“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” Really?

Q.  Jesus said, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”  Are we supposed to take him literally?

It’s often claimed that when Jesus said this, he was engaging in “hyperbole” or intentional overstatement (exaggeration, if you will), a device that rabbis often used in his time.  We do see Jesus employing hyperbole in other instances, for example, when he said. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  If that is the case here, then Jesus would be saying, “Okay, I don’t literally mean for you to go all the way and pluck out your eye or cut off your hand, just try to keep them under better control.”

But I wonder whether we shouldn’t take him a bit more literally.  The key is in the word “if.”  I think Jesus might be calling the bluff of people who say, “I just can’t help it, my body responds automatically and there’s nothing I can do about it.”  For example—“I just had to look at that pornography, it came up when I was searching for something else (really, really), and once my eye locked onto it, I just couldn’t look away.”

What if a person who made that claim took Jesus literally?  They’d have to admit that even if this truly were the case, they could still keep from sinning by plucking out their eyes—if they really wanted not to sin.  But taking Jesus literally actually would force them to admit, “All right, it’s not my eye that’s causing me to sin, it’s my heart, which needs to change.”

Similarly for a person who said something like, “I just had to take that money, it was left right there on the table with no one watching it, and before I knew it my hand had scooped it up.” If that really were the case, the person could still keep from sinning by cutting off the offending hand—but of course the hand is not to blame, and taking Jesus literally forces us to admit this.

So perhaps this is not just an overstatement or exaggeration that we are supposed to dial back a few degrees, but an astute and literal observation designed to make us look at our hearts and wills rather than blaming our bodies for the wrong things we do—since, as Jesus observes, we actually could do something about our eyes or hands if they really were responsible.

Why was Ruth told to stay with the other women in the field?

Q. Why was Ruth told to stay with the other women in the field? and the workers were told by Boaz to leave her be? Were women not safe from rape in those days? Hard to understand.

Unfortunately, women were still in danger of rape even within the ancient Israelite theocracy, and particularly at the time when the book of Ruth is set, “in the days when the judges ruled,” when, according to the book of Judges, “Israel had no king” and “everyone did as they saw fit.”

That is why Boaz, who is introduced from the start as a godly man, takes special measures to protect Ruth, who would otherwise be at great risk as a defenseless foreigner.  He tells Ruth not to glean in anyone else’s field (where the owner or foreman might not be godly) and even to stay in the part of his own field where his female servants are working.  He also says, for everyone to hear, that he has warned all the men not to lay a hand on her.  As a “man of standing,” Boaz has the power to enforce this order of protection.

Similarly, when Ruth returns home and tells the story of her day, Naomi observes ominously, “It will be good for you, my daughter, to go with the women who work for him, because in someone else’s field you might be harmed.”  (The Hebrew is more explicit: “and they will not molest you in another field.”)

We see here the great courage and faith of Ruth, who was willing to do the only thing she could to support herself and her mother-in-law:  go out and ask if she could glean in someone’s field, even though this meant exposing herself to the danger of potential rape.

We also see that the godly character of Boaz led him to take active measures to protect women like Ruth from sexual abuse and exploitation.  In this way Boaz provides a biblical model for all men today who aspire to lead a godly life:  they, too, should protect women from sexual abuse and exploitation, and not participate in anything that degrades or exploits them, such as on-line pornography, actual prostitution, or anything similar.

“Ruth Gleaning,” James Tissot, 1896

Why is “mene” written twice in the handwriting on the wall?

Q. In the handwriting on the wall in the book of Daniel, why do you think God wrote “mene, mene” twice instead of just “mene, tekel, upharsin”? Does the repetition mean something?

For one thing, “mene” might be repeated to fill out the poetic line, so that it will have two parts with four syllables and two stresses each: mené, mené; tekél, parsín.    (The “u” is barely pronounced and simply means “and”; it’s a variation on the usual “w,” when it comes before “p.”)  As I note in this post, solemn pronouncements, including judgments like this one, are often spoken in poetry in the Old Testament.  Repeating “mene” allows the line to have a memorable poetic cadence.

