The mark of the beast in Revelation 13
The last book of the Bible, the Revelation of (actually: to) John, is full of wonderous visions. How should we interpret them? One reader had a question specifically about the conclusion of Revelation 13. What do biblical scholars think this means?
The vision in Revelation
In the conclusion of Revelation, after a vision of a dragon and a monstrous beast out of the sea, John sees yet another beast rise, this time out of the earth. It forces all people to worship the first beast and sends down fire from heaven to impress. The second beast makes the people create an image for the first beast, and breathes life into that image. The people must worship that image, or be killed. Also the second beast makes all men wear a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads. Without that mark they will not be able to buy or sell anything. That mark refers to the name or number of the first beast. That number is 666, according to Revelation 13:18.
An overview of history?
In the past, the visions of the book of Revelation have been regarded as a kind of prophecy of what will happen in the course of time. The entire history of the world is assumed to have been described in it in veiled language, up to the end of this world and the coming of the new heaven and the new earth. People looked for clues in the book that would show in which phase the readers were in their own time. Even those who recognized that Revelation did not describe world history from beginning to end sometimes recognised events from their own time in the visions. This way of associative reading is still widespread today, and the book also gives rise to it. An example of this type of reading is that the mark necessary to buy or sell something, is supposed to indicate debit cards and ATMs. Or it is supposed to indicate some new technology, which means that in the future a chip required for payment transactions might be inserted into people.
Revelation in its original time
Biblical scholars are not accustomed to explaining such visions in such a way. They look primarily for the meaning ascribed to the visions by the book's initial listeners and readers. However, for Revelation, that is not always easy to determine. Nevertheless, a common explanation is that the first Christians saw the brute power of the Roman Empire in the dragon and the two beasts. The book is then meant to reflect the pressure and sometimes persecution Christians experienced at the hands of the Roman government. The visions are meant to show God's reaction to this: God and the seemingly defenseless Lamb (Revelation 4-5, 14, 19) finally conquer the persecutors, and Christians will share in that victory. But as is often the case in biblical studies, this explanation has also been contradicted. Before I get into that, let me first mention that Revelation is usually dated to the period 80-96 AD, or the end of the first century. It has been argued that the Roman Empire of that time would have known prosperity and peace. The Roman government would have put little obstacles in the way of Christians in that period. In the alternative explanation of Revelation, the seer John is thought to have used his visions to impose his ideas of the Christian life on the Christians who challenged his authority.
Revelation as warning
Personally, I don't see much merit in this alternative explanation. However, it is clear that the visions are intended to warn the listeners and readers. In an earlier period, when Nero was emperor (from 54 to 68 AD), he had cruelly persecuted the Christians of Rome. The visions intend to warn the listeners and readers that such a time will come again. There was even a belief that Nero, who had died in 68 AD, would come back to life himself. Most likely, the listeners and readers of Revelation experienced limitations in their own time imposed upon them by the Roman Empire. In any case, the explanation of Revelation as relating to the brute power of the Roman Empire is the most common.
666: numbers as riddles
But what does the number 666 mean? To determine this, it is important to know that in those days numbers were represented by letters. That means in addition to the sound they expressed (a, b, g, d, and so on), letters also had a numerical value. At the time, numbers were often given as a riddle, so readers had to find out which word was meant by a number (expressed in letters). In an ancient writing, the Sibylline Oracles (I, 324-330), the number 888 is given. Here, this apparently indicates the name Jesus, since the person in question is referred to as the great son of God. In its Greek form Iêsous, the numerical value of those letters together amounts to 888. If we now convert the name of 'Emperor Nero' into Hebrew, it becomes, without vowels: nrwn qsr, or with vowels: nerōn qesar. In Hebrew, the numerical value of the letters nrwn qsr together is 666. The n = 50, the r = 200, the waw (pronounced ō) = 6, the n = 50, q = 100, the s = 60, the r = 200.
Buying and selling
In general, biblical scholars assume this is the solution to the riddle of the number 666. But what does that have to do with buying and selling? Perhaps this: in those days purchase and rental contracts were provided with the name of the emperor of that time and the year of his reign. For example: “In the second year of the emperor Nero…” or “in the third year of the emperor Domitian…” There were also stamps that were put on bills of sale, which included the emperor's name and regnal year. In addition, the image of the emperor was found on the coins. A transaction was therefore impossible without mentioning the emperor's name. But to the Christians, that emperor represented a dubious power, from which they regularly suffered trouble and sometimes persecution.
This explanation does not clarify how according to Revelation 13:16-17 everyone will receive a mark on the right hand or on the forehead, and only with that mark can they buy or sell anything. That mark is reminiscent of an event described in the third book of Maccabees, from the third century B.C.E. In 3 Maccabees 2:28-29 it says that the Jews of Alexandria were forced to join in the worship of the god Dionysus. The participants had a mark burned on their body; that might have been the forehead or the right hand, because they were clearly visible. However, this practice is not known in the Roman Empire. This element of Revelation 13 was described in the vision, but when it actually 'came true' in those days cannot be said.
Revelation as a book of hope…
This concludes the interpretation of this passage in the context of Christians at the end of the first century. A good question to ask is to what extent such visions have something to say to today's readers. As mentioned earlier: in general these visions evoke all kinds of associations with later events, in dictatorships for example. But it would be wrong to explain the visions as precise predictions of events that are meant to take place centuries later. However, readers today can derive hope from the idea that despite violence and coercion and the oppression of vulnerable people, all things will eventually turn out well for the followers of Jesus, and evildoers will be punished. In addition, healing is promised for the nations in general (Revelation 22:2).
… and as a book of resistance
The book of Revelation is also intended as resistance literature. It says: don't join in the injustice and the violence and brutality of brute powers. Dare to distance yourself from them. Live as a Christian in the footsteps of the vulnerable Lamb, Jesus, who is stronger than the beasts of this world. In my opinion, we should steer clear of debit cards and ATMs. But if we should want to update that image of buying and selling thanks to the mark of the beast to our own time, I have a suggestion. My thoughts move to the ideology of the neoliberal economy, which mainly makes the rich richer but cares little for the poor. That ideology is in the minds of many economists, and determines all too often what people do with their hands.
Read this passageWant to read more?
C.R. Koester, ‘The Number of the Beast in Revelation 13 in Light of Papyri, Graffiti, and Inscriptions’, in Journal of Early Christian History 2016 (op www.tandfonline.com/loi/rech20)