Would you buy a used car with a license plate ending in 666? Or take a job at an office tower in New York City with the address 666 Fifth Avenue? After all, 666 is the infamous "number of the beast," allegedly Satan's secret code for evil.
In the biblical apocalyptic book of Revelation 13:18, it reads, "Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is 666."
From that passage, it sure sounds like 666 is Lucifer's lucky number. But when you dig deeper into the Bible and its historical context, there's evidence that the author of Revelation was using numbers to send his early Christian readers a coded message.
When Letters Are Also Numbers
"The beast" was a reference to an evil-looking creature that the author of Revelation saw rising out of the earth in a vision (Revelation 13:11-18). This creature could perform miraculous things, would demand that everyone be "marked" with its name or number in order to buy and sell anything; and would also kill those who did not worship it. So, who was this? Over the centuries, people have wondered whether this beast referred to someone who has come and gone, was yet to come or to no person in particular.
The book of Revelation was written in Greek, the language of the Christian world in the first and second century C.E. There were no numbers in Greek, at least not the numbers that we'd recognize today. (Our so-called "Arabic numerals" — 0, 1, 2, 3, etc. — were developed centuries later.) Instead, each letter of the Greek (and Hebrew) alphabet had a numeric value. For example:
alpha = 1
beta = 2
pi = 80
psi = 700
For the Greek-speaking Christians reading Revelation, they would have been very comfortable reading letters as numbers. That's how numbers were displayed in the market or in legal documents. They also would have been comfortable turning numbers back into letters thanks to a practice called isopsephy.
Word Games With Numbers
Isopsephy, in Greek, means "equal in numeric value," and was a popular way of playing with words in the first century. The trick was to add up the numeric value of one word and then find a second word or phrase that added up to the same number. Words that were numerically equal were thought to have a special connection.
One of the best-known first-century isopsephies was referenced by the Roman historian Seutonius. "A calculation new: Nero his mother slew." In this case, the emperor's name "Nero" equals 1,005, the same value of the phrase "his mother slew." For Romans who suspected that the ruthless emperor had murdered his mother, this isopsephy was the proof.
Archaeologists have even discovered ancient Roman graffiti that substituted numbers for names, says Thomas Wayment, a classics professor at Brigham Young University.
"There's graffiti at Smyrna and Pompeii that says, 'I love her whose number is 1,308,'" says Wayment. "That's pretty common. And hopefully everybody did their math correctly and could make the connections."
'666' Was a Coded Message
Wayment and most other biblical scholars have no doubt that the author of Revelation intended 666 to be an isopsephy solved by his first-century readers.
"The author says, this is the number of a man, which is a classic isopsephy formula," says Wayment, who recently co-wrote an article on Revelation 13:18 and early Christian isopsephies. "Christians would have known right away, this is a coded message."
Revelation is famously cryptic and was meant to be that way, even to its original audience. Wayment says that in apocalyptic writings, an angel or other heavenly messenger often reveals their meaning through coded speech.
"As a reader, you're seeing something through the eyes of the visionary and he's telling you, 'you need to make sense of this,'" says Wayment. "That's part of your experience and participation in the vision."
According to most scholars, 666 was yet another coded reference to Nero, a "beastly" emperor who brutally persecuted early Christians in the Roman Empire.
To solve the isopsephy and equate Nero to 666, you need to use the full name "Caesar Nero" in Greek. If Caesar Nero is transliterated into Hebrew as nrwn qsr or "Neron Kesar" and then calculated, the numbers add up to 666. Interestingly, some early manuscripts of Revelation have the number written as 616 instead of 666. The common explanation is that "Caesar Nero" is written differently in Greek and Latin, another language spoken by early Christians. In the Latin version, the letters only add up to 616.
Other Readings of '666': Satan's Perfect Imperfection
Not all Bible scholars are convinced that 666 is simply an isopsephy. James M. Hamilton, a professor of biblical theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and author of "Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches," sees powerful symbolism in the repetition of the number 6.
In biblical symbolism, Hamilton says, the number seven represents "completeness" or "perfection." True completeness was only achieved by Jesus Christ, who saved the world through his perfect sacrifice. If Jesus had a symbolic number, it would be 777.
By assigning 666 to the "number of the beast," the author of Revelation is warning Christians to beware of Satan's "cheap imitation of Christ," says Hamilton. "That's the best Satan can do, one short of perfection."
For Hamilton, those "false Christs" raised up by Satan could take the form of a corrupt emperor like Nero or even modern cultural norms that are in rebellion against God.
"If participating in that culture entails worshiping false gods or denying something that the Bible teaches, Christians need to say, 'I'm not going to take the number or name of the beast,'" says Hamilton.