But the repetition of the first word might also be a clue that each word actually has a double meaning.  As I explain in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation:

The inscription is a play on words.  In one sense, it lists the names of three coins of decreasing value: the minah (worth many shekels), the tekel (the Aramaic form of the word shekel itself), and the peres (half-shekel; parsin is the plural).  This duplicates the image in the statue dream of materials of decreasing value, underscoring God’s purposes to replace the Babylonian empire with later ones.  (The narrator echoes this image by describing how the goblets from Jerusalem were gold and silver, while the gods of Babylon were gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone.)  

But the meaning of the inscription also rests on the derivation of the names of these coins.  Minah comes from a verb meaning “to count” or “to number”; tekel comes from the verb “to weigh”; and peres from a verb meaning “to divide.”  Daniel explains how all of these meanings apply to Belshazzar and his doomed empire.  (Peres is also a play on the word “Persian.”)

So this was a very dense puzzle; the last term actually has a triple meaning, disclosing the identity of the empire that would soon conquer Babylon. Even though the repetition of “mene” might have offered a slight clue to its interpretation, “all the king’s wise men . . . could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.”  But Daniel showed both his divine gifting and the certain fate of Babylon when he interpreted the puzzle.

Rembrandt, “Belshazzar’s Feast,” 1635. In this depiction the words read from top to bottom and then from right to left. (Uparsin takes up the two leftmost columns.) In Aramaic they would more likely have read from right to left and then from top to bottom.

Why does God call Ezekiel “Son of Man”?

Q. Ezekiel is constantly referred to as “Son of Man.” Since this is a reference often used for Jesus, why is it that Ezekiel seems to singled out for same designation?

Basically, the phrase “Son of Man” means something different in the book of Ezekiel than it does in the gospels.

In Ezekiel, “son of man” means “human being.”  It’s a poetic Hebrew expression that’s used with that same meaning in several other places in the Old Testament, for example, in Psalm 8, where the ESV translates the Hebrew terms literally: “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”  The NLT expresses the meaning of these terms: “What are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?”

Since “son of man” means “human being” in Ezekiel, in the Common English Bible, that prophet is addressed as “human one”; in the Good News Bible as “mortal man”; in the New Century Version as “human”; and in the New Revised Standard Version as “mortal.”

Why does God address Ezekiel in this particular way?  Some have suggested that this is done to distinguish the prophet from the various supernatural beings in his visions–Ezekiel needs to know that God is speaking to him, rather than to one of them!  But I think it’s more likely, as others have suggested, that by calling Ezekiel “son of man” (“mortal”), God is stressing the difference between His own powerful words and deeds, described in the visions Ezekiel receives (for example, breathing life into dead bodies, symbolic of restoring the exiled nation), and the few things, paltry by comparison, that the Judeans might accomplish without God.

In the gospels, “Son of Man” means something different.  It’s an allusion to the Old Testament, though not to the book of Ezekiel, but rather to the book of Daniel.  As I explain in my study guide to the gospel of Mark:

This expression comes from a vision the prophet Daniel had of “one like a son of man” who was given “authority, glory and sovereign power” by God.  Jesus chooses this expression to describe himself because it communicates his divine mission without having the nationalistic and militaristic overtones of some of the other titles that were used for the Messiah at this time (such as “Son of David,” which he’ll be called later in the book).  The title Son of Man particularly highlights the humanity and humility of Jesus.  He will invoke this title repeatedly in the second part of the gospel as he speaks of his coming sufferings and death.  But here it captures the authority he has, as a divinely-appointed representative of humanity, to forgive sins and determine how to make appropriate use of the Sabbath.

