John’s Use of Gematria

One among many issues in the book of Revelation concerns the mark of the beast–666. While I have my own interpretation/understanding of what that means, it’s been the subject of intense debate over the years. A plethora of candidates have been offered–Muhammad, the Roman Catholic Church, the papacy, various individual popes, Emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen, Martin Luther, Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III, Mussolini, Gorbachev, Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan (each of his three names had six letters—666), Anwar Sadat, Muammar Gadhafi, Saddam Hussein, and I’m sure Obama has been added to this list by some.[1]

One common suggestion for figuring out who the beast is (many scholars point to Nero) is the use of gematria, the practice of assigning numerical value to letters in cultures thad had no distinct numerals (used by both Jewish and Greco-Roman writers). Much of the discussion about this circles around the transliteration of Nero’s name in Greek into Hebrew and, via gematria, you come out with a numerical value of 666.

I was recently involved in a discussion of this and it was suggested that one reason it was unlikely to be Nero is the fact that one would have to transliterate the name (and title) of Nero into Hebrew. My question is this–why would this evidence be considered to weigh against identifying Nero as the beast? It is well known and quite obvious that John assumes his audiences’ familiarity with the OT, so why should we not assume they would have been familiar enough with Hebrew to know what John meant? He has cloaked his rebuke of the empire in the imagery of the OT (and be extension the ANE; he also uses imagery familiar to the Greco-Roman world), so why would this be any exception?

Just a thought–what say ye?

Αυτω η δοξα

[1] Mitchell G. Reddish, Revelation, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 268.

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4 thoughts on “John’s Use of Gematria

  1. This is all off the top of my head with little sleep – forgive the likely incoherence. There are a few points to consider here. First, is the variance among manuscripts: some have 616 instead of 666. Second, we’re dealing with some historical guess work when we start appealing to Hebrew. The text is in Greek and although we can do some “reverse engineering” to get the Hebrew text, we’re not actually dealing with a Hebrew text. Third, given the second point, is there, objectively speaking, any reason to look at what 666 equals in Hebrew? 616 is perfectly intelligble in Greek, corresponding to Caesar-God. Who is to say we’re not meant to read 666 in Greek instead of Hebrew?

    Of course this all leads us into a few interpretive knots. If I recall correctly, Revelation is the book with the least amount of uniformity among the manuscript tradition – there is no clear dominant text family. As such, which number is correct, 616 or 666. And just because 616 points towards caesar, does this mean 666 is supposed to point to caesar nero? Or vice versa?

    I guess a final point to consider – is it safe to assume the audience of Revelation would know what 666 would equate to if Caesar Nero were transliterated into Hebrew? Look at the mention of Abaddon/Apollyon – the author (or someone) found it necessary to provide both Hebrew and Greek in order to help ensure the audience knew who was being referred to.

    Again, limited sleep, so, I could be very far off the mark and very incoherent.

  2. Just to be contrary, I wonder if the mark or number of the Beast, rather than referring to the number 666 (and let us remember that neither Greeks nor Hebrews had our Arabic/Hindu decimal system), might instead refer to a word or mark composed of three letters: chi (with the value of 600), xi (with the value of 60), and final sigma or stigma (with the value of 6).

    It would also be interesting, now that you have mentioned the use of Abaddon/Apollyon, to see whether the mark is the equivalent in Hebrew, or Mem Samech Vov

  3. Joseph: I agree with your points. I only posed it because it was stated that appealing to Hebrew lessened the likelihood of the referent being Nero, which as you rightly note, would have been as easily known Greek (the Latin resulting in 616 confirms this also). Your other points are well stated also. Thanks for chiming in!

    Bernard: I’ve read that suggestion before and it would work just as well. While the verb ψηφισάτω bears a mathematical connotation, it is also used with the sense of “figure out,” which is the way I take John’s use here.

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