Revelation 16:2 and 19:20 cite the "mark of the beast" as a sign that identifies those who worship the beast out of the sea ( Rev 13:1 ). This beast is usually identified as the antichrist. This mark is first mentioned in 13:16-17, where it is imposed on humanity by the beast out of the earth ( 13:11 ). This second beast is the false prophet ( 19:20 ), who forces the worship of the antichrist and brands those who do so with the mark. This mark is equivalent to the beast's name or number ( 13:17 ; cf. 14:11 ). This enigmatic number is announced in 13:18 as 666.
The term "mark" has no special biblical usage apart from its association with the beast. The Greek term charagma [cavragma] was most commonly used for imprints on documents or coins. Charagma [cavragma] is well attested to have been an imperial seal of the Roman Empire used on official documents during the first and second centuries. This term does not occur in the Septuagint, and its use in the church fathers is insignificant. The only other reference to charagma [cavragma] in the New Testament besides those in Revelation, is Acts 17:29, where it stands for an image formed by art. A more common term for "mark" or "brand" is stigma [stivgma] in its noun and verb forms. Branding was practiced in the ancient world, and even in relation to religious concerns. Religious tattooing was observed (cf. Lucian, Syr. Dea 59; Herodotus 2.113). Third Maccabees 2:29 records an incident in which Jews were branded by Ptolemy Philopator I (217 b.c.) with the Greek religious Dionysian ivy-leaf symbol. The "mark" on Cain in Genesis 4:15 is rendered by semeion [shmei'on] in the Septuagint, the term for "sign." Paul's reference to his bearing in his body the "marks" of Jesus ( Gal 6:17 ) utilizes stigma [stivgma], not charagma [cavragma].
The contextual significance of marking those who worship the beast may be accounted for by noting how this motif answers to the seal on the foreheads of those who worship the Lamb ( Rev 7:3 ; 14:1 ). This contrast is particularly noted in 20:4, where those who are martyred for the Lamb are resurrected to reign with Christ. The mark and seal well image the two earthly groups who dominate the narrative.
The interpretive difficulty in understanding the mark of the beast resides in identifying what response John expected by his challenge in Revelation 13:18 to calculate the number of the beast. The process of working from a number to a name was an ancient process called gematria in Hebrew and isopsephia in Greek. Many ancient languages utilized the letters of the alphabet for their numerical systems. The letter and number ratio was known by all. This existing process was used in enigmatic statements to conceal the identity of the person under consideration. An oft-quoted graffito from Pompeii (about a.d. 79) reads "I love her whose number is 545." Only those who knew the name or the pool of candidates could work out the riddle. The apocalyptic Sibylline Oracles used "888, " the numerical equivalent of Iesous [ÅIhsou'"] (Greek letters for Jesus), as an indirect reference to Jesus as the incarnate God. Therefore, John could have expected his audience to solve the riddle, but only if there was a shared pool of understanding concerning the enigmatic nature of the reference.
The history of interpretation concerning the correlation of a person with the number 666 has only resulted in endless speculations. One of the most prominent candidates has been the first-century Roman emperor Nero. A rare rendering of his name into Neron Caesar, transliterated into Hebrew as nrwn qsr, renders the number 666 (nun/50, resh/200, waw/6, nun/50, qof/100, samech/60, and resh/200 = 666). This rare form of Nero's name was actually found in an Aramaic document from Qumran (cf. John's play on Hebrew words in the Book of Revelation at 9:11 and 16:16 ). It is also noteworthy that a variant reading in Greek New Testament manuscripts exits that cites the number as "616" rather than "666." The transliteration of the normal Nero Caesar into the Hebrew nrw qsr, renders the number 616. There was also a belief in a revived Nero as the antichrist from the first century (cf. book 5 of the Sibylline Oracles) to the time of Augustine, who cites this idea in The City of God.
Irenaeus, however, wrote within a century of the apostle John and did not mention Nero. He proposed a number of options, including lateinos, meaning a Latin (30 + 1 + 300 + 5 + 10 + 50 + 70 + 200 = 666), and thus a Roman ruler, and teitan, a Roman name with which he was enamored (Contra Haereses 5.29-30). A few modern scholars have noted that the numbers can also argue for a connection with Babylon and Nimrod. The list is expanded with the creative use of numbers during times of modern crises (e.g., Hitler was a major candidate during World War II).
It is possible that John merely intended the number to be symbolic of what the beast and his followers represent: humankind in their ultimate rebellion against God, his Lamb, and the followers of the Lamb. John explains in 13:18 that the number 666 is the number of man. The number 7 is well established as a number of completeness or perfection. The number 6, being one less than 7, may symbolize humankind, which falls short of perfection. Irenaeus notes that the image set up by Nebuchadnezzar was 60 cubits high by 6 cubits wide. The number 666 could well personify the imperfection of man, even implying in the triple number the unholy trinity of the dragon, antichrist, and the false prophet. The identity of those who follow the Lamb or the beast is self-evident to the observer, whether it is the first century or the eschatological future. The vision calls John and his audience to discern the spirit of sinful humanity that accompanies the antichrist rather than to decode his identity.
Gary T. Meadors
Bibliography. R. Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy; I. T. Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John; M. E. Boring, Revelation; G. A. Deissmann, Bible Studies; G. E. Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John; J. Massyngberde Ford, Revelation; R. H. Mounce, The Book of Revelation; H. B. Swete, Commentary on Revelation; J. Swete, Revelation.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Mark of the Beast'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".