referring to and it certainly was not the Beast of Revelation.
    Being Protestant means a holding to a firm commitment to sola scriptura (scripture alone) – erroneous tradition, mythology based on political issues within the church from the past and really poor exegesis is an affront to sola scriptura.

  • Can you give me an example of statism in a modern liberal democracy? Are there any or is that term only relevant in states such as the Third Reich and modern North Korea?

  • I don’t disagree with your exegesis, Matt, but I think it is unwise to suggest that there is only a single level of meaning to apocalyptic literature. Typically, scripture has a plain, face value meaning (which you have ably described here) and a spiritual (but not spiritualised) meaning.

    The usual illustration of this is the story of Melchizedek which has both a factual meaning and (as demonstrated in Hebrews) a spiritual meaning prefiguring Jesus.

    The same occurs in this passage which not only talks about Rome, but also about the methodology of Satan. In this case the number and the methods of the beast clearly demonstrate that Satan’s strategy always revolves around drawing mankind into self worship and humanistic thought patterns. For example, the Woman is later identified as Babylon, perhaps the most potent symbol of man setting himself up as God. The second beast has features of a lamb (a christ-figure) but speaks like the serpent, symbolizing people who claim to be christians but espouse humanist ideals.

    While we should certainly reject the “left behind” science-fiction of Tim La Haye, I would hate to see Revelation taught as a book that is solely about how nasty Rome and Nero were. I suspect that was not your intent, but I thought I would like to make it clear that the book really is a revelation…

  • A very informative work in this respect is the book “He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology” (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1992), written by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. In particular relevant are the chapters “The Antichrist” (pp. 370-374), “The Beast of Revelation” (pp. 374-378), “The Great Harlot” (pp. 378-383) and “Revelation” (pp. 394-421). In general the author arrives at the same conclusions as Matt and Madeleine. Unlike Matt he sees the woman on the seven hills as a symbol for Jerusalem and not for Rome.

  • You guys might enjoy this promo I shot for a sermon series on Revelation’s use of numbers…

  • Not a bad little column Matt.

    One thing though, I would suggest that the ancient reader would have more likely viewed the woman riding on the beast as Jerusalem, and the beast she was riding on as Rome.

    The beast is the same Gentile sea beast from Rev 13:1 (same ten horns and seven heads)

    The ten horns are the ten kings of the provinces of Rome (Italy, Achaia, Asia, Syria, Egypt, Africa, Spain, Gaul, Britain and Germany)

    In regards to the great harlot being Jerusalem…

    When John talks about her being drunk with the blood of the saints and the witnesses to Jesus he is simply echoing the words of Christ in Matt 23:37 – 38

    “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you,”

    Images of harlotry were commonly assigned to Jerusalem by the prophets…

    Isaiah calls Jerusalem a harlot in Isaiah 1:21

    “See how the faithful city has become a harlot! She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her— but now murderers!”

    Jeremiah, Ezekiel also condemn Jerusalem for acting as a harlot

    Hosea even took it a step further and married an adulterous woman to demonstrate the unfaithfulness of Israel

    The reference to the whore of Babylon being seated on many waters in 17:1 is a reference to Jerusalem, which was well known for its abundance of spring water – which is one of the reasons that Jerusalem was such a difficult city to conquer, because they had enough fresh water inside the city to endure a long siege

    17:9 John tells us that the seven heads of the beast are the seven hills upon which the woman is seated”

    Jerusalem is actually a city built on seven hills

    Josephus gives us their names:

    “Zion, Acra, Moriah, Bezetha, Millo, Ophel and Antonio”

    Rev 17:18 – Jerusalem also enjoyed great influence in the ancient Roman Empire – Josephus tells us that:

    “the royal city Jerusalem was supreme, and presided over all neighbouring countries as the head does over the body”

    Rev 17:4 – Jerusalem was smack bang in the middle of a major trade route and this brought tremendous wealth into Jerusalem

    Finally, John tells us in 17:16 that the beast that the woman has been riding on will turn on her and attack her

    Which is exactly what Emperor Vespasian does in 70AD (actually starting in 67AD when he was only a general).

  • One other thing, on top of what has already been said here about the Catholic Church…

    The temporal home of the Catholic Church is actually Vatican Hill, which is NOT one of the seven hills of Rome.

    Just thought I’d point that important fact out!

  • But presumably we all agree that there’s quite a bit of stuff in the book that hasn’t happened yet? Right? So where are we exactly?

  • Well the new heaven and new earth has not occurred yet…

  • “But presumably we all agree that there’s quite a bit of stuff in the book that hasn’t happened yet? Right? So where are we exactly?”

    For sure, but there isn’t just one dimension to Scripture, especially not when it comes to apocalyptic writings.

    The Book of Revelation contains some important theological teachings, and it also had a historical fulfillment with the destruction of the Jewish Temple in 70AD, and the events leading up to that point in the life of the early church.

    And just for good measure, it will also be fulfilled again at the end of time with the arrival of the one final anti-Christ, etc.

    I also know of a series of excellent lectures which use the book of Revelation as an analogy for the various philosophical errors which have plagued humanity and which have led us away from the truth since the time of Christ.

    Like all Scripture, the book of Revelation is a multi-layered writing, which has much truth to proclaim, and it could be ceaselessly fathomed for riches until Christ comes back again.

    As to where we are up to now, well that’s up to God, all I know is that we have been living in the end times from the moment that Christ entered our history in human form 2000 years ago – He could return at any time, and that fact hasn’t change for the 2000 years since He was last here in bodily form.

