What’s the Deal With Revelation? Part 3: The Beast and Its Mark

By: Robert Ward - Sept. 4, 2022


Of all the attention given Revelation, few concepts are the center of as much controversy as the identity of the beast and the corresponding “mark of the beast.” Countless proposals have been given for possible “beasts”, including popes, presidents, and emperors. Ideas for the nature of the mark are no less, er, imaginative, and have included barcodes, fingerprint readers, and more recently (and absurdly), the COVID vaccines. However, many scholars have found more likely (and perhaps less alarming) candidates for the identity of the beast and its mark by looking back instead of forward.

As discussed in parts 1 and 2, Revelation is best understood if read as a first-century document written to a first-century audience. Therefore, the best proposals for understanding the beast and its mark are those that are relevant to first-century Asia Minor. There are two literary features that are most significant for determining the identity of the beast.

  1. The number of the beast.

Integral to discovering the identity of the beast is Rev 13:18: “This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number for a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.”[1] Many proposals for “decoding” the number have used gematria or related concepts such that a name of a person adds up to 666. Importantly, contrary to some more aubsurd claims, the number in Greek is “ἑξακόσιοι ἑξήκοντα ἕξ [literally “six hundred and sixty-six],” rather than a repetition of  “6” three times. In fact, in both Hebrew and Greek, there would have been no way to represent 666 with three repeating symbols.[2] Beale, who finds the use of gematria unsatisfactory (since there are so many possible solutions), suggests that the number is symbolic. He asserts that seven is the number of “completeness,” and that six is the number of incompleteness. Therefore, Revelation uses 666 as a way of demonstrating incompleteness.[3] However, there are two key problems with this perspective: first, if seven is the number of completeness, then the number of the beast would intuitively be six, not 666; second, as Koester points out, neither six nor seven appear to be consistently applied in this way in Revelation: the beast has seven heads (12:3) and the angels around the throne have six wings (4:8).[4]

One of the most frequently proposed candidates for the identity of the beast is the Emperor Nero. Using Hebrew Gematria, the name “Caesar Neron” (נרון קסר) equals 666. Some object to this possibility by noting that this spelling is defective, missing a letter in Caesar.[5] However, the shorter spelling is attested in several ancient Hebrew documents.[6] Bodner and Strawn further object that it is unlikely to be Nero, since no early interpreters attributed the number to him, even though he had a reputation as a persecutor of the church.[7] However, this may simply be that most interpreters would have been unfamiliar with Hebrew, and thus unable to properly solve the riddle. In fact, Mounce suggests that “In view of the widely divergent and highly speculative solutions to the riddle it seems best to conclude that John intended only his intimate associates to be able to decipher the number.” While the identity of the beast may not be as speculative as Mounce suggests, it is certainly possible that the riddle could only be solved by a small number.[8]

  1. The description of the beast itself.

As important as the Number of the Beast is, also important is the description of the beast itself. Given Revelation’s highly symbolic nature, it would be unwise to expect a one-one correspondence between the description of the beast and a historical figure, but some correspondence is necessary for the identification of the beast to have significance. As Koester notes, the phrase “let anyone with understanding” is an invitation for readers to solve the riddle of who John is referring to.[9] For our purposes, the most important part of the description is verse 14: “and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived.” This, and a portion of chapter 17, is noted by many scholars to be a reference to the Nero redivivus myth.[10] While there are many forms of the Nero redivivus myth, the most rudimentary concept was that Nero had not actually died and would return to Rome. However, Revelation does not use one, but rather two forms of this myth. In his book The Climax of Prophecy, Richard Bauckham surveys passages in the Jewish Sibylline Oracles (all broadly contemporaneous with Revelation) that use the myth in related, but distinct ways.[11] He outlines that there are three major forms that the myth takes:

  1. Nero flees and returns with an army from the east to pillage Rome;
  2. Similar to the first, but Nero is presented as the “eschatological adversary of the people of God;”[12]
  3. Nero is presented wholly as an apocalyptic Jewish figure, with little in common with other forms of the myth other than that he had not really died and would return.

Bauckham argues that in chapter 13, John is using this third form, while in chapter 17 he uses the second.[13] While a direct literary relationship between Revelation and the Jewish Sibylline Oracles cannot be established, it is possible that these myths existed in Jewish communities outside their literary forms, and thus that john knew of them. At any rate, Bauckham’s identification of distinctions in Revelation’s use of the Nero redivivus myth is likely correct. In chapter 13, there is little mention of the myth outside its most rudimentary form, but in chapter 17, John tells of the destruction of Rome by Nero.[14]

Given that John uses multiple forms of the Nero redivivus myth, it is likely that he was not prophesying the literal and eventual return of Nero, but rather that he was using Nero as an exemplar of Roman violence and corruption.

