Friday, April 24, 2015

Gematria and the Number of the Beast and the Merkavah of God

"Let him who hath understanding reckon the number of the beast. For it is a human number. It's number is six hundred and sixty-six...."

An interesting post referencing the use of gematria in the Apocalypse of John.

So far as we know, gematria originated as a Babylonian practice of assigning letters with a numerical value. This was full blown numerology and it could be expected that the numerical value of certain words and phrases was indicative of the power associated with said name or phrase.

John's apocalypse has a fairly blatant example of this practice with the number of the beast. The manuscript tradition various between the classic six hundred sixty six and six hundred sixteen. Six hundred sixty six corresponds to Caesar Nero in Hebrew whereas six hundred sixteen corresponds to Caesar God in Greek. There is no clear consensus over which one is correct, although the proposition that John intends his audience to hear the Greek text and then start working in Hebrew seems a shade too complicated.

The interesting point here is not the number of the beast or how we should parse said number. Rather, it is the existence of gematria in the pages of the Canon to begin with. Here we have an ostensibly Babylonian system, adopted by Judaism, and transmitted into apostolic era Christianity.

It is easy enough to forget that something like gematria exists in the pages of the Canon. Frankly, 2,000 years of Christian dogmatics has a way of smoothing over some of the more puzzling passages in Scripture. Yet, these passages remain and every so often one's attention is drawn to them. One recognizes that the Canon contains the memory of a religious environment that would appear strikingly different from our own. We may never aptly appreciate the presence of certain narrative threads in Scripture that challenge the instance upon a neat linear narrative of Judaism or Christianity.

We can take a few minutes to wrap our minds around the author of the Apocalypse of John applying gematria without any reservations. Undoubetly, such highly symbolic literature lends itself to a symbolic use of numbers. The greater question is whether or not the Apocalypse is classical Christian literature. Is it in fact a document that aligns readily with Christianity, or is it something else that for whatever reason was retained in Christian circles? The most recent theory I've encountered insists on setting the Apocalypse in the context of early or proto-Merkavah literature, that mystical strain of Judaism focused on the mystical vision of the throne of God. Certainly, there are narrative devices in John's apocalypse that would seem to lend themselves to being an earlier form of Merkavah mysticism. If this hypothesis is correct, the acceptance of the Apocalypse of John into the Canon becomes more complex as more variant elements bcome identified.  If anything it at least poses the question that perhaps the most famous piece of apocalyptic literature needs to be read more as a piece of visionary literature and less a prophecy of an impending future.


  1. Is the explanation which I read years ago that both 616 and 666 betoken Nrw(n) Qsr, Nero Caesar, the former giving the name in its Latin form, the latter in Greek, without foundation?

    1. Not exactly. 616 corresponds to Caesar God in Greek, 666 corresponds to the transliteration of Caesar Nero in Hebrew. It would be hard to contend that Latin was much in the forethought of the original author. Perhaps later ecclesiastical redaction, but that would be speculation. As it is, the proposition that 666 refers to Nero based on the transliteration into Hebrew seems a little to artificial. When Hebrew terms are used, the author tends to offer a Greek explanation. As such, it seems uncertain that he would apply a number that only has ressonance in Hebrew. Not impossible given that apocalyptic literature uses coded language, but it is far from certain.