The Number of the Beast
Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six. Rev xiii 18
The Revelation of St John the Divine, the last book of the Bible, is very strange. Many mad people, and millenarians, have been inspired by it; and people who have studied it have often been suspected of dangerous insanity. Even the fact that it has been put at the end of the New Testament suggests that the editors did not quite know what to do with it. Most likely it was included because of its attribution to St John, for several Revelations (or Apocalypses, if you prefer the Greek) are known to exist. I will examine its historical context later. First, I will try to identify the Beast from the information given above.
Robert Graves the poet, who dabbled in biblical history not always successfully, suggests that 666 is an acrostic in Latin. It goes like this:
X risti (Christi)
“Domitius Caesar (that is, Nero) impiously slaughtered the legions of Christ.”
The main, and I think conclusive reason for dismissing this interpretation is that whatever else Revelation is, it is a hysterical attack on the Roman government. It was written by Jews, for Jews. The chances of the name of the Beast being coded in Latin is infinitesimal. Something else rather odd occurs to the reader: it does not appear to have been written in Greek, even if the version that has come down to us was translated by St Jerome from Greek to Latin. My guess is that it was written in Aramaic, as the Sermon on the Mount has recently been shown to have been.
Let us look at Greek to see what we can discover, if anything. Greek numerals were actually alphabetic characters, representing co-ordinates on a chequerboard. To represent all the numbers from 1 to 999, twenty-seven characters are required, grouped in three sets of nine. (This numeral system is still known in modern Greece, where it is used on calendars.)
900. SAMPI otherwise EPISEMION
The letters that are printed in bold capitals are letters that were lost from the normal Greek alphabet, and only retained for numerals. Digamma looked like the Latin F, and indeed the Latin letter originated from an early version of the Greek alphabet. The same applies to Qoppa, represented in Latin as Q. Sampi was a makeweight to make up the full set. The number 666 would therefore be represented as Chi Xi Digamma, which cannot possibly mean anything at all.
That only leaves one other possibility, which is Hebrew characters. These were used as numerals in the same way that Greek characters were. This time, the standard alphabet only had twenty-two characters, so five extra ones were required. Fortunately, five characters have a special form if they appear at the end of a word. So we get the full set of twenty-seven as follows:
500. final kaph
600. final mem
700. final nun
800. final pe
900. final tzaddi
The number 666 therefore comes out as final mem, samech, waw. Imagine my disappointment when faced with a word that begins, impossibly, with a final consonant. Salvation came when I learned that in the semitic languages numbers are cited with the units first, then the tens, then the hundreds and so on; that is, in reverse order from what we are used to. So now we get
waw, samech, final mem.
Now we have a word to represent the beast. It is w-s-m. Vowels are not written. I do have a Pakistani friend whose Arabic name is Wasim, which means “noble”. But I have not found a Hebrew word with those consonants in that order. Even so, it is said that every number between one and 999 has a corresponding word in Hebrew, even if some of them are rather contrived.
At this point we have drawn something of a blank. We have a name, but we cannot identify the person named. We have to go back to Revelation to see if we can find any further clues. Try Revelation xvii 9:
“And here is the mind that hath wisdom. The seven heads are seven mountains, on which the woman sitteth.” (Rome was built on seven hills).
Plus Revelation xvii 18:
“And the woman which thou sawest is that great city, which reigneth over the kings of the earth.” (Confirming the identification with Rome).
Furthermore, add in Revelation xvii 10-11:
“And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space.
And the beast that was, and is not, even he is the eighth, and is of the seven, and goeth into perdition.”
The Roman Emperors would seem to be a match. Let us itemise them:
Augustus BC27 – AD14
Tiberius AD14 – 37
Caligula 37 - 41
Claudius 41 - 54
Nero 54 – 68
Galba 68 – 69
Vespasian 69 – 79
Vespasian was the general who was charged with subduing the big Jewish revolt that broke out in 66AD response to Nero's insistence that his bust should be placed within the Temple at Jerusalem. So he is the best fit for being the Beast. However, he appears as number nine in the above list. Can we explain that?
Actually, yes. One should observe that the weather patterns in the Eastern Mediterranean provide for an alternation of South-Easterly winds and North-Westerly winds. That means that marine traffic was governed by the prevailing wind. That meant that Vitellius's official busts never got to the Eastern Mediterranean before Vespasian invaded Italy and took the Empire for himself. So Vespasian was Number Eight. He left his son Titus, who was to succeed him as Emperor, in charge of putting down the rebellion.
If we are right in our deductions, Vespasian is W-s-m, the Beast. Therefore Revelation was written in the year 69AD, while the rebels were still holding out. Jerusalem was captured in 70AD. The full story, written in Greek and no doubt doctored for a Roman readership, appears in The Jewish Wars by Flavius Josephus, who had been a commander of the Jewish rebels on the Galilee front, but changed sides presumably to save his skin. Was W-s-m a representation of the name Vespasianus? Or a no doubt uncomplimentary nickname? It ought to be possible to investigate this line of enquiry a little further.