Is there any historical evidence that early Christians understood 666 to mean Nero Caesar?

There certainly are many different explanations of what the number 666 means in the book of Revelation.  So why should anyone believe that it means Nero Caesar, as I argue in this post, rather than something else?  There’s actually an intriguing bit of historical evidence that the earliest readers of the book understood it the way I’ve suggested.

The question of the meaning of the number 666 arose from a comment on a post I wrote about secret codes in the Bible.  This number represents a name and it comes from gematria, the practice in languages that use letters for numbers of adding up the total value of the letters in a word.  Gematria is something like a code, but there’s an important difference.

As a rule, if you know how a code works, you can decipher anything written in that code.  But in gematria, you need to know the likely subject of the code in order to imagine possible solutions and test their numerical totals.

It appears that early followers of Jesus understood the number of the beast in Revelation to indicate Nero Caesar (that is, to point to the imminent resumption of imperial persecution) because at least one early copyist seems to have known that this was the solution to the code, but couldn’t get the numbers to add up, and so wrote 616 instead, a number the copyist thought did work!

Here’s what likely happened.  As Bruce Metzger suggests in his Textual Commentary on the New Testament, “Perhaps the change was intentional, seeing that the Greek form Neron Caesar written in Hebrew characters is equivalent to 666, while the Latin form Nero Caesar is equivalent to 616.”  (The difference is the Hebrew letter Nun, which has a value of 50.)  Whatever copyist first introduced the change was thinking of Nero’s name in Latin rather than Greek, and so wrote in 616.

We don’t know when this variant reading first appeared, but it was quite early, since Irenaeus discusses it in Against Heresies, which he wrote around AD 180.  He notes that 666, not 616, is the number “found in all the most approved and ancient copies” of the book of Revelation, and that “those men who saw John face to face” attest to it.  So 616 was recognized early on as a change.  But that’s the whole point: it’s a change that was made so early it was likely introduced by someone who knew what Revelation wanted to say and who was trying to get the numbers to add up.

A fragment from p115, the earliest written attestation of the reading 616, indicated by arrow (courtesy Wikipedia)

The change in the text was copied into later manuscripts. The first written evidence we have of this reading is in an Egyptian papyrus fragment that dates to about AD 225-275.  The reading 616 also appears in Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, compiled about 200 years later, which is one of the four major uncial manuscripts that are key resources for New Testament textual criticism.

This variant reading provides a vital clue that the interpretation of 666 as gematria for Nero(n) Caesar is correct. The implications are, as I say in my Daniel-Revelation study guide, that the meaning of this number “has a unique solution based on the conventions of apocalypses and the facts of history.  Its main purpose is to delegitimize Domitian’s claims to divinity and to strengthen followers of Jesus who are being pressured by the emperor cult.”  The take-home message for us today is that we should be equally faithful in resisting anything that rivals our loyalty to Jesus.  But “the number 666 isn’t a coded biblical prediction of some invisible, demonic means of social control in the end times.”

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

6 thoughts on “Is there any historical evidence that early Christians understood 666 to mean Nero Caesar?”

  1. Hi, I was wondering if you could provide some insight here: it’s been a while so my details might be off, but I heard in an audio recording by Bahnson that claimed they found some graffiti in Pompey that said something like so-in-so likes so-in-so who’s number is something. This was in reference to confirming that masking the identity of people through numerical names, like 666, was common. Does that ring any bells? I was wondering if you could confirm this and maybe offer some details as to where I could see some pictures of this.

    1. Unfortunately I’m not familiar with this example of gematria from Pompeii, but there are many other examples in ancient literature. The fifth Sibylline Oracle begins by summarizing the history of the Roman emperors (this history is offered as a purported prophecy, but it’s written after the fact) and it refers to them by the value of the letters in their initials. For example, Julius Caesar has the initials K.I. in Greek letters (kaesar iulius), and the oracle says of him, “The very first lord shall be, who shall sum twice ten with the first letter of his name” (the value of K is 20 in Greek). The list goes on like that. I hope this is helpful, even if I couldn’t point you to the example from Pompeii.

  2. I don’t think that this pertains to a certain name or person. This should be applicable to cover the whole generation and should be still appicable, so to speak, it is still living until today.

    1. The Greek text of Revelation says that this is “the number of a human being” (arithmos tou anthropou), so it’s pretty clear that the name of a certain person is in view. In the first-century context this was an invitation to determine the name through gematria, by adding up the value of the letters. I suppose that by analogy and inference you could apply it to more abstract things in history, as you suggest, but the initial meaning needs to control and ground our understanding.

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