As I explain further in my study guide to Daniel and Revelation, commenting on Daniel’s vision of the “Ancient of Days,” books like these:

. . . use humans to represent divine figures.  The person who’s presented to the Ancient of Days here is described as “like a son of man.” This Aramaic phrase means that he “looked like a human being,” but the implications within the vision are that he was divine.  The Jewish people took the phrase “son of man” from this vision and used it as a title (“Son of Man”) to describe the divine savior figure they were expecting.  Jesus often applied this title to himself, both to show that he was the Savior sent from God, and also, paradoxically, to show that he had given up his divine prerogatives and come to earth humbly, in human form, to identify completely with those he came to save.

So Ezekiel is not really being given a title that properly belongs to Jesus alone.  Rather, the poetic phrase that meant simply “human being” in Ezekiel’s time had become a Messianic title by the time of Jesus.

How can I know when I’ve “covered” a given book as I study the Bible?

Q. I have an ongoing Bible study project that I keep developing and refining. It’s the sort of thing that would probably take longer than my lifetime to finish, but I like to keep it moving forward anyways. I prefer having a pre-established plan of action before going too in depth on these sorts of huge projects, so I’m trying to distill a list of items to study for each book of the Bible to say that I’ve more or less “covered it.” The list below is a rough sketch of what I’d ideally like to study for each book of the Bible and I was just wondering if you could either add to the list or make some suggestions in terms of what I should prioritize. Thanks so much!

– Author (along with main theories about authorship of the book)
– Intended Audience
– Date written (Main theories about date)
– Culture and social setting of the text (People, economy, government, religion, world situation, worldviews and philosophies, gods, etc.)
– Geography / Topography of the area and any bearings this might have on understanding the text.
– Literary Genre of the book and any implications this has on understanding the text
– Word Study of key words in the book (Etymology, Variant Connotations, Ellipses, Difficulties in Translation, Technical Usage, Repeated Words, etc.)
– Key point being made by the author in each literary segment of text
– Distinctions in the text (Unique concepts, descriptions, words, theological points, etc.)
– Passages elsewhere in the Bible this text clarifies or that clarify this text.
– Theology that can be derived from the book (explicit or implicit)
– Outline of the book (Main arguments of the author and natural literary breaks in the text)
– Historical views / evolution of understanding of key theological points made in the text throughout church history.

Tools for study: Interlinear Bibles, Hebrew/Greek Lexicons, (Expository) Bible Dictionary, Bible Atlas, Strong’s Concordance, Various Commentaries, Church History Books, and Ancient History and Culture Books.

This is a really excellent project you’ve got going!  What I like most about it is that you’ve recognized that you really need to study the Bible book by book, and that you need to know the answers to some foundational questions in order to understand each individual book.  It’s amazingly like what I taught in my course at the Regent College Summer School a few years back (whose story I tell here), which ultimately led to my being invited to join the group that produced The Books of the Bible. (You can now see the intentionality in that title!)  Here’s an excerpt from my course lectures:

– – – – –

It should be clear by now that even though we should indeed approach the Bible on the book level, the book names, order, and (in some cases) boundaries we are accustomed to are, like chapters and verses, traditional factors impeding an objective reading of the Bible. We therefore need to take a new approach to the Bible, one that is informed and guided not by tradition, but by the structures and emphases inherent in the biblical text itself. And in order to do this, we may need to remind ourselves all over again how to read a book.

How to Read a Book is, in fact, the title of a classic text by Mortimer Adler (which he later updated with his colleague, Charles van Doren). Their text explains that we cannot meaningfully read smaller sections of a book (the way we typically approach books of the Bible) without first attaining an appreciation for the whole. Specifically, we need to know the answer to four questions:

– Why was this book written? What specific situation was the author speaking to? That is, what problem or problems gave rise to the book in the first place? In biblical interpretation, this is usually referred to as determining the “circumstances and occasion of composition.”

– What kind of book is this? Is it a novel, a textbook, a collection of poetry, a biography? The kind of book we are reading should determine our expectations in reading. For example, should we ask whether everything the author describes really could have happened? We would not apply this test to a James Bond novel, but we would when reading something purporting to be the true account of an ascent of Mount Everest. The different kinds of writing are commonly called “literary genres”; we determine literary genre precisely in order to have the right expectations when we read.

