Timeout: “And Its Number Is 666”

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Published:
February 28, 2019

I have had wonderful mentors in biblical studies and medicine, the two arenas of work and study that I have been privileged to pursue. I wish I could invite them all — the many still alive — to a big banquet. At this stage in life, I have an even greater appreciation for what they gave me than I had when I was their student and mentee in person. One of the people I would be sure to invite is Richard J. Bauckham, one of my mentors at the University of St. Andrews. He is one of the leading biblical scholars of his generation, still writing prolifically in retirement near Cambridge University. It is not just that he has written many books. No matter which subject he has delved into throughout his long career, his work is imaginative, thorough, and trend-setting — on the non-canonical apocalypses, the Book of Revelation, the Gospel of John, gospel studies, the Bible and ecology, and most recently the large, Magdala of Galilee: a Jewish City in the Hellenistic and Roman Period (2018).

In Revelation studies, there is no end of books and articles referring to Bauckham’s work or portions of it. I am no exception, and I would love to share a sample of my favorite Bauckham quotes. Instead, I will share one that is not my favorite, a view with which I disagree. The subject is the number “666” in Revelation 13 (13:18). The text, in my wooden translation, reads like this: “Here is a wake-up call for wisdom: whoever has a brain capable of understanding, let him or her figure out the number of the beast, for it is a human number, and its number is 666” (13:18). Gematria is a technical word for numerical representations of someone’s name. Bauckham explains the number “666” as though there is no ambiguity. “The gematria [referring to the number 666] does not merely assert that Nero is the beast: it demonstrates that he is.”

There you have it for the number “666.” Nero is the beast.

For this to work, Nero’s name must be retroverted into Hebrew letters with an –n added to the end. “666,” rightly deciphered in Hebrew lettering, is a numerical code for Neron kaisar.

This “solution” will likely come as a surprise to many in the Seventh-day Adventist community. If it does, it could be an example of surprises that hit communities that tend to be sequestered from time to time. We perhaps prioritize our own interpretation to the complete exclusion of other options — we hardly know that other views exist — and we conveniently escape the task of examining them. In the academic community, Nero’s place in Revelation has wide support, and it rests on other evidence than “666.” In my previous submission, I mentioned Wilhelm Bousset, one of the most influential New Testament scholars of all time. He wrote that the Nero interpretation is so certain that all contrary views have been “dashed to pieces,” and he did not need the number “666” to achieve that level of certainty!

The link to Nero rests on the assumption that Revelation 13 is a parody of the Roman Empire. It takes for granted that the Dragon in the story is mostly a metaphor intended to amplify and magnify earthly realities. In other words, it is earthly events that matter; Revelation describes history in slightly veiled language. Neither heaven nor cosmic concerns impact the plot appreciably. No less an authority than David Aune regards several references to the Dragon in these chapters as later additions. This weakens the cosmic perspective — for no other reason than an interpreter’s bias.

In the parody view, the beast from the earth (11:1) is thought to represent the imperial cult in Asia Minor. When John says that the beast from the earth “performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all” (13:13) and that “it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak” (13:15), the referent is the gadgetry of the imperial cult. The historian Lucian describes “a talking god” at such events, the miracle of speech made possible by connecting cranes’ windpipes together and passing them through the head of the statue, with the voice supplied from outside. This is surely parody if we weigh it against the horizon of the Old Testament. Fire coming down “from heaven to earth” recalls the confrontation between Elijah and the cult of Baal (1 Kings 18:38). A non-human object or creature that can “even speak” recalls the phenomenon of animal speech in Genesis (Genesis 3:1). These texts point to realities exceeding the contrivances of the imperial cult. I consider the notion of parody too trite and narrow. It has meaning only in the sense that the claim to parody is itself a parody of what Revelation is up to.

Imitation is a far better fit. The beast from the sea appears “as if violently killed” (13:3) — it bears the exact stigmata that are the identifying marks of the Lamb (5:6). The beast from the earth “had two horns like a lamb” (13:11). What is this — if not another imitation? The imitation element in the symbol is as obvious as if we were to bring out a picture of a fish and then write “fish” on it. “And it spoke like a serpent,” says John (13:11). On the one hand, the imitation seeks to come across as a believable look-alike. On the other hand, the goal is to reclaim lost territory for the serpent’s point of view. To this end, speech is a major feature for both beasts. We have a big mouth and slanderous words in the case of the sea beast (13:5-6), and speech like that of the serpent in the case of the beast from the earth (13:11). It “could even speak! Imagine that!  

