“Why Can’t Johnny Count?” A Needed Guide for Preachers (and Commentators) on Gematria (666/616), Isopsephism, and Counting

This should be the last post on this particular topic of gematria, isopsephism, and related areas for some time.  However, there is so much bad information in preaching, in commentaries, in various Wikipedia articles, in DVD Bible lessons, and in cyberspace that I feel the need to point out some of the more widespread misunderstandings about all this.  The last straw, so to speak, came when a well known evangelical/fundamentalist Bible teacher suggested a connection between some of the numbers associated with Goliath in 1 Sam. 17:4-7 (Goliath’s height was “six cubits” and the point of his spear “weighed six hundred shekels”) and the anti-Christ.  Besides the fact that the term “anti-Christ” does not appear in the book of Revelation, this correlation of Goliath and the number 666 reveals more of a fertile imagination than a serious understanding of John’s use of numbers in Revelation 13:18.

Traditional numerology, where different numbers of the Bible have distinct symbolic meanings, would include discussions about numbers such as 3, 7, and 12.  I will not be discussing this kind of traditional numerology in Revelation, although that is also a very important study.  Rather, I am looking at later misconceptions about the use of mathematical calculations in the interpretation of Rev. 13:18.  In particular, these misunderstandings do not recognize or appreciate the prophet’s use of an alphabetic system where letters of the alphabet have arithmetic significance.  The name for this technique of composing words that have specific arithmetic sums is called gematria.  This is the specific method used in Revelation 13:18 when it states that words or names have an arithmetic sum that can be determined by the mathematical operation of addition.  In Rev. 13:17-18 the audience is informed 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.”

Often when surveying distinctive perspectives in the interpretation of Revelation, it is a simple matter to categorize these various outlooks according to the standard classifications of Pre-millennial, Post-millennial, A-millennial, etc.  When it comes to the misunderstanding of gematria in Rev. 13:18, however, it appears that ignorance is very ecumenical, completely impartial, and is equally at home in all groups.  Liberal scholarship, conservative scholarship, preterist scholarship, futurist scholarship, and even those who have boasted (correctly) of having no scholarship, have all perpetuated garbled notions about gematria.  These confused notions about gematria often bear little resemblance to the historical realities of the thought world of the early church and the practice of gematria in its larger world.  I have earlier discussed the fact that the number 666 may not even have been the number John wrote when he penned Revelation 13:18; indeed, the number 616 should also be regarded as a contender for this privileged place.  The inclusion of the number 616 at Rev. 13:18 in some copies of the Bible in the early church, attested by Irenaeus who opposed the number 616 (Against Heresies, 5.30.1-3), and the singular fact that the earliest copy we possess of Rev. 13:18 contains the number 616 rather than 666 (Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish. Greek Papyri Beneath the Egyptian Sand Reveal a Long-Lost World, p. 206) should not be neglected in this discussion.  These two facts ought to have diminished, faster than a tachyon particle beam, this unequivocal loyalty to the number 666.

In an effort to rehabilitate the meaning and understanding of gematria in the setting of the John’s ministry, I want to highlight four inconvenient truths about gematria.  These inconvenient truths about the nature of ancient alphabets and gematria in John’s setting and culture will reveal how poorly many later scholars and preachers have understood John’s intent.  Turning to Graeco-Roman and Jewish primary sources from antiquity is the easiest way to disclose the flaws in ideas held by later interpreters of the phenomenon of gematria in Revelation.