– How is the book put together? What are the major parts, and into what parts are these divided, and so on? When it comes to modern books, it is usually the case that the chapters and larger divisions correspond to the argument or story’s essential parts, because these divisions are the work of the author. In the case of biblical books, however, we need to be aware that the chapters and verses are not the work of the original authors; they were added centuries later, as we have already explained. While it is theoretically possible for them nevertheless to correspond to a biblical book’s essential parts, in actual practice, they more often do not. So we must make it another piece of preliminary business to determine what we might call a book’s “literary structure.”

– Finally, we must ask what overall idea or purpose unites all of the parts and aspects of the book. We might speak of this as an attempt to express its “thematic unity.”

– – – – –

You can see how the program for understanding biblical books that I sketched out in my course, and which was built into the “DNA” of the format for The Books of the Bible, overlaps almost entirely with your list of “study items” for each book.  Yours could easily be organized under the four categories I list: circumstances and occasion of writing, literary genre, literary structure, and thematic development. Each of these four key background items is discussed and explained in my series of study guides to the books of the Bible.

The main thing I’d say you’re missing, and it’s a very significant thing, is a knowledge of the languages in which the Bible was originally written.  From my own experience, I’d say that an ability to read the Bible fluently in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek has contributed at least as much to my understanding of the biblical books as a knowledge of all the other factors you list combined.  It’s one thing to try to make sense of Greek or Hebrew syntax with an interlinear Bible, or to try to do comparative word studies using Strong’s Concordance; it’s quite another to read the biblical author’s words and thoughts as they were originally expressed, to do word studies using a concordance to the original-language text, etc.  So if you are going to invest all of this time and effort in a lifelong program to understand the Bible, I’d encourage you to learn the original languages.  This investment will be richly repaid.  (And for each language you would then want a critical text of the Bible as well as a language textbook, lexicon, analytical lexicon, grammar, and concordance, at least.  I also really appreciate having a textual history, textual commentary, and theological dictionary.)

And let me mention one more thing.  There are some tremendous electronic resources out there these days, including software and web sites, that make searches, textual studies, etc. fast and powerful.  Some of them will link a text to much of the history of the interpretation of that text, which you said you were interested in.  So I’d encourage you to become familiar with software such as Logos, Accordance, Bibleworks, etc. and find the best fit for you interests, as well as with online sites such as BibleGateway.com (my favorite), BibleHub.com, BibleStudyTools.com, etc.

Once again I commend you for this thorough and ambitious desire to know the Bible well by understanding each its books.  You’re definitely on the right track!  Keep up the good work.  What you’re after is worth a lifetime of study.

Insider and outsider language

My recent post about the altar inscription Paul saw in Athens–did it say “To an unknown god” or “To the unknown God”?–was prompted, as I noted there, by a conversation I had with a friend who does sociolinguistic analysis of the New Testament and early Christian literature.  One thing she has helped me see much more clearly is the way biblical characters employ either “insider” or “outsider” language depending on the audience.  (To give a contemporary example, a follower of Jesus today might speak of “the Lord” to a known fellow believer, but of “God” instead to someone whose faith they aren’t sure of.)

Since this conversation I’ve been seeing more ways in which recognizing “insider” and “outsider” language can help us appreciate the possible dynamics of biblical episodes.  Consider, for example, the episode in Acts in which a believer named Ananias is asked to visit Saul of Tarsus (later known as Paul) right after Jesus has appeared to Saul on the Damascus Road.

Ananias first greets him as “Brother Saul” (Saoul adelphe).  This is how followers of Jesus addressed one another.  Does this mean that Ananias is immediately acknowledging Saul as a fellow believer?  Not necessarily.  This is also the way one Jew would typically greet another in the Roman Empire.  My friend thinks, and I agree, that the original audience of Acts would have sensed the ambiguity here, and many of them may have thought, “Okay, he’s playing it safe, appealing to their shared Jewish identity to create some common ground with this man who, for all he knows, might still be an enemy.”

