666, the Beast’s number.

In Revelation John was given an apocalyptic vision of two animals. The first is a leopard with bear paws, seven heads, and 10 horns; and it fights the saints and gets the people of earth to worship it. Christian popular culture tends to call it the Beast, as the KJV translates θηρίον/thiríon; or the Antichrist, ’cause too many of us speculate it’ll claim to be Christ. (Even though Revelation says no such thing. Go look.) The second animal has horns like a lamb, performs “miracles” in support of the first animal, and forces everyone to worship the first animal and its talking ikon.

And this:

Revelation 13.16-18 KWL
16 It made it so everyone—small and great, rich and poor, freemen and slaves—
might give themselves a stamp on their right hand, or on their forehead.
17 Thus no one was able to buy nor sell unless they had the stamp:
The first animal’s name, or the number of its name.
18 Here’s some wisdom: Those with a brain, calculate the animal’s number.
It’s a person’s number, and its number is 666.

The UBS Greek New Testament spells it out as ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ/exakósiï exíkonta ex, “six hundred sixty six.” The Textus Receptus instead uses the Greek letters ΧΞϚ, which is how ancient Greeks wrote numbers before they discovered Arabic numerals: They borrowed letters from their alphabet. The first nine letters were the first nine numbers; the next nine were the numbers 10, 20, 30, and so on up to 90; the next nine were the numbers 100, 200, 300, till they ran out of letters. So chi was used for 600, xi for 60, and stigma for 6.

There’s a textual variant in some ancient copies of Revelation which says the number is 616. So a lot of bibles mention that in their footnotes… just in case. Y’never know.

So if you have a brain, and wanna know who the leopard with seven heads represents, its number is 666. Figure it out!

Here’s the problem: Too many people don’t have a brain, and aren’t gonna bother to figure it out. They’re just gonna connect the dots, then panic. Fear makes people stop thinking, y’know: Fight-or-flight kicks in, and that’s all they do from that part onward. It’s why John addresses those of us who pursue wisdom: Don’t squander this clue.

First we gotta learn what a person’s number is. And no, I’m not talking about your social security number, your employee ID number, your credit card number, your PIN number, or any of the other numbers arbitrarily or deliberately connected to you.

Gematria.

A lot of people correctly figure “the number of a man” Rv 13.18 KJV is figured out by taking their name, converting the letters into numbers, and adding up all the numbers. Or if you’re really desperate to find a connection, doing some other stuff to the numbers: Multiplying ’em, bunching ’em together; anything which adds up to 666. Anything which connects the dots.

So how do we convert letters into numbers?

Well, most of us learned to cypher when we were kids. Cypher is to substitute something else for the letters of our alphabet. Sometimes another letter; sometimes a number; sometimes a symbol. (Some daily newspapers still publish cyphers, give you a few hints as to which letter meant what, and let amateur codebreakers have a little fun trying to crack the cypher.) The most basic cypher we learned was the simple letter-to-number substitution cypher: A=1, B=2, C=3, and so on till Z=26.

And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve caught Christians trying to use this cypher to figure out if someone’s the Beast.

When John wrote Revelation, was he thinking about the English alphabet? Or its predecessor the Latin alphabet? (Same alphabet, but I was split into I and J, and V was split into U, V, and W.) Not even close. For that matter the Latins didn’t even do this themselves. They decided I=1, V=5, X=10… you know, Roman numerals. (As you’ve seen on clocks, Super Bowls, and Star Wars episodes.)

John wasn’t speaking of calculating “the number of a man” with the Latin alphabet. Nor even the Greek alphabet. He had Hebrew in mind. Because calculating a person’s number was a Jewish practice. They called it gematria—from a bad translation of γεωμετρία/geometria, “geometry.” Many Jews still practice it, as part of Kabbalah.

Same as the Greeks, the Hebrew alphabet assigns a numeric value to each Hebrew letter. Today’s Hebrew-speakers still use it sometimes, same as we do with Roman numerals.

LETTERNAMEVALUE
אalef1
בbeit2
גgimel3
דdalet4
הhe5
וwaw6
זzayin7
LETTERNAMEVALUE
חkhet8
טtet9
יyod10
ךכkaf20
לlamed30
םמmem40
ןנnun50
LETTERNAMEVALUE
סsamek60
עayin70
ףפpe80
ץצchadë90
קqof100
רresh200
שsin300
תtav400

So alef is 1, bet 2, gimel 3, and so forth till 10; then they go up by tens, then hundreds till you’re out of alphabet.

