The famous number 666 cannot possibly be interpreted as some kind of three-fold failure of man (body, soul & spirit represented by 6) to reach the three-fold perfection of God (Father, Son & Holy Spirit represented by 7). My point is that those who argue for this interpretation (or interpretations like it) have made a fundamental hermeneutical error; namely, they are using their local temporal context to derive what this passage would have meant to the original reader. And as you well know, this is a hermeneutical no no…
Although the Romans, Greeks and Hebrews all used decimal (or quasi-decimal in the Hebrew case) numbering systems, these system were not *positional* decimal numbering systems. There is a fundamental difference between how 1st century counting systems worked and how our modern, positional decimal numbering system works — and it’s a killer for the “666-doesn’t-refer-to-Nero” argument.
All three of these numbering systems recognised the usefulness of having symbols to represent the powers of 10, but the letter symbols had to be written in size order starting with the largest. The reader was then expected to add up quantities to form the total. The Hebrew and Greek systems were purely additive, but the Roman system used its own concept of positioning. But even here, the position of a letter was only significant if a letter representing a smaller quantity was written to the left of a letter representing a larger quantity (i.e. a letter was written in a position that broke the rule of writing quantity symbols in order of descending size). So VI means 6 because 5 (V) + 1 (I) = 6. However, IV means 4 because the position of the I indicates it should be subtracted from the following V resulting in 4 not 6.
There were two, very large conceptual steps that had to be taken in order to arrive at our modern positional decimal numbering system. The number system needed:
1) A symbol to represent zero
2) Only those symbols to represent the unit quantities
On point one, for philosophical reasons, the Greeks rejected the notion not only of zero, but also of negative numbers. Their mathematical system was so firmly rooted in geometry, that the idea of drawing a line that had zero or negative length was absurd, and therefore philosophically wrong. This rejection created a major blockage to Greek thinking when it came to advances not only in counting, but in mathematics as a whole. (However, Archimedes did actually invent a positional decimal numbering system in his famous treatise The Sand Reckoner, but no one saw the power or application of his system at the time — how the history of science would have been different if they had!)
On point two, the Greeks and Hebrews were closest here in that they had individual symbols for the unit quantities (1-9), but in addition, also had symbols for the decade and century quantities. But due to the presence of the symbols representing quantities greater than 10, the idea of placing each unit symbol into a “column” was never realised.
The breakthrough came in late 5th/early 6th century India were it was realised that once you had the concept of a “power of ten”, then you only needed the unit symbols to represent a quantity of any arbitrary size. So even though the Hindu system was still additive, it used the *position* of a digit to represent the required power of ten. This is a massive conceptual leap away from the earlier non-positional decimal systems because it allowed the representation of arbitrarily large quantities. The Roman Numeral system (as used in the 1st century), gave up at around 4 million. Also essential to the success of this idea was the ability to represent zero; for now it became necessary to indicate that a particular power of ten was empty — and the emptiness was highly significant!
Knowledge of the Hindu positional decimal numbering system in Europe happened no earlier than the 9th century, and even then it was only known by a handful of scholars. The real adoption of our modern numbering system did not happening in Europe till the 14th century.
All numbering systems used in the 1st century Near East and Europe were decimal systems, but they were not *positional* decimal systems. Therefore, they used *different* symbols to represent different powers of ten. Whereas in a positional decimal system, the *same* digit can be used irrespective of which power of ten it represents. A digit’s position within the number is now significant. (This also necessitates the use of a symbol for zero to indicate that a particular power of ten is empty).
The positional decimal numbering system used across the world today was invented in India in the 6th century and not adopted into Europe until the 14th century.
Therefore, the number of the beast would never have been represented as three 6’s until 14 centuries or so after the text was written!
Therefore, if anyone tries to interpret the number of the beast using its representation in our modern positional decimal numbering system, they have committed a basic hermeneutical error because they have assumed that their own modern context and frame of reference will provide the accurate meaning of the text – as understood by a 1st century reader.
Chris Whealy (Brentwood, England)