However, Ananias says next, “The Lord has sent me” (ho kurios apestalken me), using insider language for Jesus (“the Lord”), as if he were sure that Saul really was a follower of Jesus now.  This suggests that “brother Saul” maybe was intended as the greeting of a fellow believer.

But then it appears that Ananias worries he may have gone too far out on a limb too early, because he immediately qualifies who “the Lord” is:  “Jesus who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here.”  This is outsider language:  the proper name Jesus with a descriptor, like “Jesus of Nazareth . . . a man accredited by God” in Peter’s Pentecost sermon.

We don’t get much more of the dialogue, but I’m sure that when Ananias saw the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, he was probably comfortable going back to “the Lord” as a name for Jesus!  But the movement from language that could be taken “safely,” to insider language, to outsider language shows that Ananias was obediently going into a dangerous situation courageously but carefully.  (As we all should do when God–you know, the Lord–sends us into one.)

What “insider” and “outsider” language are you seeing as you read the Word–you know, the Bible?

Pietro da Cortona, Ananias Restoring the Sight of St. Paul, 1631

What is a chiasm?

Q. Can you explain what a “chiasm” is?  I often hear people use the word when they’re talking about things in the Bible, but I’m not quite sure what it means.

Simply stated, a chiasm is an arrangement of materials into nested pairs.  For example, in a simple, four-part chiasm, the first and last elements would be paired with each other, and the middle two elements would also be paired together:

God created mankind
in his own image,
in the image of God
he created them.

Sometimes interpreters label the parts of a chiasm with capital letters to show these relationships more clearly:

A  God created mankind
B  in his own image,
B  in the image of God
A  he created them.

The word chiasm comes from the Greek letter chi, which looks like an X.  If you go from top to bottom down this letter, it’s wide, narrow, narrow, wide–that’s why the letter is used for the name of this arrangement.

Hebrew authors considered chiasms to be an especially  elegant and refined kind of literary creation, so they occur often in the First Testament.  Since most of the New Testament authors were Jews, many chiasms are found there as well.

As illustrated above, brief chiasms can be found in lines of poetry.  But chiasms can also be used on a larger scale.  Psalm 103 as a whole, for example, is a five-part chiasm.  (In a chiasm with an odd number of parts, the middle element stands alone, giving it a particular emphasis.)  This psalm begins with an extended call to praise the Lord; it makes a short assertion about God’s reign; it describes God’s character; it makes another short assertion about God’s reign; and it ends with another call to praise the Lord.

In the gospel of John, the account of Jesus’ arrest and trial is arranged as a seven-part chiasm:

A The Jewish Leaders Demand Execution
B Pilate Speaks with Jesus About Kingship
C Pilate Declares Jesus Innocent; The Jewish Leaders Shout for Barabbas
D  The Soliders Beat and Mock Jesus
C Pilate Declares Jesus Innocent; The Jewish Leaders Shout for Crucifixion
B Pilate Speaks With Jesus About Authority
A Pilate Agrees to the Demand for Execution

The account of the crucifixion is then arranged as another seven-part chiasm:

A Jesus is Brought to the Place of Execution
B Pilate Refuses the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Change the Inscription
C The Soldiers At the Cross Cast Lots for Jesus’ Clothes
D  Jesus Entrusts Mary into John’s Care
C The Soldiers At the Cross Give Jesus Wine to Drink
B Pilate Grants the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Speed the Executions
A Jesus is Taken from the Place of Execution

Sometimes even longer stretches of narrative are arranged as chiasms.  For example, the account of Noah and the flood is an extended nine-part chiasm, with a key theological emphasis in the middle element:

A  Noah’s actions in building the ark
B  God addresses Noah:  “Go into the ark”
C  Noah and the animals enter the ark
D  The flood waters rise
E  God remembers Noah
D  The flood waters fall
C  Noah and the birds verify that the flood has ended
B  God addresses Noah:  “Come out of the ark”
A  Noah’s actions in offering sacrifice

In Genesis the lives of Abraham and Jacob are also related in nine-part chiasms, and chiasms are used to structure many other narratives and poems throughout the Bible.

