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What Is the Mark of the Beast?

Categories New Testament

This post is adapted from material found in Craig Keener’s Revelation online course.

The book of Revelation speaks of several beasts. Perhaps the most famous is the beast found in Revelation 13:11–18. And this beast comes with a mark—the number 666.

What, or who, is this beast? What does this mark mean? And in light of the wildly different interpretations of this passage—both in our own time, and throughout the church’s history—how should we think about the mark of the beast today?

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The use of marks in the ancient world

The use of a mark to enforce national or empire-wide unity already had a long history known to John’s audience.

For example, Ptolemy IV Philopator, ruler of Egypt, required Jewish people in his realm to be enrolled in a census and to be branded with an ivy leaf, the symbol of Dionysus (3 Macc. 2:28–29).

This mark stands in direct contrast to the seal of Revelation 7:3–4, which alludes to a “mark” on the righteous in Ezekiel 9:4–6.

Whereas the mark on the righteous was to protect them in Ezekiel (cf. also Gen. 4:15; Ps. Sol. 15:6–7), the idea of a mark of destruction on the forehead of the wicked also predates Revelation (Ps. Sol. 15:8–9, where the mark is literally a “sign”).

Both Ezekiel’s mark on the righteous and the mark on the wicked in the Psalms of Solomon are symbolic marks visible only to God and his angels, not to people.

Perhaps more important is the idea of a slave brand, though branding on the forehead was a sign of disgrace rather than loyalty; similar is the idea of branding soldiers on the hands as a sign of loyalty.

Learn more in Craig Keener's Revelation online course.

How to find the meaning behind the number 666

Revelation 13:17–18 tells us that the mark “is the name of the beast or the number of its name. . . . Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man. That number is 666.”

In other words, the mark of the beast is the number 666—and this number means something.

But what?

Some scholars think that the meaning made sense to the first audience but is now forever lost. The reason scholars think this is because enigmatic riddles like this were common in prophecies (e.g., Sib. Or. 3.812; Mark 13:14), and the meaning of these riddles was often clear to the original audience, but is now lost (e.g., Phaedrus, 3.1.7).

But we should not give up so quickly. After all, John clearly invites us to interpret the riddle: “Let the person who has insight calculate the number of the beast.” This implies that the answer was accessible at least to believers in the seven churches, and possibly to modern readers, too. It is even possible that John wants us to look for a particular name. In fact, his use of the word “calculate” looks like a technical invitation to gematria.

What is gematria?

Gematria is the practice of interpreting words according to the numerical value of their constituent Hebrew letters.

Here’s how it works.

Greek and Hebrew both used letters as numerals, and that numeric system was well-established: names often appear as numbers in graffiti recovered from the Roman Empire. Calculating names of rulers as numbers based on first initials was also standard practice in one Jewish prophecy tradition. So the idea of a number referring to someone’s name would not have struck John’s original readers as odd.

Before dismissing this method as finding a meaning that doesn’t exist, we need to be aware that it was practiced by many Jews and some early Christians during this era.

But what name?

At first glance, narrowing the list to a particular name seems impossible without knowing the key to the riddle. Many names could fit 666. For example, Irenaeus writes in the second century of this passage:

It is not through a want of names containing the number of that name that I say this, but on account of the fear of God, and zeal for the truth: for the name Evanthas (ΕΥΑΝΘΑΣ) contains the required number, but I make no allegation regarding it. Then also Lateinos (ΛΑΤΕΙΝΟΣ) has the number six hundred and sixty-six. . . . Teitan too, (ΤΕΙΤΑΝ, the first syllable being written with the two Greek vowels ε and ι, among all the names which are found among us, is rather worthy of credit. . . . Inasmuch, then, as this name Titan has so much to recommend it, there is a strong degree of probability, that from among the many [names suggested], we infer, that perchance he who is to come shall be called Titan. (Irenaeus, Her. 5.30)

However, the majority of commentators find an allusion to Nero Caesar’s name as written in Hebrew characters here. Let’s take a look at why this might be the case.

Is Nero the beast?

Some commentators doubt that the spelling of “Nero Caesar,” which comes out to “666,” was the most natural way to spell the name in Hebrew. But archaeologists have uncovered a document from the Judean desert that spells the name precisely this way. Interestingly, some copyists preferred for “666” the questionable reading “616,” which is another way that one could count “Nero Caesar” (omitting a debatable letter).

Another objection comes from those who say Revelation was written in Greek—not Hebrew. While that may be true, it’s likely John’s audience would have been familiar with Hebrew. Many Jewish Christians moved to Asia after the fall of Judea in the war of A.D. 66–70, and many of them would have known some Hebrew.

Even though we can’t know for sure, a majority of commentators do find an allusion to Nero Caesar’s name in this passage.

Learn more in Craig Keener's Revelation online course.

How the mark of the beast is misunderstood

One error in applying Revelation 13:17–18 to today’s world is to ignore its broader message for the sake of a particular prophetic reading that requires one to read many apocalyptic-prophetic texts literally.

Another danger is to fixate on this text apart from its context in the rest of Revelation. Thus, some who rightly warn of end-time deception unfortunately issue a blanket condemnation of all signs and wonders.

But this is an inconsistent application of the text. If we take seriously the false signs of the devil’s agents (13:13), we should also take seriously the true signs of Christ’s agents (11:5–6). Signs by themselves can be positive or negative; what enables us to discern true prophets from false ones is not to discard prophets altogether, but to evaluate them by their moral character. The point is that we know them by their message and their fruit, not by their gifts (Deut. 13:1–5; Matt. 7:15–23).

Additionally, some have associated restraint from buying and selling with a sophisticated banking system.