The two witnesses in Revelation 13, the beast from the sea and the beast from the earth, are commissioned to promote the serpent’s side in the cosmic conflict (13:2, 12). They stand in contrast to God’s two witnesses, to whom God grants “authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth” (11:3). One of God’s witnesses is modeled on Elijah (11:6). The two witnesses embody the story of Jesus — not as imitation only but as embodiment (11:7-13). They are not “as if” killed, like the false witnesses in Revelation 13. They are killed and left unburied for three and a half days and then told to “come up here” in an act of vindication that resembles Elijah’s ascent to heaven in a chariot (2 Kings 2:1-2). “Elijah” appears on both sides of the conflict. In Revelation 11, “Elijah” suffers death and resurrection as an embodiment of the story of Jesus (Revelation 11:7-12). In Revelation 13, “Elijah” makes “fire come down from heaven in the sight of all” (13:13). This is the Elijah of Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-38), the uncompromising prophet for a God of power, but the work of this “Elijah” is now employed to deceive those who live on the earth (13:13-15). What in the Old Testament was sure proof of God’s work — fire from heaven — no longer distinguishes the true from the false. It is still persuasive; it has an impact. But the impact goes in favor of the false side. (I have discussed the Moses and Elijah stories at length in separate chapters in God of Sense and Traditions of Non-Sense.)

Above, I presented a quotation from the writings of Richard Bauckham with which I disagree. Here is one with which I agree, describing the character and impact of the witnesses in Revelation 11. He points to telling contrasts between Revelation’s depiction and Old Testament antecedents — in the Book of Esther, the enemies of the people of God are slaughtered (Esther 9:11-15), in Revelation, the people of God are slaughtered (Revelation 11:7; 13:7, 10); in the story of Elijah, the faithful 7,000 are spared (1 Kings 19:18), in Revelation, 7,000 are killed (Revelation 11:13).

The reason why, in the final period of world history, God will not deliver his faithful people by the slaughter of their enemies, as he did in the days of Moses, Elijah and Esther, but instead will allow them to be slaughtered by their enemies, is that this is the way the nations will be brought to repentance and faith, and the sovereignty over them transferred from the beast to the kingdom of God.

A Jesus-like witness is a stable picture of the witnessing community in Revelation. They “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4). The character and quality of this witness is not limited to a certain point in time; it lasts for “1,260 days” (11:3; 12:6) to mirror the ministry of Elijah. By the criterion of quality, tenor, and theology (1 Kings 18:1; Luke 4:25; James 5:17), this witness did not begin in 538 A.D. and it did not end in 1798. It is “the testimony of Jesus” (12:17), his story embodied in the witnessing church in all ages.

What is now the correct meaning of “666,” “the number of his name” (13:17)? The temptation to convert it into someone’s name should be resisted. We need to linger longer inside the text, to internalize its striking conceptions and contrasts. If we manage to resist the urge to decipher “666” into someone’s name, should we have similar caveats with respect to the sea, the earth, and the “forty-two months”? Should space (geography) and time yield to theology and meaning to a greater extent that all schools of interpretation allow? What does “666” say about the beast if we leave it as “666”? It is Satan’s number — Mr. Wormwood, Mr. Darkness, and Mr. Destroyer in the trumpets — and here the master of “666.”

The Beast from the Earth

The second beast came “from the earth” (13:11). From an intra-textual point of view, this is bad news. “The earth” has earlier appeared as an ally of the believing community. In its flight from the Dragon, “the earth came to the rescue of the woman” (12:16). Danger now emerges where it is least expected. “The vision is saying, in the region of apparent safety the dragon will work deceptively to continue its warfare against the woman,” says William Johnsson. This is a respectful reading of the intra-textual witness.    

The Lesson Quarterly gives the symbols of Revelation 13 specific temporal and spatial referents:

The first half of Revelation 13 describes the Roman Catholic power active during the prophetic period of 1,260 days/years. With the events of the French Revolution, this religio-political system received a deadly wound. However, the mortal wound will eventually be healed, restoring this system to life.

[The] earth beast is obviously a new player on the scene, having arisen as a world power after the sea beast received the deadly wound during the events of the French Revolution, which means the earth beast is exclusively an end-time player.

There is a long tradition in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for this interpretation. Uriah Smith gave an unapologetic historical interpretation for the time and location of the beast from the earth:  

But the only remaining system which is exercising a controlling influence in the world to-day is Protestantism. Abstractly considered, paganism embraces all heathen lands, containing more than half the population of the globe. Catholicism, which may perhaps be considered as embracing the religion of the Greek Church, so nearly identical with it, belongs to nations which compose a great portion of Christendom. Mohammedanism is an effete system, which has ceased to be an important factor in the world’s progress. Moreover, it seems to have received enough prophetic attention in Daniel 11 and Revelation 9. But Protestantism is the religion of nations which constitute the vanguard of the world in liberty, enlightenment, progress and power.

Time and circumstances expect of us more nuanced terms because, in times past, we resorted to interpretations conforming to Miles’ Law, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” I believe Uriah Smith was a good man, but he did not always practice good biblical exegesis. His world was more religious than ours and more easily categorized in black and white colors. He says that “Mohammedanism is an effete system, which has ceased to be an important factor in the world’s progress.” This is a demeaning characterization of Islam and a poor perception of conditions in the world today. The important matter for the rest of the world is Roman Catholicism at one side and Protestantism, on the other.