So learning to recognize chiasms can give us many insights into the structures, themes, and emphases of biblical writings.  The only danger in knowing about chiasms is a tendency to want to find them everywhere in the Bible.  They’re not exactly everywhere.  But they certainly are used frequently.

Why did Jesus say we should hate our families?

Q.  Some of Jesus’ teachings have puzzled me over the years.  While some may have been part of a parable, others were definitely spoken directly to people as instructions.  Take this one:  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.”  I thought we were supposed to love even our enemies.  So why does Jesus say we should hate our families?

In this earlier post I explain that when Jesus says we should love our enemies, he doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to feel a warm and delighted attraction to people who have hurt or betrayed us, a feeling that makes us want to be in a close relationship with them.

Rather, we should understand “love” in this case to be a commitment, not a feeling.  We commit to doing whatever is in that person’s best interests, in the hopes that this will help them realize that they’ve done wrong and lead them to pursue restitution and reconciliation.

It’s just the opposite when Jesus says that we should “hate” our families.  He’s not saying that we should be committed to doing whatever is most harmful or hurtful to them.  Rather, in this case, he’s talking about a feeling, not a commitment.

Jesus is saying that we should be so devoted to him as his disciples that if anything or anyone should ever threaten to come between us and him, we would react to this with a strong feeling of antipathy and revulsion that makes us choose Jesus over that person or thing, without hesitation.

In the culture in which Jesus lived, family loyalty was probably the thing that was most likely to come between a would-be disciple and Jesus.  (The same is still true in many parts of the world today.)  And so Jesus is saying that if your family members try to keep you from following me, you have to react with such horror and revulsion that you’re prepared to lose your relationship with them in order to become and remain a disciple of mine.

Beyond this, however, Jesus told his followers to be very careful to follow the commandment to honor their parents.  This included doing such things as providing for them in their old age.  Jesus’ earliest followers similarly taught the importance of caring for family.  So Jesus’ words about “hating” family must be understood only in the context of never letting anything come between us and our loyalty to God.

To state the matter simply, when Jesus says we should love our enemies, he’s talking about a commitment, not a feeling.  When Jesus says we should hate our families (if they would come between us and him), he’s talking about a feeling, not a commitment.

How could Melchizedek have had no father or mother?

Q.  How can the book of Hebrews say that Melchizedek, the priest who blessed Abraham, was “without father or mother” and “without beginning of days or end of life”?  Wasn’t he human?

Byzantine icon of Melchizedek

Here’s what I say about this in my study guide to Deuteronomy and Hebrews, where I note that the author of Hebrews talks about Melchizedek in the third of the four messages or sermons that make up the book:

* * * * *

This message is based primarily on Psalm 110, but in it the author characteristically draws on other Scriptures for support, in this case the story in Genesis that describes who Melchizedek was.

The author first translates the word Melchizedek, explaining that it means “King of Righteousness.” Melchizedek was most likely not a given name, but an honorary title of the Jebusite kings who formerly ruled in Jerusalem, including the one in the Genesis story who greeted Abraham. (A similar example of an honorary title is the name Pharaoh that was given to all the rulers of Egypt.)

After the Israelites conquered Jerusalem, their own kings took over the title Melchizedek. Since the Jebusite kings had been priests, the Israelite kings also assumed an honorary role as priests and interceded for the nation in prayer. But they were not allowed to offer sacrifices; this was reserved for the descendants of Aaron under the law of Moses.

The author next explains that King of Salem (that is, of Jerusalem) means “King of Peace.” By translating these two terms, the author identifies Jesus, who is a priest in the order of Melchizedek by virtue of being the Messianic king of Jerusalem, as someone who helps people become righteous before God and so find peace with God.