Notice kaf, mem, nun, pe, and chadë have two letters. The second letter (usually the one with the tail) is a sofít, a final-case letter. You know how we have uppercase letters at the beginning of some words? Final-case is the form which goes at the end of words. Since some folks wish Hebrew had 27 letters instead of 22 so they could count up to 900, they claim those final-case letters have extra values:

LETTERNAMEVALUE
ךkaf sofit500
םmem sofit600
ןnun sofit700
ףpe sofit800
ץchadë sofit900

But nearly every Jew gives the final-case letters the same value as usual.

So every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. And in gematria, every Hebrew word also has a numerical value. Add up the value of its letters, and there y’go. Jesus’s name ישוע consists of yod (10), shin (300), waw (6), and ayin (70). Add ’em up and you get 386. That’s Jesus’s number.

(Yeah, there are folks who insist Jesus’s number is 777. That’s because somebody told them so… and they really like sevens. But obviously they’ve never double-checcked. Few do. And no, we don’t get 777 any other legitimate way. “Messiah Jesus” is 744. “King Jesus” is 411. “Jesus of Nazareth” is 1166. “Jesus son of Mary” gets 618 in Hebrew and 838 in Aramaic. The only way you can squeeze 777 out of “Jesus” is to use the wrong alphabet, or a mishmash of wrong alphabets. And gematria isn’t that hard.)

I should point out: Both Christians and Jews are really leery of gematria. For good reason. It’s not just used to figure out the numerical values of words for fun. In Kabbalah, a sect of rabbinical Judaism which specializes in mystery, they claim any word can be swapped for any other word with the same numerical value: If they share a numerical value, they share a spiritual value too. So if you wanna have a “new revelation,” it’s simple: Pick any verse from the bible, swap a few words with their numerical “equivalents,” and presto: A new teaching!

Take lo tináf, “Don’t adulter.” Ex 20.14 Tináf is worth 531. And so, coincidentally enough, is Florence Henderson. So if you don’t really feel like watching Brady Bunch reruns, there y’go: “According to Kabbalah, Exodus 20.14 can also mean ‘No Florence Henderson.’ So I’m sorry; I just can’t watch that.”Which is all kinds of wrong to both bible and to national treasure Florence Henderson.

John’s advice in Revelation obviously refers to gematria. So we’re permitted to use it to figure out the Beast’s number: Take a given person’s name. Convert it into Hebrew. (Google Translate will do that job for you easily.) Add up the numerical value of the letters.

And once that person’s name adds up to 666, he or she might be the Beast. Might not be. But if they start doing anything Beast-like, the number of their name confirms they’re a valid suspect.

I had a student once who was worried she might be the Beast. So I taught her how to calculate the number of her name. Wasn’t even close. Was that a load off her mind.

Okay. So that’s the proper use of 666: It’s a checksum to make sure someone isn’t the Beast. That’s all. That person who is the Beast will be the person to worry about. The number itself isn’t the problem.

Various other irrational fears.

Of course, I tell people about gematria and they look at me sideways: “I’ve never heard that before. I don’t think that’s right.” And they go back to their other favorite, tried-and-never-proven methods of Beast detection.

Or, more commonly, superstition. Pure pagan, didn’t-come-from-God, never-would-come-from-God, superstition. Any time they come across the number 666, they flinch in fear. Won’t abide it in their phone numbers, their serial numbers, their license plates, anything. If they’re buying groceries and the total comes to $6.66, they quickly buy something else to bump it up to $7.65.

True, the second beast uses the stamp in relation to commerce. Rv 13.17 So Christians are particularly sensitive to 666 in financial transactions. After all, that’s the most likely place the number will come up. There used to be some rumor going round of the word “Visa” secretly representing 666: The VI is obviously the Roman numeral 6; the ancient Greeks used stigma, which kinda looks like an S, for six; and presumably A becomes a six in some other culture, though I’ve yet to see a satisfactory explanation for it. (Ask whichever friends of yours post the most conspiracy theories on Facebook. They’ll know.)

But out of context, the number’s nothing to fear. It only exposes fearful Christians as lacking wisdom.