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PROBLEMS WITH NERO AND 666?

Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr. —  Leave a comment
Nero 666

Revelation is a book as fascinating as it is difficult. Unfortunately, it is made more difficult by approaching it in the wrong way and viewing it through out-of-focus lenses. In our day the naive dispensational view is the dominant evangelical approach to eschatology — despite its many and continuing failed predictions of the date of the rapture and its erroneous identifying of the Antichrist.

So many Christians have been raised in this system that they cannot even understand any other approach. This makes reasoning with them extremely difficult. In fact, reasoning with a populist dispensationalist is a lot like saddling a cow: It is a whole lot of work and there is not much point in it.

In a previous posting I presented the argument that John’s mysterious number 666 was referring to Nero Caesar (the first Roman persecutor of the church) by referring to his name as written in Hebrew (the language of Israel and of John the author of Revelation).

Obviously, I do not expect everyone to accept my argument. But I always hope that readers will at least follow the line of argument. Yet, when dispensationalists get involved, they display the frustrating tendency to misunderstand a non-dispensationalist’s position. This is extremely frustrating. One reader wrote several interactions to my article. I will present his final reply in full, then respond to it. This should serve to explain why I do not normally interact with dispensationalists.

Dispensational complaint

My reader first wrote:

“There are a number of problems with this theory. Nero was Roman, and his language was Latin, not Greek or Hebrew. The number of a man is calculated in his own language and alphabet. ‘Caesar’ was his title, not his name. Revelation is about what to John were future events, and when he wrote it in 96 AD Nero had been dead for 28 years. But in any case the beast is not a man, it was a country. It only had the number of a man.”

(Then after my brief reply he wrote another reply more fully:)

“Bin Laden’s name would be calculated in his own language, whatever that was. That is irrelevant, as he was not the Beast.

The majority of modern scholars recognize…what?

Thomas Ice writes:

‘It does not matter at all whether the Temple is thought to be standing in Jerusalem at the time that John sees the vision since that would not have any bearing upon a vision. John is told by an angel to ” measure the temple” (Rev. 11:1). Measure what Temple? He is to measure the Temple in the vision. Even if there were a temple still standing in Jerusalem, John was on the Island of Patmos and would not have been allowed to go and measure that Temple. Ezekiel, during a similar vision of a Temple (Ezek. 40- 43) was told to measure that Temple. When Ezekiel saw and was told to measure a Temple there was not one standing in Jerusalem (Preterists agree). Thus, there is no compulsion whatsoever to conclude that just because a temple is referenced in Revelation 11 that it implies that there had to be a physical Temple standing in Jerusalem at the same time.’

John did not say the beast was a man. He said it has the number of a man. Other verses in Revelation indicate it is a country.

You have assumed Revelation was written in the 60s AD, but there seems to be no evidence to support this, unless you have something new?”

Gentry Response

I will respond to the second, fuller reply first. Then I will interact once again with his first reply, to which I only very briefly replied originally.

Unfortunately, my dispensational reader apparently is not well read in the debate, which not only makes it difficult for him to understand alternative positions, but also renders interaction with him unnecessarily frustrating.


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Parallel argument

Sadly, my reader totally missed my point regarding Bin Laden — as well as all my other points. Obviously I was not suggesting Bin Laden is the Beast. In fact, nothing that I wrote even hints in that direction. I was offering a Parallel Argument by presenting a sample of the sort of thing John was doing. I would urge my respondent to re-read my postings and my reply.

In my respondent’s original complaint he stated: “Nero was Roman, and his language was Latin, not Greek or Hebrew. The number of a man is calculated in his own language and alphabet.” To this I responded: “How would you write Osama bin Laden’s name? Almost certainly in English characters (unless you know Arabic). Likewise, John as a Hebrew, presenting himself in very Hebraic imagery, regarding the demise of Israel wrote Nero’s name in Hebrew characters, just as the majority of modern scholars recognize.”

That is, John was presenting Nero’s name in Hebrew because that was how he was known among the Jews. No one complains that when we write “Bin Laden” in English characters we cannot be talking about “Bin Laden” because his name is Arabic. I do not understand why my respondent could not follow this line of argument. John is writing a highly-symbolic book dealing with very Hebraic issues — as I point out in my series on Nero. John would not be arguing: “Hey, look at this! Agrippina (Nero’s mother) gave him a name that has the value of 666!” Rather, he is engaging in a cryptogram, using the numerical value of Nero’s name as spelled in Hebrew to get his point across.

Careless reading

My respondent’s second complaint emphasizes to me that he is not following my argument at all. He dismissively states: “The majority of modern scholars recognize…what?” I would urge him to re-read my statement; it answers his “what” question.