Besides possibly having chosen the wrong number, namely 666, for Rev. 13:18, one of the greatest flaws in misunderstandings about the “mark of the beast” is a disregard for the basic arithmetic meaning of the Greek term psēphizō (ψηφίζω) used in 13:18.  In the older New Testament Greek dictionary by Joseph Thayer (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament) he defined the term psēphizō” as “to count with pebbles, to compute, calculate, reckon.”  According to the more recent New Testament Greek dictionary BDAG (Walter Bauer and Frederick William Danker, Greek-English Lexicon of the Greek New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature) the meaning for this word psēphizō is “to add up digits and calculate a total, count (up), calculate, reckon,” except its occurrence in Rev. 13:18   Strangely, BDAG gives a different meaning for psēphizō at Rev. 13:18, “to probe a number for its meaning, interpret, figure out.”  This unusual BDAG decision can only be maintained by jettisoning the normal arithmetic meaning of psēphizō in other occurrences in the Greek New Testament and elsewhere (cf. “count the cost,” in Luke 14:28 and sunpsēphizō in Acts 19:19).  Furthermore, it is certainly begging the question to suggest a non-arithmetical meaning of this term psēphizō to interpret Rev. 13:18 when this is the sole instance given of this supposed different meaning.

The implications of this lexical evidence for the arithmetical significance of psēphizō are profound since it means preachers and commentators should stop interpreting 666 through the perspectives of traditional numerology and stay on task with true gematria.  Interest in generic symbolism and in traditional numerology does not correspond to the meaning of psēphizō, nor is this gematria, pace many commentators. Perhaps you have heard a preacher or commentator make this type of comment regarding 666, “The number 6 is less than the perfect number 7, and, therefore, 666, is three times less than the perfection of the number 7.”  This type of symbolic interpretation is not obeying the directive of the author of Revelation.  In order to respond to John’s original imperative (13:18, “let him calculate the number,” ὁ ἔχων νοῦν ψηφισάτω τὸν ἀριθμὸν), the interpreter must “add up digits,” or “calculate” a number arithmetically.  John’s words leave little room for traditional numerical symbolism since that is not based upon the mathematical task of adding up a series of numbers.

The next inconvenient truth is that gematria in the early Roman era was not a specifically Hebrew or Jewish technique.  It is misguided to imagine gematria as some form of “Holy Ghost” math; nor should gematria be viewed as quintessentially “Hebrew Numerology.”  Suggestions that it originated within Jewish communities of antiquity or later Jewish Kabbalah have yet to be demonstrated.  The only way to justify the explanation that gematria is fundamentally Jewish is if one only looks at Jewish examples.  To be sure, the Greek alphabet seems to have originated approximately in the 8th century BC with its adaptation of Phoenician letters.  Nevertheless, long before the time of early Christianity the Greek language and alphabet had become the property of the Greeks, and they did not imagine that they were still employing a “Western Semitic Script,” any more than typical Americans today imagine that they are employing a Latin or Etruscan alphabet.

Below is the standard Greek alphabet of the Graeco-Roman period with its corresponding numeric values.

Alphabet in Greek with Numeric Value

The three Greek letters digamma, koppa, and sampi became extinct in writing but were retained for their numeric use.


α\Α      1

β\Β      2

γ\Γ       3

δ\Δ      4

ε\Ε       5

ϝ\Ϝ       6  (digamma)

ζ\Ζ       7

η\Η      8

θ\Θ      9

ι\Ι         10

κ\Κ      20

λ\Λ      30

μ\Μ     40

ν\Ν      50

ξ\Ξ       60

ο\Ο      70

π\Π      80

ϙ\Ϙ      90  (koppa)

ρ\Ρ       100

σ\Σ       200

τ\Τ       300

υ\Υ      400

φ\Φ      500

χ\Χ      600

ψ\Ψ     700

ω\Ω     800

ϡ\Ϡ      900  (sampi)

A third inconvenient truth that undermines many popular notions about gematria is that gematria is only possible with languages whose alphabets carry both lexical and mathematical significance.  If this is not a characteristic of a particular alphabet, then gematria, by definition, is simply not possible.  Accordingly, John’s ideas about the “number of the beast” could work with Aramaic, or Hebrew, or Greek, but not with Latin or English, notwithstanding an online “English Gematria Calculator.”  If the English alphabet had this characteristic, then there would be no need to import Roman numerals to have letters of the alphabet carry numerical significance.  Modern mystics and fundamentalists can play cryptography until Jesus returns and devise ciphers in every modern alphabet if they wish, but that is not the gematria that John utilized and that was well known by his audiences.

