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Irenaeus on 666 and 616

Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus of Lyons (Image via Wikipedia)

In his Against Heresies, Irenaeus argues that 666 is a particularly “fitting” number for the name of the beast in Rev 13:18:

since he sums up in his own person all the commixture of wickedness which took place previous to the deluge, due to the apostasy of the angels. For Noah was six hundred years old when the deluge came upon the earth, sweeping away the rebellious world, for the sake of that most infamous generation which lived in the times of Noah. And [Antichrist] also sums up every error of devised idols since the flood, together with the slaying of the prophets and the cutting off of the just {cf. Matt 24:37–38/Luke 17:26–27}. For that image which was set up by Nebuchadnezzar had indeed a height of sixty cubits, while the breadth was six cubits; on account of which Ananias, Azarias, and Misaël, when they did not worship it, were cast into a furnace of fire, pointing out prophetically, by what happened to them, the wrath against the righteous which shall arise towards the [time of the] end {cf. Matt 24:15/Mark 13:14}. For that image, taken as a whole, was a prefiguring of this man’s coming, decreeing that he should undoubtedly himself alone be worshipped by all men {cf. Rev 13:15}. Thus, then, the six hundred years of Noah, in whose time the deluge occurred because of the apostasy, and the number of the cubits of the image for which these just men were sent into the fiery furnace, do indicate the number of the name of that man in whom is concentrated the whole apostasy of six thousand years, and unrighteousness, and wickedness, and false prophecy, and deception; for which things’ sake a cataclysm of fire shall also come [upon the earth]. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.29.2 [ANF 1:558]; square brackets original; curled brackets added)

This argument is, therefore, substantially canonical-internal. Given his reading of the Gospels’ testimony about the eschaton and how Revelation itself portrays the beast, Irenaeus thinks the number 666 makes good sense in Rev 13:18. Having established the propriety of the number 666 on these grounds, immediately following, Irenaeus comments on the variant reading 616:

{1} Such, then, being the state of the case {with Noah’s age at the deluge and the dimensions of Nebuchadnezzar’s image}, and {2} this number {i.e., 666} being found in all the most approved and ancient copies [of the Apocalypse], and {3} those men who saw John face to face bearing their testimony [to it]; {4} while reason also leads us to conclude that the number of the name of the beast, [if reckoned] according to the Greek mode of calculation by the [value of] the letters contained in it, will amount to six hundred and sixty and six; that is, the number of tens shall be equal to that of the hundreds, and the number of hundreds equal to that of the units (for that number which [expresses] the digit six being adhered to throughout, indicates the recapitulations of that apostasy, taken in its full extent, which occurred at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and which shall take place at the end),—I do not know how it is that some have erred following the ordinary mode of speech, and have vitiated the middle number in the name, deducting the amount of fifty from it, so that instead of six decads they will have it that there is but one {i.e., 616}. [I am inclined to think that this occurred through the fault of the copyists, as is wont to happen, since numbers also are expressed by letters; so that the Greek letter which expresses the number sixty was easily expanded into the letter Iota of the Greeks.]* {5} Others then received this reading without examination; some in their simplicity, and upon their own responsibility, making use of this number expressing one decad; while some, in their inexperience, have ventured to seek out a name which should contain the erroneous and spurious number. Now, as regards those who have done this in simplicity, and without evil intent, we are at liberty to assume that pardon will be granted them by God. {6} But as for those who, for the sake of vainglory, lay it down for certain that names containing the spurious number are to be accepted, and affirm that this name, hit upon by themselves, is that of him who is to come; such persons shall not come forth without loss, because they have led into error both themselves and those who confided in them. Now, in the first place, it is loss to wander from the truth, and to imagine that as being the case which is not; then again, as there shall be no light punishment [inflicted] upon him who either adds or subtracts anything from the Scripture, under that such a person must necessarily fall. Moreover, another danger, by no means trifling, shall overtake those who falsely presume that they know the name of Antichrist. For if these men assume one [number], when this [Antichrist] shall come having another, they will be easily led away by him, as supposing him not to be the expected one, who must be guarded against. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.30.1 [ANF 1:558–59]; square brackets original; curled brackets added)

To his appeal to canonical harmony {1}, Irenaeus adds the further, stylistic assurance that {4} 666 is the proper numerical equivalent of whatever the beast’s actual name may be “according to the Greek mode of calculation,” although he explicitly advises against speculation about this name’s identity (cf. {6}). Although this stylistic observation does not directly help Irenaeus establish the reading 666 as preferable to the reading 616, a consequence of Irenaeus’s assertion here is that it sets some bounds—however flexible they may be—around the translation of the number into the personal name for which it stands. That is, this translation should happen “according to the Greek mode of calculation,” apparently as opposed to any other special or more esoteric “mode of calculation” that could be applied to the number. The related point that Irenaeus does try to make toward substantiating the reading 666 is that this reading, unlike the alternative 616, aligns the three-ness of its sixes with the three-ness of the relevant apostatic periods: “at the beginning, during the intermediate periods, and . . . at the end.”

For external testimony to the correctness of the 666 reading, Irenaeus cites both {2} the presence of 666 in the best and most ancient texts available to him and {3} the explicit approval of this reading by “those men who saw John face to face.” Therefore, in the face of appeals {1–4}, Irenaeus regards the reading 666 as sufficiently well established and sufficiently significant to result in deleterious consequences for those who opt for the alternative 616 ({5–6}; Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.30.2). Even after this text critical argument, however, Irenaeus stresses that properly deciphering the number 666 is sufficiently problematic that, “on account of the fear of God, and zeal for the truth,” “[i]t is . . . more certain, and less hazardous, to await the fulfilment of the prophecy, than to be making surmises, and casting about for any names that may present themselves, inasmuch as many names can be found possessing the number mentioned” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.30.3 [ANF 1:559]; square brackets added).


* The editor regards “the whole of this clause as an evident interpolation. It does not occur in the Greek here preserved by Eusebius (Hist. Eccl., v. 8)” (loc. cit.).

About David Stark

Assistant Professor and Distance Education Administrator

Discussion

2 thoughts on “Irenaeus on 666 and 616

  1. VERY interesting! Thanks!

    Posted by Debi Denson Stark | December 14, 2011, 5:11 am

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