Revelation 13:17 says “they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name.”

You could do little in commerce in the ancient world (13:17) without handling such a “mark,” because allusions to the emperor’s divinity appeared on many coins and even shipping bills and other documents.

In fact, a mid-third-century emperor demanded certificates of sacrifice to the emperor to participate in commerce and escape prosecution; he likely sought to eradicate Christians.

Many Christians compromised by bribing officials or by using other practices; some preferred death and were accordingly executed.

Even in John’s day, however, one could not handle money without involvement in the imperial system.

To withdraw from an economic system permeated with imperial worship—even to withdraw from trade guilds, whose meetings included meat offered to idols—was in many cities economic suicide. Well-to-do Jewish communities in cities like Sardis had much to lose by boycotting the system, and Christian merchants as a smaller minority would lose even more. Under other circumstances, a blockade preventing some from buying and selling could lead to their starvation (1 Macc. 13:49).

Many prophecy teachers have speculated on how the Antichrist will install a literal mark, noting (correctly) that computer technology exists that can do so. That some future Antichrist may seek to use a mark is possible, especially if he or she acts in direct defiance of the book of Revelation.

In translating the principles of the text as lessons for our own situations, we need to remember how concretely the text would have spoken in John’s day. The demand that inhabitants of the empire worship the emperor’s image (and other statues of deities) was a dramatic insult to the honor due God alone.

Today the world often offers more subtle opportunities for allegiance to God’s competitors or ways to deny God’s supremacy in our lives.

The early Christians were not called to tear down physical idols and insult their neighbors’ beliefs (which would have proved an ineffective witness in any case), but they could not share in their idolatry.

If Christ is Lord of our lives, we must graciously part company with much of what our contemporaries value, not only morally but recreationally and in other respects—misfits in our culture though we may appear.

Does someone have the mark of the beast today?

Prophecy teachers have forced many names to come to 666. Some sixteenth-century interpreters came up with either the Pope or Martin Luther, depending on which side of the Reformation debate they stood on. Among the more creative suggestions of the late twentieth century was the view that Ronald Reagan’s name implied this number (having six letters in his first, middle, and last names)!

Christians who have suffered intense persecution and martyrdom have often supposed that they were suffering the final Tribulation before Christ’s return. And why not? They may have been wrong that Christ would return in their generation, but each generation had a right to expect him.

From the standpoint of their own experience of martyrdom, many Christians have been engaged in their own final struggle with the forces of Antichrist (see Luke 12:4; 1 John 2:18). When Stalin, for instance, murdered ten to thirty million people in seventeen years, we would have undoubtedly thought him the final Antichrist had we lived in the Ukraine—and we could have been right, God willing.

In a future holocaust we will probably think its perpetrator the final Antichrist—and we may be right.

But if history surprises us once more, we will be reminded of how the mystery of lawlessness continues its hideous incarnations until the end. This affirms what Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 2:7: “For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.”

Additionally, Satan does not know when Jesus will return (Mark 13:30) and must always have an antichrist in waiting. Because neither we nor Satan know the time of the end, all such antichrists are experienced as antichrists, but what will finally indicate that we have witnessed the final Antichrist will be Jesus’ return to wipe him out.

Learn more in Craig Keener's Revelation online course.

How should we think about the mark of the beast today?

Billy Graham imagines a situation in which a Christian in the ancient world is offered freedom if he or she will simply engage in a ritual act of offering incense to Caesar. Who would be so stubborn as to choose suffering over such a simple act? But the act constituted “a symbol of a wider disobedience,” and Christ summons his true disciples to refuse the compromise as unacceptable.

In a broader sense, this temptation merely mirrors all temptations to assimilate the world’s values that deny the kingdom of God. Would the early Christians adopt their society’s values (Rev. 2:14, 20; 3:16–18)? Or would they “come out” (18:4)? It is a question that continues to challenge today’s church.

By the time Revelation was written, many arrogant rulers had already offered themselves for a portrait of the Antichrist by exalting themselves as gods, such as kings of Babylon (Isa. 14:12–14; Dan. 3:5), Tyre (Ezek. 28:2, 9), Pharaoh (29:3), Antiochus IV Epiphanes (perhaps Dan. 11:36–37), and other pagan rulers (Ps. 82:1, 6–7).

In Rome itself, before Domitian came, Gaius Caligula and Nero had exalted themselves as gods. And the spirit of the evil empire that exalts itself as god exists in oppressive, totalitarian regimes today.

But what should frighten us even more is that the same spirit of the self-deifying empire remains in every human heart that seeks to make itself the center of life while burying thoughts of its own mortality.

The real Lamb died in weakness and was raised by God’s power; the fake lamb promotes one who pretends to have recovered no less significantly (13:12).

Satan’s counterfeits derive their false legitimacy from imitating God, so those who do not embrace the hard message of the cross and its suffering are susceptible to succumbing to counterfeits.

Because Satan’s counterfeits imitate God’s works, it is not surprising that false signs continue to lead many people astray today; some are fake, whereas others are demonic.

Revelation allows for no divided allegiance: We must decide between God and the world and between what each side values.

Yet we cannot read this passage’s warning properly without also grasping the rest of the book: Every Babylon of the past has fallen, and so will every empire that oppresses us (18:2; 19:2).

The future belongs not to Babylon but to the faithful, whose home is the Jerusalem to come (21:2–8).


This post is adapted from material found in Craig Keener’s online course on the book of Revelation. The mark of the beast is covered in much greater detail in unit 10, which includes a 30-minute introductory video to Revelation 13, along with detailed commentary on the historical context and additional notes on how we should understand this text today.

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