A final inconvenient truth that has also yet to makes its way into some pulpits and halls of academic learning is that gematria was not a “secret code” used primarily by persecuted, minority groups to stay beneath the radar of the Evil Empire.  The diverse uses of gematria by all kinds of people from all kinds of religions in the Mediterranean Basin speaks against romanticized notions of persecuted cells of Christians using gematria as anti-imperial argot to conceal clandestine meetings and subversive teachings.  Anyone familiar with the watershed publication by Adolf Deissmann almost one century ago, Light from the Ancient East, knows this.  Deissmann records examples from Pompeii (p. 277).  A certain Amerimnus thought highly of a female friend and “the number of her name is 1035.”  Another graffito from Pompeii reads, “I love her whose number is 545,” while at Smyrna ones reads “I love a woman whose number is 731” (Roger Bagnall, Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East, pp. 14-15).  As mentioned in an earlier post the Greek term for “Amen” equaled 99 and was sometimes signed in Christian papyri as ϘΘ (AnneMarie Luijendijk, Greetings in the Lord, pp. 218-21).  Pagans also expressed their polytheistic piety using the same technique, noting that the name of the goddess “Isis” in Greek equaled arithmetically the phrase “the great hope.”  The Greek term “God” equals “holy,” “Paul” equals “wisdom,” and “Easter” equals “the good life” (Peter Parsons, City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, p. 206).  Perhaps the best known of all examples is recorded in Suetonius’s Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Nero, 39) where he reports about the frequency of public lampoons against Nero.  One public criticism of the Emperor Nero stated, “A new calculation.  Nero killed his own mother.”  In the Greek spelling of Nero’s name, the letters for “Nero” =1005, and the sentence [he] “killed his own mother” also equaled 1005.  Suetonius’s example of the Greek name for Nero and its association with an entire sentence goes farther than John’s example in Rev. 13:18.  In John’s example the spelling of the name is arithmetically equal to the “number of the beast,” which is then given in the text as 666/616.  In the example of Nero from Suetonius, the public graffito never gives the arithmetical sum of 1005.  Thus, there is no stated number like John’s 666/616.  Rather, the graffito states that there are two new sums/calculations.  One is the Greek spelling of the name “Nero,” and the second is the sentence, [he] “killed his own mother.”  Since these two have identical arithmetical sums, this is an example of isopsephism (equal sums or equal calculations).

It should be clear that none of these examples seem to point to the necessity of gematria being a “secret code,” especially by a persecuted, minority group.  In a conversation with my colleague, Dr. Allen Black (Prof. of New Testament @ Harding School of Theology, Memphis, TN, 38117), he and I concluded that maybe the use of gematria could be compared to the use of initials or abbreviations in modern circumstances.  That is, initials, like gematria, could be used by people in love (Jason loves CJR) or by members of an organization, cadre, religion, urban gang, or terror cell that uses argot or abbreviated idiom so that outsiders cannot know all their secrets.  To be sure, it could be used to create a sense of “possessing” information, perspective, and experiences unique to a group.  Nevertheless, in the ancient evidence cited above, admittedly partial, there is not any proof that the idea of gematria pointed to the use of this primarily by persecuted groups or marginal groups or only Judeo-Christian groups.  Gematria was ubiquitous, like our use of initials or abbreviations, and its character was adaptable and flexible in its use and significance.

As you read the plethora of ideas about the “number of the beast” and number related hermeneutics, I hope this above evidence gives you some information to use as a compass to follow, because at times preachers can get pretty disoriented on these issues.  Beyond my earlier posts on this topic, one can also consult one of those by Ben Witherington, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/bibleandculture/2012/04/22/graffiti-and-gematria-in-early-christianity/.


7 thoughts on ““Why Can’t Johnny Count?” A Needed Guide for Preachers (and Commentators) on Gematria (666/616), Isopsephism, and Counting

  1. I’ve observed over the years that large numbers of folks want to begin in Revelation when it is necessary to begin in Genesis working through the corpus of Scripture before coming to Revelation.

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