Q. What’s the real meaning of the number 666 in Scripture?
A. In Revelation 13 we read about St. John’s vision of the two beasts who for a time will exert their evil power in the world. Verses 17 and 18 give a hint for identifying the second beast. Its name is encoded in a number, 666. (Some ancient manuscripts read “616” instead of “666,” and some recent historical evidence suggests that “616” is in fact the more likely original reading.)
The “real meaning” of this number is unclear and has been widely debated for many centuries. As you’ll find in the footnotes on this passage in several versions of the Bible, each letter of the alphabets used in ancient Greek and Hebrew (the two primary languages of biblical texts) has a numerical value as well. A number of letter combinations in various names can thus add up to 666 or 616, and a number of historical figures have been “nominated” for this dubious honor.
One likely possibility is the first-century Roman emperor Caesar Nero, a vicious persecutor of the Church well known to the first readers of the Book of Revelation. The Greek form of his name in Hebrew letters yields the sum of 666, and the Latin form yields 616.