That the beast motif makes use of the Nero redivivus myth is the strongest evidence that the beast was meant to refer to Nero. As Koester points out, the literary description of the beast would have been useful to those who were attempting to determine its identity.[15] The combination of the number of the beast and the literary description mean that Nero is far and away the most likely candidate.

 

The Mark of the Beast

Unfortunately, the nature of the mark of the beast is less certain than the number. There have been many proposed solutions, including: a stamp on official documents,[16] Roman Coins,[17] branding,[18] or less literally, pressure to participate in the imperial court within trade guilds.[19] In one sense, the variety of proposals is due to an embarrassment of riches: there are simply too many ways Christians could have lost economic opportunity by being faithful to Christ as John sees it. Each of these proposals have positive and negative aspects, but none of them bear a direct correspondence to the mark of the beast. However, as is the case with the Nero redivivus myth, it is not clear that John intends direct correspondence. Rather, John’s primary agenda in describing this mark is in juxtaposition with the mark that Christians receive in 14:1: “Then I looked, and there was the Lamb, standing on Mount Zion! And with him were one hundred forty-four thousand who had his name and his Father’s name written on their foreheads.” It is unlikely that Christians literally bore a mark designating themselves as such, so the mark of the beast may not have been literal either. Rather, this marking explicitly distinguishes the followers of the Lamb with the followers of the beast.

In broad terms, all the proposals for the mark of the beast contain a common thread: they all describe various ways that Christians could have compromised their faithfulness to Christ by participating in the Roman economic system. As noted in part 2, John takes strong objections to many facets of the Roman empire. He wanted the churches to whom he wrote to reconsider their own position within the empire, and withdraw from it rather than capitulate. By refusing the mark, whatever that may have been, Christians would have lost status, opportunity, or convenience.

There are many questions about the beast and its mark that remain unanswered. Indeed, there will likely never be a comprehensive and satisfactory explanation for exactly what John intended. However, by looking in the past instead of the future, we can gain a clearer picture.

 

 

Bibliography

Bauckham, Richard. Climax of Phrophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. London: T & T Clark, 1993.

Beale, G. K. The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek New Testament Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999.

Beckwith, Ibson T. The Apocalypse of John: Studies in Introduction with a Critical and Exegetical Commentary. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2001. Reprint.

Bodner, Keith and Brent A. Strawn. “Solomon and 666 (Revelation 13.18),” New Testament Studies 66 (2020) 299–312.

Collins, Adela Yarbro. Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984.

Gainsford, Peter. “The Number of the Beast,” Kiwi Hellenist, June 14, 2018, https://kiwihellenist.blogspot.com/2018/06/the-number-of-beast.html.

Koester, Craig R. Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Yale Bible Commentary vol 38A. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University, 2014.

———. “The Number of the Beast in Revelation 13 in Light of Papyri, Graffiti, and Inscriptions,” Journal of Early Christian History 6:3 (2016) 1–21.

Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997.

 

 

[1] All Scripture quotations are taken from the NRSV.

[2] While not an academic source, classicist Peter Gainsford has a well-written introduction to the number of the beast: See Gainsford, “Number of the Beast” (blog), June 14, 2018.

[3] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 721–722.

[4] Koester, “The Number of the Beast,” 12.

[5] Bodner and Strawn, “Solomon and 666,” 301.

[6] Koester, “The Number of the Beast,” 15–18. Bodner and Strawn are oddly dismissive of this fact, saying that the fact that defective spelling was used is “only slightly helpful and hardly definitive.” Bodner and Strawn, “Solomon and 666, 301 fn. 7.

[7] Bodner and Strawn, “Solomon and 666,” 301–302.

[8] Mounce, The Book of Revelation, 264. Koester argues that the ability to solve the riddle would give a person a higher social status than those who could not, and that there were some in the communities John wrote to who would have likely been able to solve it. See Koester, “The Number of the Beast,” 18–19.

[9] Koester, “The Number of the Beast,” 6.

[10] Bauckham, Climax of Prophecy, 407.

[11] Ibid, 414–423.

[12] Ibid, 417.

[13] Ibid, 423.

[14] Bauckham argues that Rev. 16:12 serves as a precursor to Rev. 17:9–18. See Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy, 429–431.

[15] Koester, “The Number of the Beast,” 13.

[16] Beckwith, The Apocalypse of John, 641–2.

[17] Collins, Crisis and Catharsis, 126.

[18] Beale, The Book of Revelation, 715.

[19] Koester, Revelation, 595-6.





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Robert Ward

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I completed my BA in Christian studies in 2018, and I am currently a graduate (MA) student in New Testament in Hamilton, Ontario. My research interests include: Old Testament textual criticism, Revelation, Apocalyptic literature, Bibliology, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.


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