Is there any evidence to suggest that John believed 666 to mean Nero?

Q.  Is there any evidence to suggest that John, the author of the book of Revelation, believed 666 to mean Nero? I read your post about whether early Christians believed this; I am wondering about John specifically.

In my study guide to Daniel and Revelation, I discuss how John, writing towards the end of the first century AD, portrays the reigning emperor Domitian several times as “Nero come back to life”—that is, as a persecuting emperor in the spirit of Nero.  These portrayals, taken together with the fact that the name Nero Caesar in Hebrew adds up to 666, provide evidence that the author of Revelation himself intended us to see that name in the number.

As I explain in the guide when discussing John’s vision of “the beast”:

Nero, Roman emperor from AD 54-68, was remembered as a tyrant and a murderer.  He executed many of his opponents and was widely believed to have killed his mother and stepbrother to consolidate his power.  He was also suspected of causing a great fire in Rome to clear the ground so he could build himself a huge palace.  But Nero blamed the Christians in the city for the fire, and they were severely persecuted.  When his generals finally revolted against him, to avoid execution Nero committed suicide by stabbing himself in the throat.  But rumors circulated that Nero was still alive or would come back to life, and that he would  reclaim his throne and resume his despotic reign.  John’s vision of “the beast” can be understood against this background.  The “beast” appears to be a depiction of the current emperor as if he were “Nero come back to life.”  That is, Domitian will become a tyrant like Nero and persecute the followers of Jesus as he did.  And so he’s described as “the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived.”

In discussing this same vision I also explain in the guide, as I do in this post, how the name Nero Caesar adds up to 666.

Later in the guide, when discussing John’s vision of “the great prostitute,” I share these further thoughts about the portrait in Revelation of Domitian as a persecuting emperor in the spirit of Nero:

Some details are quite transparent.  John’s audience would have clearly understood “the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” to mean Rome.  The famous “seven hills” that the city sits on reinforce this identification.  Other details can be understood in light of the symbolism in Revelation and its Scriptural background.  The “beast” that “once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to its destruction” is likely a depiction of Domitian as “Nero come back to life.”  The emperor’s pretensions to divinity are being parodied by contrast to the true God, who “was, and is, and is to come.”  . . .
The biggest puzzle in the portrait is the identity of the “seven heads” that represent “seven kings.”  As he did for the number of the beast, John says that this “calls for a mind with wisdom,” meaning that there’s some kind of twist to the puzzle–some key to how the kings (apparently Roman emperors) are being counted.  Unfortunately a straightforward solution to this puzzle has not yet been identified; interpreters offer a variety of explanations.  But in some way John is trying to portray the persecuting emperor as the culmination of imperial arrogance (seven being a number of totality), which then takes a further step into Satanic evil as the emperor becomes “the beast,” “an eighth king.”

Essentially, until Nero, followers of Jesus could count on the Roman authorities for protection (as we see Paul doing often, for example, in the book of Acts).  It was hoped that Nero’s persecution had been a one-time exception to this policy of tolerance and protection.  But John warns in Revelation that under Domitian, followers of Jesus will one again have to “not love their lives so much as to shrink from death”  in order to remain faithful to their true Lord.

The portrayal of Domitian as “Nero come back to life” is essential to this message, and the use of the number 666 to represent “Nero Caesar” is a vital part of the portrayal.  So yes, John, the author of Revelation, did indeed understand 666 to mean Nero.

Bust of Domitian, Roman emperor AD 81-96, Capitoline Museum, Rome

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.

2 thoughts on “Is there any evidence to suggest that John believed 666 to mean Nero?”

  1. I like your explanation.

    What about the possibility of multiple fulfillments? Sometimes that happened in Scripture. Do you see a reason why it could not happen in this case or at least should not be expected to happen again?

    1. In effect, by portraying Domitian as “Nero come back to life,” John is saying that there can be multiple fulfillments of redemptive-historical events, including negative ones like Satanically-energized persecutions. So there’s no reason to believe that similar things have not happened since, nor that they will not happen in the future. But John’s number of 666 has, I believe, a unique historical referent, to “Nero Caesar,” the persecuting spirit that was coming back in the person of Domitian.

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