1. Revelation 13:17 (ESV)
  2. Exposition

What might “the number of its name” be a reference to?

Revelation 13:17 (ESV)

17 so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.

The phrase number of its name has led commentators to search for persons whose name would equal the number 666. The most common candidate that then arises is Caesar Nero. The system is this: the letters of the Hebrew alphabet had numeric values attached to them (similar to the Roman alphabet where I = 1; V = 5; X = 10; L = 50; etc.). If now you write Nero’s name (Caesar Nero) using the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and then add up the values attributed to each letter, the total is 666. So, it is argued, John was using a secret method to indicate to his readers that the beast is Emperor Nero.

There are, however, a number of problems with this understanding:

  1. The only way to get the words Caesar Nero to add up to 666 in Hebrew is to misspell the name, that is, to skip one vowel.

  2. It is a big stretch to assume that John intended his Greek-speaking hearers in Asia Minor (Revelation is written in Greek) to figure out that they had to resort to the Hebrew language (unknown to many of them) in order to figure out who the beast was.

  3. Whenever elsewhere in his Revelation John alludes to Hebrew he does so plainly (see Revelation 9:11; Revelation 16:16).

  4. John was already a prisoner and so had no reason to resort to secrecy.

Ascribing numeric value to letters to come to a name leads the reader into endless speculation; as mentioned, Nero is only one of several (suggested) options. The correct understanding of these closing phrases of Revelation 13:17 comes to light with the assistance of Revelation 13:18.