I stated that John “wrote Nero’s name in Hebrew characters, just as the majority of modern scholars recognize.” Therefore, when my respondent asks “the majority of modern scholars recognize…what?”, the answer is found in the words at the front of the very sentence that he partially cites! As I stated: the majority of scholars believe that John “wrote Nero’s name in Hebrew characters.” That is “what.”


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And in the very article of mine that this respondent cites (the third in a four-part series, which was apparently only skimmed), I state: “Noteworthy New Testament scholars accept the Hebrew name ‘Neron Kaiser’ as the solution to the mystery of 666. No one could dismiss these scholars as failing to note a misspelling or overlooking John’s Asia Minor setting.” I even cite a few examples of scholars holding this view. This is not my peculiar view, but a widely accepted one held by scholars from various positions, conservative and liberal alike.

Standing temple

Now what about the “problem” that Ezekiel measures a temple that does not exist? Does this undermine the evidence of a standing temple in Rev 11:1-2? Consider the following reply.

First, regarding the standing temple in Rev, my respondent is once again mistaken. We need to compare John’s statement in Rev 11:2 with Jesus’ prior prophecy in Luke 21:24. This shows a strong similarity between the two statements. John is clearly alluding to Jesus’s statement in his book, which is “a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:1). And in Luke 21 Jesus is most definitely speaking about the first-century Jewish temple in Jerusalem (Luke 21:5–7) — as even dispensationalists recognize. Note the similarity between the two texts:

Rev 11:2: “Leave out the court which is outside the temple and do not measure it, for it has been given to the nations; and they will tread under foot the holy city for forty-two months.”

Luke 21:24: “they will fall by the edge of the sword, and will be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem [i.e., “the holy city”] will be trampled under foot by the Gentiles [same word translated “nations” in Luke] until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”

Second, regarding Ezekiel’s measuring of the temple, this is actually a credible (and common) complaint. Nevertheless, a careful comparison of Ezekiel’s vision with John’s dispels this common objection:

(1) Ezekiel clearly informs his reader that the physical temple no longer exists. In Eze 1:1 he states that he is caught up in the Babylonian exile, which follows the destruction of the temple (2Ki 25:11–13; Jer 52:15–18). In the very context of the visionary temple he reiterates that he is writing “after the city was taken” (40:1; 39:25ff; 43:3). John does nothing of the kind.

(2) Just before Ezekiel receives the vision of the measuring of the temple, God promises that in the future he will “restore the fortunes of Jacob” (39:25), that is, “when I bring them back from the peoples and gather them from the lands of their enemies” (39:27). Even during the very process of measuring process we hear God promise that in the future “I will dwell among the sons of Israel” (43:7, cp. 43:18–19). It clearly is not yet built, for God promises for the future: “Son of man, thus says the Lord God, ‘These are the statutes for the altar on the day it is built, to offer burnt offerings on it and to sprinkle blood on it'” (Eze 43:18). Nothing of this sort happens in Revelation. In fact, John expressly states that there will be no temple (Rev 21:22).

Furthermore, (3) Ezekiel does not measure the temple himself; an angel does (40:3–5). A spiritual being is more appropriate than a physical one for measuring that which does not physically exist, just as the angel in Rev measures the heavenly city (Rev 21:15–17).

(4) The point of Ezekiel’s vision is to prod Israel to change her current ways and to return to God: “Now let them put away their harlotry and the corpses of their kings far from Me; and I will dwell among them forever” (Eze 43:9). Ezekiel is commanded to describe this visionary temple to Israel for this purpose: “As for you, son of man, describe the temple to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and let them measure the plan. And if they are ashamed of all that they have done, make known to them the design of the house, its structure, its exits, its entrances, all its designs, all its statutes, and all its laws. And write it in their sight, so that they may observe its whole design and all its statutes, and do them” (Eze 43:10-11).

But while John writes, the temple is still standing, awaiting its soon-coming doom. If John writes this twenty-five years after the temple’s fall it would be quite anachronous — especially in that he would nowhere allude even to the recent past judgment on Israel while decrying “the synagogue of Satan” (2:9; 3:9). He would be out of step with other early Christian writings that point to the first-century temple’s destruction as God’s vindication of Christianity.

John’s measuring
The reader also complains: “Even if there were a temple still standing in Jerusalem, John was on the Island of Patmos and would not have been allowed to go and measure that Temple.” By doing this he makes two errors for the price of one:

(1) He must explain how John could be on Patmos yet be carried by the same Spirit into heaven (Rev 4:2). (2) He is forgetting that John is “in the Spirit.” This does not require a physical transport. The Spirit could transport him by vision to the temple to measure it.

