(18) This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.
“This calls for wisdom” is a call for the readers to apply their knowledge of other things to determine the identity of the beast. The knowledge which they are told to put to the task is mathematics: “count the number of the beast.” This is one of the few occasions in which a number in Revelation is to be taken literally. It is not up to us to decide if a number is to be taken literally, and because we are told that this is a symbolic book (1:1) from the beginning, we must understand every number figuratively unless explicitly told otherwise. And we are almost never told otherwise. In only a few places, like 1:20, 13:18 and 17:7-18, we are given permission to remove our symbolic lenses and consider a literal concept. But how can we take a number (666) and make that into the literal identity of someone or something? It is a challenging thing to grasp in today’s world, but a readily understood idea in the days of Revelation. The English word “calculate” in this verse, is the Greek word ψηφίζω (psephizo), it refers to counting, computing, or calculating with the use of pebbles (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of New Testament Words. Public Domain). So, the idea is that they would literally be able to count out “the number of a man” and get a solution of 666. How is that possible? “Psephizo,” which was just defined, is the verb form of the root “Psephos,” a noun that is defined as a small worn smooth stone or pebble (ibid). When applying this word to the counting of a man’s name, we have the Greek word “isopsephy,” a compound of “isos” (meaning equal) and “psephos” (small stone or pebble). The idea of the word “isopsephy” is to find how many pebbles (numbers) equal a word or the name of a person.
Greek isopsephy had been around for several hundreds of years prior to the first century and was used for a vast amount of purposes. It was the practice of using numerical values instead of words. There was a standard applied to this practice: The first nine letters of the ancient Greek alphabet (Alpha-Theta) were assigned numbers 1-9, counting by ones. The next nine letters (Iota-Qoppa) were assigned numbers 10-90, counting by tens. The final nine letters (Rho-Sampi) were assigned numbers 100-900, counting by hundreds. To illustrate, to find the numerical value of the Greek name Ἰησοῦς (English: Jesus), we must add up all the numbers assigned to each letter in the name (10+8+200+70+400+6). So, in Greek isopsephy, “Jesus” is the number 694. But how common was the practice and knowledge of Greek Isopsephy, and how can we determine that the practice is referred to in Revelation 13:18? Let’s consider some historical examples to reveal the popularity of the practice, and then we will move on to discuss 666 in Revelation 13:18.
The Roman historian Suetonius wrote about the days of Emperor Nero and how he was strangely patient with the “curses and abuses of the people” and “lenient towards those who assailed him with gibes and lampoons.” One example Suetonius gave is of a posted and/or circulated saying that condemned Nero for murdering his mother: “A calculation new. Nero his mother slew.” (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 39:1-2). In Greek isopsephy, the numerical value of Nero is 1,005, and the numerical value of the statement that he killed his own mother is also equal to 1,005. Thus, we have a “calculation,” an equation in the saying, and therefore, the man Nero is propagated to be equivalent to unthinkable murder. This evidence shows that isopsephy was well known by the populace in the mid-first century.
Giuseppe Fiorelli, the chief archeologist over the early excavations of Pompeii (a popular destination city of the Roman world which saw its end in 79 A.D. with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius), wrote in his 1875 work entitled “Descrizione di Pompei” about graffiti found on a wall in the city. On the wall, a romantic vandal carved: “I love her whose number is 545.” Another inscription on the wall said: “Amerimnus thought upon his lady Harmonia for good. The number of her honorable name is 45.” Of course, these are the English translations of the words, but it is tremendous evidence that Greek isopsephy was common practice in the first century.
The Jewish people had the same system of numerical equivalents, only they called it gematria. In the book “The Beast of Revelation,” Kenneth Gentry does a great job of putting all the evidences together for 666 to be applied to Emperor Nero. Using the title “Nero Caesar” (Greek – Neron Kaiser), The name is rewritten in Hebrew (נרון קסר) and the Hebrew letters are assigned their appropriate numbers. When calculating the numbers together, you get six hundred and sixty-six (666). This is a good possibility, maybe even the best possibility, but let’s consider some other ideas.
Titus, the son of Emperor Vespasian, was the leader of the Romans who surrounded Jerusalem, and by his command the great city fell in 70 A.D. One form of Titus’ name is τειταν. The τ (tau) has a value of 300; the ε (epsilon) has a value of 5; the ι (iota) has a value of 10; the second τ (tau) in his name again has a value of 300; the α (alpha) has a value of 1; and finally, the ν (nu) has a value of 50. So, in Greek isopsephy, you get 666. It’s as simple as that. And if someone wants to make an argument for the use of the Hebrew gematria, you will find that translating into Hebrew the official title of Titus, “Titus Flavius Vespasianus Augustus” (which was given to him along with his father in 69 A.D.), will also provide the value 666.
Let’s face it, Isopsephy and gematria are both really easy to do. But if it’s so easy, then why would Revelation 13:18 say that wisdom is needed to calculate the number of the beast? Because you can’t get a name from the number, only a number from the name. Wisdom is needed to understand the context of the vision and consider which individuals on earth are the possibilities; this was the task of the original recipients. Who fits the imagery of the beast? If this is indeed a Roman beast, and we are restrained by the context of things to shortly take place (1:1), then there are a few options for the first century reader: Nero, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. For many reasons Domitian does not play a part in the visions of Revelation (as I address in the appendix on Domitian). But Nero, Vespasian and Titus are much more at home with the themes of Revelation. It is interesting that, in some way, whether isopsephy or gematria, all three of these men hold the number 666. So, the question is, does 666 refer to the identity of the last known head of the beast, Nero? Does it apply to the coming ascension of the next head, Vespasian, to the throne? Or does it apply to Titus, the “eighth” (see comments on 17:11), who, in the following year (70 A.D.), would bring the vengeance of God upon the Jewish people? All the options are good! For me, it’s like a kid in a candy store, with so many good options that they can’t decide what to pick. I cannot convince myself of one over the other, but I leave it in the hands of the original recipients. There would be something about their “wisdom” of the times and the people that would reveal to them the identity of the beast. Such wisdom we just don’t have, because we weren’t there. Having said that, I want to make it clear that I do not find it critical to associate any given person to the number 666. It obviously made more sense to the original recipients than it does to us, and ultimately it was for their understanding. I believe the other details of the beast in chapters 13 and 17 are, for us, the deciding factors of the identity of the beast.