The Identity of 666
Another way numbers were used in the Ancient Near East and more specifically, in apocalyptic literature, was called “gematria.” This was the practice of assigning numbers to letters of the alphabet. We see this today in the use of Roman numerals. If you have trouble identifying which Super Bowl is being played this year, you know what I mean.
Probably the most familiar example of this from the Bible is found in Revelation 13:18:
This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.
This number has been used for numerous tabloid predictions. But the author says that the number refers to a human being, the number of a person. If we refer back to our third rule for reading apocalyptic literature again, we can be pretty certain the readers knew exactly who this number was referring to. We can be assured of this because translators changed the number to 616 when Revelation, along with the rest of the NT, was translated from Greek, its original language, to Latin.
So who was known as 666? Nero Caesar, an intensely evil Roman emperor who persecuted and slaughtered Christians to an unimaginable degree. In Greek, we find his name with a “n” at the end, so it was spelled, “Neron Caesar.” (Nron Qsr in Hebrew) If you take those letters and substitute their Hebrew numerical equivalent, the final number is 666. (This spelling is confirmed in an ancient document that was found in a valley called Murabba’at.)
Later when the Greek New Testament was translated into Latin, Nero’s Greek name did not have the final “n.” The translators knew the original identity of 666, and they changed the number to reflect the new sum of the letter of his name. Because “n” represented the number 50, the Latin version of Revelation has the number as 616.