Growing up with dispensationalist parents and acquaintances, the end times, Antichrist, and mark of the beast were topics that came up not infrequently. Add in Pentecostalism, Satanic Panic, and an unhealthy preoccupation with flavour-of-the-month charismatic prophets, and you have the makings for some bizarre biblical hermeneutics.
The fact of the matter is that end times prophecy, the mysterious number 666, and the identity of the Antichrist have all been subjects pursued with pseudo-scholarly gusto by Christian writers and evangelists (particularly in the Anglosphere) over the past few decades. For the lay Christian with a casual interest in eschatology, deliberation over who the Antichrist is (present tense intended) and the meaning of 666 offers a fascinating opportunity to involve oneself in things that seem both spiritual and important. In fact, the discussion has become productized, with each self-styled end-times teacher and prophet hocking his or her own theories as truth.
No Theory Left Behind
One of the great things about higher criticism of the Bible is its ability to provide real insight as to what the stranger passages of the Bible were meant to convey to their intended readers—who were not us, by the way. But before taking a look at the actual text and context of Revelation, let’s amuse ourselves with a look at what the best and brightest of the modern-day prophets say the mark of the beast is about.
Tattoos — In 1970, evangelist Hal Lindsey published his prophecy mega-hit, The Late, Great Planet Earth. It sold a mind-boggling 28 million copies and has profoundly influenced the Christian discussion on end times ever since. According to Lindsey (pp. 112–113), the mark of the beast would be a tattoo given to people on their hands or foreheads that would show their allegiance to the Roman Dictator.
UPC barcodes — A Christian writer named Mary Stewart Relfe wrote a number of books in the 80s and 90s about the impending coming of the Antichrist. In one, The New Money System, she claimed to have proof that UPCs were based on the number 666 and were part of a system that was already in place to await the Antichrist’s orders.
A supercomputer in Belgium — An urban myth was going around in the late 70s and early 80s that a massive supercomputer called “the Beast” was being built in Brussels, Belgium, by the European Common Market. This supercomputer would be tasked with tracking the financial transactions of every person on earth and would rely on invisible identification marks on the hand and forehead. This fictional supercomputer was actually invented for promotional materials advertising David Wilkerson’s movie The Rapture, but it was soon repeated as fact and swallowed wholesale by various end-times writers. Televangelist Jack Van Impe has promoted this view as well.
An implanted microchip or RFID chip — The most common interpretation among dispensationalists is probably that the mark is an implanted chip that controls and tracks individuals and their purchases. This is the view espoused in the Left Behind series of novels as well as by Kansas City IHOP pastor and self-styled prophet Mike Bickle.
Visa cards — Some Rapture writers and end-times kooks have claimed that some kind of credit or cash card produced by Visa will end up being the mark of the beast. This claim is demonstrated by showing that VI represents 6, the Greek letter sigma represents 6, and the letter ‘A’ in Babylonian cuneiform might sort of mean 6 if we pretend hard enough. Google for “visa 666” if you don’t believe me.¹
Something spiritual — Some commentators wisely avoid committing to anything specific, and instead describe the mark of the beast as a vague spiritual identifier. The late Harold Camping, infamous for his many failed predictions of the Rapture, claimed the mark represented the “unsaved within the churches” and the sin of revering doctrines invented by men (is there any other kind?). The Watchtower Society, a denomination with a special focus on the end times, sees 666 as representing human political systems in opposition to God’s kingdom.
The Beast from the Earth
With that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the relevant passage from John’s Apocalypse. Found in chapter 13, this passage concerns the second beast, the Beast from the Earth.
Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 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; and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.
For starters, who are these two beasts? The identity of the first beast is easily decipherable, and the key lies in the popular ancient practice of gematria—a method of deriving numerical values from words. Using a number instead of the person’s name made it possible to avoid repercussions if the text were intercepted by the Roman authorities.
In this case, the number is a good match for the emperor Nero, who reigned from 54 to 68 CE. His name in Greek, written using Hebrew letters, adds up to 666 as shown below:
Nerōn Kaisar = נרון קסר (NRWN QSR) = 666
Some of our oldest manuscripts actually have the much-less-fearful number 616 instead of 666. This supports the identification with Nero, since spelling his name in Latin (Nerō Kaisar) rather than Greek will produce that exact number.
That bit about the Beast whose mortal wound was healed is probably a reference to the Nero Redivivus legend of the late first century. It was commonly believed, after Nero’s apparent suicide in 68, that the he was still alive in the East somewhere and would return again to restore or destroy Rome. In fact, at least three pretenders appeared over the next two decades, impersonating Nero and leading rebellions that were swiftly crushed.
The second beast, which makes the people worship the first beast, might be the priesthood and government officials that served the imperial cult (a common view among scholars) or perhaps the leading families of Asia Minor who supported the cult and controlled its offices (the view of Adela Yarbro Collins).²
A Study in Silver
So what is the mark, without which the author imagined one could not buy or sell?
The Greek word translated “mark” is χάραγμα, charagma, which can also mean an engraving or stamp—particularly the image stamped into a metal coin. And indeed, coinage appears to have been at the heart of the problem for John of Patmos.
Typical Roman coins bore the image of the emperor on the obverse and another image—often one of the Roman gods or goddesses—on the reverse. Such coins were not permitted for use when paying the Jewish Temple tax. However, for reasons possibly pertaining to the purity of Tyrian silver, silver tetradrachms (half-shekels) struck in Tyre were permitted by the Jewish religious authorities, despite the fact they usually bore the image of the Phoenician god Melqart. (The moneychangers in the temple mentioned by the Gospels were needed in order for Jews from abroad to exchange Roman coins for Tyrian ones.)
During the reign of Nero, however, the coinage system was reformed. Tyre’s mint was either severely curtailed or shut down altogether, and Neronian coins from Antioch became the standard currency of the region.³ This made it impossible for Jews to “buy or sell” without handling coins bearing the portrait and title of the Roman emperor.
The use of Roman coins was, among other things, an unwelcome sign of subjugation to Rome and the emperor. One of the first things Jewish Zealots did when they captured Jerusalem during the First Jewish Revolt in 66 CE was to mint their own coinage, struck from silver like the Tyrian shekels they were used to having.
For John of Patmos, the establishment of coins with the face and title of Nero, a self-declared god-emperor whom John clearly loathed, as the standard currency of the Jews and Christians in Palestine and Syria was intolerable. Such an indignity it was, that he compared it to the branding of slaves on the hand or forehead.
Like other apocalyptic texts, the Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine is not a prediction of events expected to take place two millennia after the author’s death. Rather, it is a message aimed at a contemporary audience, one that relies on a knowledge of people and events from the author’s own time.
¹ See Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture, p. 282.
² Adela Yarbro Collins, “ ‘What the Spirit Says to the Churches’: Preaching the Apocalypse,” QR 4 (1984): 82. Cited in Barr, ed., Reading the book of Revelation: a resource for students (RBS 44, 2003): 63.
³ Kevin Butcher and Matthew Ponting, “The Silver Coinage of Roman Syria Under the Julio-Claudian Emperors”, Council for British Research in the Levant, 2009, vol. 41, no. 1: 60.
Deborah Furlan Taylor, “The Monetary Crisis in Revelation 13:17 and the Provenance of the Book of Revelation,”Catholic Biblical Quarterly 71.3 (July 2009): 580-662.