  • This is great. I’ve actually been thinking about writing a similar post for several weeks on my blog. Maybe I still will.

  • “But presumably we all agree that there’s quite a bit of stuff in the book that hasn’t happened yet? Right? So where are we exactly?”

    Gordon Fee, who is very sensible on this stuff, reckons only chapters 21 & 22 cover things still to come. Listen to him here:

  • Reasonable approach Matt, though I concur with others that there may be more depth of meaning. And I am not certain one can go from actual people and places to the state and “religious” organisations though, at least the latter do not appear to be primary, perhaps secondary by analogy.

    I think Rome is a possibility, but Jerusalem has some merit. Daniel talks of Rome so if Revelation means Rome why are not Daniel’s symbols followed?

    And the gematria 666 and 616 are from the Greek and Latin via Hebrew.

  • Tim – enjoyed that interview with Gordon Fee, some great stuff in there.

  • From Colin:
    “But presumably we all agree that there’s quite a bit of stuff in the book that hasn’t happened yet? Right? So where are we exactly?”

    Not quite a bit, no. A couple chapters, yes. The traditional view of the church throughout history(and the majority view even to this day, not that you’d know that given what’s at most bookstores) is some form of amillenialism. At its most basic, it is the view that the 1,000 years of Revelation is not a literal 1,000 years, but that John was using numbers in a way common at the time of his writing to signify a large period of time. Also, according to amillenialism, we are somewhere in the middle of this millenium(though exactly where we cannot know because, again, the 1,000 was a communication tool not meant to be taken literally; otherwise we’d be almost 1,000 years overdue), which began sometime after Christ’s Resurrection and will end at Christ’s future physical return.

    So long answer short, only the events that are said to take place after the millenium are universally believed by all Christians to be still future. This includes Christ’s physical return, the Resurrection of the dead, the final Judgment, and the new Heavens and new Earth.

  • Another interesting point about Nero is that he used the provincial governments to enforce emperor worship upon the various provinces

    (this cooperation with Roman idolatry was one of the reasons why the outlaw zealots hated the Sanhedrin so much)

    Although some of the earlier Caesars accepted Emperor worship it seems doubtful that they actually believed it themselves, but many historians think that Nero actually believed that he was truly divine

    Because of this he rigidly enforced the edict of emperor worship on all his subjects

    It was this emperor worship that is the mark referred to Revelation.

    In fact, during Nero’s reign it became impossible to even engage in simple trade without submitting to emperor worship in the town square – if you went into the town square to trade/buy you had to make an offering to Nero.

    Which explains the reference to being unable to buy or sell without the mark of the beast.

  • Kenneth L. Gentry in the book mentioned above argues that except for the chapters 20 to 22 all the prophecies of Revelation have been fulfilled, mainly in the death of the Roman Emperor Nero in AD 68 and the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70.

    Such an interpretation requires a dating of Revelation before AD 68, lest the prophecies appear as vaticinia ex eventu (prophesies made after the events prophesied). In his dissertation entitled “Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation”, published in 1989, Gentry argues for such a dating.

    That these prophecies must have been fulfilled in the 1st century can be seen from passages such as Revelation 1,1, 1,3, 1,19, 22,6, 22,7, 22,12 and 22,20. Such passages would be quite odd if the prophesies of Revelation referred to events that would happen thousands of years later.

  • The earlier dating does have support from other historical sources, and also from the style of writing.

  • That “Babylon” may be Jerusalem can also be inferred from Galatians 2,7-9 and 1 Peter 5,13. According to the former passage Peter was regarded as “an apostle to the Jews” (NIV), who, at least around AD 50, stayed in Jerusalem. “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you” (NIV), mentioned in the latter passage, may therefore have been the church in Jerusalem.

  • I liked this explanation of this booklet disposing of most of the woo attributed to it.

    Not impressed with the commentary theory that Jerusalem is Babylon though. This is supposedly a revelation from God to John, right? Just saying that equating Jerusalem with Babylon seems like it would be a tad confusing to readers at the time, nevermind readers some two millenia later.

    I have a hard time equating ‘spiritual meaning’ with some quasi-mysterious ‘code’ discernible to those who feel that they are ‘spiritual’

    I likely feel this way because I’m not thrilled by the notion that your Scripture is meant to be read only by believers ‘Hellbent’ on making it true simply because they hope it’s true.

  • From 1 Peter 2,13-14 one can see that the apostle Peter acknowledged the Roman government authorities. It seems questionable to me that in the same letter he would refer to the capital Rome as to “Babylon”, thereby regarding the Roman Empire as being ripe for God’s judgement. As for the dating of the Book of Revelation, Revelation 11,1-2 suggests that the Jewish Temple had not yet been destroyed when the book was written.

  • The view that 1 Peter was written in Jerusalem and therefore “Babylon” refers to this city is also supported by the fact that in this letter Mark and Silas, who were both from Jerusalem (Acts 12,12, 15,22), are mentioned as being with Peter (1 Peter 5,12-13).

  • The “last days” refer only or at least partly to the New Testament era. This can be seen from Acts 2,17, 1 Corinthians 10,11, Hebrews 1,1-2, 9,26, 1 Peter 1,20 and 1 John 2,18.

  • From Matthew 24,36, 24,43-44 and Acts 1,6-7 one can draw the conclusion that we cannot know when Christ will return. Therefore it seems to me quite questionable when people claim to know that Christ will return soon.

  • The “last days” may not refer to the last days before Christ’s Second Coming but to the last days of the Biblical revelation or the last era of the redemptive history, i.e. the era of the New Covenant.

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