Now come some more significant details—or rather, a significant lack of them. The Hebrew Scriptures usually introduce a new figure into their narratives by describing the person’s parentage and ancestry. They usually also report when a figure dies. But the book of Genesis doesn’t do either of these things in the case of Melchizedek.

This allows the author of Hebrews to observe that, when considered only in light of what the Scriptures say about him, Melchizedek seems to have no origin or ending. He appears to “remain a priest forever.” In this way he “resembles the Son of God,” and this allows him to serve as an earthly representation of the Messiah. This is why the Lord chose to name him as the head of the order of priests to which the Messiah (represented in Psalm 110 by the Davidic king) would belong.

This is a classic example of the author’s typological method, which is based on the understanding that transcendent spiritual realities are reflected in earthly replicas. A little later in this message the author makes the basis of this method explicit, noting how the earthly tabernacle had to be modeled after the heavenly pattern Moses was shown. The Greek word is typos, the source of the English word type, and so this interpretive method is known as typology.

* * * * *

To summarize what I say in the guide, the author of Hebrews is able to establish a connection between Melchizedek and Jesus by considering Melchizedek in light of what the Scriptures say about him (that his title means “king of righteousness” and that he was king of Salem = “peace“), but only in light of what the Scriptures say about him, not what they don’t say.  Since the details of his parentage, birth, and death aren’t reported, this allows an even stronger typological connection to Jesus, who has a permanent priesthood “on the basis of an indestructible life.”

In other words, the key to understanding how the Bible could say that Melchizedek was “without father and mother” and “without beginning of days or end of life” lies in appreciating the distinctive typological method of the book of Hebrews.

What is the meaning of 666, the number of the beast in the book of Revelation?

In response to my last post about secret codes in the Bible, a reader commented that the number 666 in the book of Revelation is also an encrypted word.  That’s quite true. Let me summarize here what I say about this in my Daniel-Revelation study guide.

In many ancient languages, letters were used to represent numbers. (One example of this is the “Roman numerals” we know today: Super Bowl XLVI means Super Bowl 46.) Words and names in such languages had a total value, the sum of the values of their individual letters.  This total value could be used as a kind of  symbolic code in place of the word.  (This practice is known as gematria.) For example, as I discuss in an earlier post, the value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name adds up to 130, and in tribute to him, 130 proverbs were placed in the collection that was created under his patronage.

As I’ve show in another post, apocalypses like Revelation evoke the symbolic significance numbers. 666 suggests having pretensions to divinity or perfection, but falling short of it, since it’s symbolized in the book by the number 7.  But whose name adds up to this total, revealing the hollowness of his pretensions to divinity?

To answer this question, we need to understand the book of Revelation in light of the first-century events that occasioned its writing.  The book was written to warn followers of Jesus, who had experienced persecution under Nero, that persecution would resume under the current emperor, Domitian. So they needed to be faithful unto death in order to win the crown of life. When the book is understood this way, its figure of a “beast” is recognized to be a depiction of Domitian as if he were Nero come back to life.

The number 666 is part of this depiction. John writes that understanding this code “calls for wisdom,” meaning that the puzzle has a trick to it. The secret is, even though John is writing his book in Greek, the numerical values will be those of Hebrew letters. As many scholars have recognized, the consonants of “Neron Caesar” in Hebrew add up to 666. Tagging Domitian with the name (or in this case, the number) of Nero is like drawing a Hitler mustache on a leader’s picture today.  Domitian thinks he’s “lord and God” (as he proclaims on his coins), but he’s really just another evil emperor.

So the meaning of the “number of the beast,” 666, 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. But evil rulers in other places and times may also revive the tyrannical spirit of Nero, and they’ll have to be resisted with suffering and endurance. That is the significance of the number 666 for all who live after the time of the book of Revelation.

For some historical evidence that the earliest Christians understood 666 to mean “Nero Caesar,” see this post.

For the significance of the number 144,000, see this post.

Nero 666