But there is a mighty nation in the Western Hemisphere, worthy, as we have seen, of being mentioned in prophecy, which is not yet brought in; and there is one symbol remaining, the application of which has not yet been made. All the symbols but one are applied, and all the available portions of the Eastern Hemisphere are covered by the applications. Of all the symbols mentioned, one alone, the two-horned beast of Revelation 13, is left; and of all the countries of the earth respecting which any reasons exists why they should be mentioned in prophecy, one alone, the United States government, remains. Do the two-horned beast and the United States belong together?

Smith has an answer, and it is this. “But one conclusion can be drawn from these arguments, and that is that the two-horned beast must be located in the Western Hemisphere, and that it symbolizes the United States.”

The same view is reflected in Ellen G. White’s book, The Great Controversy, and it is quoted in the Quarterly. The Great Controversy carries the ball for the view developed communally by Seventh-day Adventists and articulated most succinctly by Uriah Smith.

What nation of the New World was in 1798 rising into power, giving promise of strength and greatness, and attracting the attention of the world? The application of the symbol admits of no question. One nation, and only one, meets the specifications of this prophecy; it points unmistakably to the United States of America (The Great Controversy, p. 440).

There is an element of “imitation” in these views, too, but the main emphasis is historical prediction. Imitation concentrates on the aspiration to look like the Lamb (13:3; 5:6). Prediction concentrates on historical near-death and resurgence with time and space well defined. The decoding approach prioritizes history over theology, in this case the Roman Catholic Church and the United States of America in prophecy (not the Roman Empire and the imperial cult).

I advise against decoding the number “666.” My respect for “666” — to leave it as it is — is consistent with a reading that prioritizes imitation. A view that emphasizes the imitative aspirations of the two beasts safeguards all the concerns of those who are committed to historical prediction — without the risks. Let me state some risks as bullet points.

First, “imitation” can be done on grounds that are exegetically sound.

Second, while there will be obstacles from the “parody camp,” “imitation” can be defended persuasively.

Third, this view did not have to wait until the nineteenth century to appear.

Fourth, it avoids the risk of “othering.”

To know conclusively who is good and who is bad in the world freezes our perceptions of others. It has frozen perceptions vis-à-vis our faith community, the Roman Catholic Church, and “fallen Protestantism.” Sclerotic caricatures of the “other” can lead to conceit on our part. Revelation targets them, and we are the ones who have been chosen to take it to them.

Fifth, it reduces the risk of idolatry.

One type of idolatry is to place oneself where God should be. If I were to decide whether Revelation is a book about God or a book about the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it would be an easy decision. I still think so.

Sixth, Seventh-day Adventists in North America continue to believe that the Roman Catholic Church is the beast from the sea, but they no longer believe that the United States is the beast from the earth.

Practice belies profession. I probably believe the traditional view more than many who will fault me for not believing it strongly enough. During the past decades, Seventh-day Adventists in North America have been more willing to participate in America’s wars as combatants than SDAs used to be. Patriotic and nationalist sentiments have been more conspicuous at church services. Notions of “America First” resonate in the Adventist community, too, without considering the global nature of our message and community. On a matter dear to me, Adventists show similar disdain for the environment as other Christian communities. By these criteria, I, who wish for exegetical improvements on the old view, might wish that American Seventh-day Adventists still believed in the traditional position.

If Revelation Were Parody

Interpreters who see Revelation as a parody of the Roman Empire offer a robust critique of empire in general: unaccountable authority, predatory economics (Revelation 18), environmental nihilism, lack of transparency, adulation of military power, and repression of dissent. Before “America First,” there was “Roman Empire First” with the goal, as Paul Zanker puts it, “to project onto future generations the impression that they lived in the best of all possible worlds in the best of all times.” The take-home messages from the “parody camp” should not be ignored or dismissed. That time, like ours, was a great time for “alternative facts” and “fake news,” with the emperor and his enablers orchestrating the propaganda.

 

Further Reading:

Revelation: For Re-Readers Only, January 5, 2019

Apokalypsis, January 8, 2019

Revelation and the Neighborhood, January 14, 2019

Timeout: Revelation and the Crisis of Historicism, January 18, 2019

Crisis in the Heavenly Council, January 21, 2019

Timeout: Cosmic Conflict vs. Historicism, January 25, 2019

Silence in Heaven — for about Half an Hour, January 28, 2019

Timeout: From Daniel to Revelation, February 1, 2019

Revelation 7: The 144,000 and the 233,000, February 4, 2019

Timeout: Storm Clouds over Historicism, February 7, 2019

Revelation’s Trumpets: The Devil is in the Details, February 11, 2019

Timeout: Disarray and Trivia in the Trumpets, February 14, 2019

Revelation 12: Don’t Rush at Ground Zero, February 19, 2019

Timeout: “1,260 Days” and the Smoke Signals in Flyover Country, February 22, 2019

Revelation 13: “The Dragon’s Story,” February 26, 2019

 

Sigve K. Tonstad is Research Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Loma Linda University.

Image: “The Number of the Beast is 666,” painting by William Blake (1805). Credit: Wikimedia Commons / public domain.

 

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