Beast identity
My respondent writes: “John did not say the beast was a man. He said it has the number of a man. Other verses in Revelation indicate it is a country.”

He is obviously unaware that even dispensational Revelation commentators recognize that the beast represents both a state and an in individual, the head of that state. That is, the beast imagery allows for a shifting between the generic (the state) and the specific (the head of the state). See: Robert L. Thomas, Revelation (2:158); John F. Walvoord, Revelation (199-200); and Charles C. Ryrie (82). For instance, Thomas (2:158) states: “This allows for the interchangeability of the head with the whole beast — i.e., the king with his kingdom — as vv. 12, 14 require.”

Revelation dating
My respondent complains: “You have assumed Revelation was written in the 60s AD, but there seems to be no evidence to support this, unless you have something new?”

This shows once again that he is not well-read in the debate. I am not saying that simply because he rejects the early-date view of Revelation his argument is invalid. Rather, I am saying he appears to be wholly unaware of two crucial facts:

(1) I am well-known for having written a 400-page book on the topic of Revelation’s dating. And my book is cited in many of the standard, scholarly Revelation commentaries (see especially G. K. Beale’s Greek testament commentary which cites me frequently). In fact, my early-date work is cited in scores of scholarly articles and books.

(2) The evidence supporting the early date is ample enough that it once was the dominant view of Revelation (in the 1800s and early 1900s). And it is now enjoying a resurgence by scholars from such institutions as Cambridge and Oxford. Again, this does not prove the early date, but it should discourage any flippant dismissal of the position.

Roland F. Worth (The Seven Cities of the Apocalypse & Roman Culture, 1999: 90) notes that we are witnessing a “growing minority” of scholars opting for a pre-70 composition. Ian Boxall (The Revelation of Saint John, 2006: 8) agrees, stating that it “is undergoing something of a revival in scholarly circles.” Van Kooten (“The Year of the four Emperors and the Revelation of John: The ‘pro-Neronian’ Emperors Otho and Vitellius, and the Images and Colossus of Nero in Rome,” JSNT 30:2 [2007]: 205–48.209n) concurs: “There seems to be a growing conviction of an early, Neronian date of Revelation.” See also Stephen B. Smalley’s, The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (2005) and E. Earle Ellis, The Making of the New Testament Documents (1999). This revival is even drawing late-date advocates to it.

Thomas Slater (“Dating the Apocalypse to John” Bib 84 [2003: 252]) confesses: “previously I have accepted the consensus opinion that the Apocalypse to John was written during the reign of the Emperor Domitian. Recently, however, in dialogue with colleagues, I have had cause to reconsider my earlier position.” I agree with early-date NT scholar E. Earle Ellis (The Making of the New Testament Documents, 1999: 213): “the arguments for dating Revelation c. AD 95 do not appear to be very strong.”


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Nero’s “name”

In his earlier complaint, my respondent stated against the “Nero Caesar” interpretation: “The number of a man is calculated in his own language and alphabet. ‘Caesar’ was his title, not his name.”

He is wholly mistaken on the point of the name “Caesar.” As a matter of fact, “Caesar” was Nero’s adoptive name (as of AD 50 when Claudius Ceaser, his mother’s husband, adopted him). His full adoptive name was: Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. “Caesar” became a title after the death of Nero in AD 68, as later emperors strove to secure their emperorship by rooting it in Julius Caesar’s work.

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Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

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Ken is a Presbyterian pastor and the author or co-author of over thirty books, most on eschatology. He has been married since 1971, and has three children and several grandchildren. He is a graduate of Tennessee Temple University (B.A., 1973), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1977), and Whitefield Theological Seminary (Th.M., 1986; Th.D., 1988). He currently pastors Living Hope Presbyterian Church (affiliated with the RPCGA) in Greer, SC. Much of his writing is in the field of eschatology, including his 600 page book, He Shall Have Dominion: A Postmillennial Eschatology and his 400 page, Before Jerusalem Fell: Dating the Book of Revelation (his Th.D. dissertation). He contributed chapters to two Zondervan CounterPoints books on eschatological issues: Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond (edited by Darrell L. Bock) and Four Views on the Book of Revelation (edited by C. Marvin Pate). He also debated Thomas D. Ice in Kregel's The Great Tribulation: Past or Future? His books have been published by American Vision, Baker, Zondervan, Kregel, P & R, Greenhaven Press, Nordskog, Wipf & Stock, and several other publishers. He has published scores of articles in such publications as Tabletalk, Westminster Theological Journal, Evangelical Theological Society Journal, Banner of Truth, Christianity Today, Antithesis, Contra Mundum, and others. He has spoken at over 100 conferences in America, the Caribbean, and Australia. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and a Church Council Committee member of Coalition on Revival.

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