The “Neron Caesar” Papyrus

A Key to a Preterist Interpretation of Revelation 13:18

Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for the number is that of a man; and his number is six hundred and sixty-six.

Published in 1959, a few obscure fragmentary papyri leaves contain a legal document, known as the “Nero deed.” This loan deed from first century Palestine, which ought to be properly called the “Caesar Neron Deed,” contains an important key to the preterist reading of Revelation 13:18.

The writing of the emperor’s name and title in Aramaic, nrwn qsr, is notable as a case of these words spelt in such away that the numerical value is 666, a solution often sought for the “number of the beast” in Revelation 13:18, but not hitherto found in any first century text (Allan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, p. 92).

The text is believed to have come from Cave 4 at Qumran, where similar texts have been found. Paleographic examinations indicate the writing is prior to AD 67. The text itself dates the deed to 55/56, the second year of Nero’s reign. It reads as follows.

[On day X of month Y in the] second year of Nero Caesar at Soba, Absalom son of Hanin of Soba, living in Cephar Signah, has declared he has borrowed from me, Zechariah son of Jehohanan of [] living in Chesalon, twenty (?) silver denarii (zuzin). I (Absolom) [shall repay the money ] and if not, from what I realize, I shall pay to you [] even if it is a sabbatical year (Allan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus, p. 92, 93, emphasis mine).

Note also that in the Aramaic text the spelling is Neron Caesar, Nrwn Qsr, נרון קסר.

Facsimile from Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek Documentary Texts from Nahal, Hever and Other Sites: With an Appendix Containing Alleged Qumran Texts (The Seiyâl Collection II) (Discoveries in the Judaean Desert) (Vol 27). Click to enlarge.

The Resurgence of Preterism

I find it greatly encouraging that as the year 1948 (the year Israel became a nation again) fades in the rear view mirror, more and more conservative Christians are seeing the problem with the dispensationalist view of Bible prophecy. Preterism is fast rising in popularity as an alternative view. This is evidenced by the hundreds of books and thousands of Internet articles explaining that the cryptic “number of the beast,” that has baffled scholars for two millennia, is most likely explained by the fact that that “Neron Caesar ” (Nrwn Qsr – נרון קסר) adds up to 666 when spelled in Hebrew letters.

For a longer treatment of this argument, see Caesar Nero: The Sixth Head of the Beast.

That being said, to write a short article on the Internet, as thousands of preterists have done, saying that Nero must be the Beast because his name adds up to 666 is “kindergarten preterism.” The Nrwn Qsr thesis has appeared literally thousands of times in print. However, it is a recent idea first appearing in the year 1835. It never occurred to any of the Church Fathers to spell it out even though some believed that Nero was the Beast.

I have yet to think of a good reason why someone would know count the number of Beast in the Hebrew spelling when the text they were reading is Greek. I wrote an article attempting to explain this, but I have seen few others deal with the problem. Why is it that in the mid second century, Irenaeus could not count the number of Nero, but we assume that Christians in the first century knew this immediately? I think there are some good reasons, but I don’t see this problem dealt with very often.

There are literally hundreds and hundreds of books and articles and even a few videos that explain Revelation 13 from a preterist view point. The view appeared very early and has been popular although not always prevalent. The one exception to that would be the 19th century when preterism looked like it was going to win out for a time. Then dispensationalism came roaring in.

There are also no lack of preterist commentaries on Matthew 24. In fact, all commentators, including futurists, agree that at least part of Matthew 24 is referring to the destruction of the temple on AD 70.

Here I will offer a critique my own position. There are mainly two problems I see with many preterist interpretations.

First, some people treat preterism as though it is a doctrine rather than a hermeneutic. There are of course passages of Scripture that refer to the end times and the second coming of Christ. What many preterists do is to pigeonhole nearly every prophecy and force it into a preterist view point as though this is the necessary grid for everything. This can lead in extreme cases to hyper-preterism, an error which says that all biblical prophecy including Christ’s Second Coming occurred by AD 70.

Second, is a tendency related to the first problem. There are few original preterist thinkers. What is lacking among preterists is the ability to put it all together, to connect all the dots. Instead, many commit the same “this means this” error that futurists and historicists use. Instead, there is needed an approach of complete continuity that interprets scripture with scripture.

Two Objections Answered

Two questions or objections to the Neron Caesar thesis appear as the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room. First, is the correct spelling of Neron Caesar in Aramaic actually Qsr Nrwn? Second, why would a writer of a Greek manuscript expect his readers to count the number of the Beast in Aramaic?

1. Is the correct spelling of Neron Caesar in Aramaic actually Nrwn Qsr?

We should first understand that Hebrew and Aramaic are related languages. They have a common vocabulary with many grammatical differences. The difference can be compared to Spanish and Portuguese; Ukrainian and Russian; Swedish and Norwegian. The Jews spoke Aramaic since the time of the Restoration in the fifth century BC. But read the Scriptures in Hebrew. In the Hellenistic period, most Jews outside the region of Judea spoke Greek and read the Greek Septuagint translation as their Scriptures.

The Hebrew Scriptures were edited during the Restoration to be rendered in the Aramaic “square alphabet” — and the earlier “angular alphabet” was left behind. So practically speaking by the first century AD, the name nrwn qsr would be rendered into the alphabet shared by both Aramaic and Hebrew.

It should also be noted that since the word “Caesar” is Latin, and though a much more common word than Nero, it is still a transliteration and therefore possible to render in different spellings either in ancient or modern Hebrew, as shown here.

To bolster the Nrwn Qsr thesis we have an example from about AD 55 that matches this spelling. While it’s Aramaic, which uses the Hebrew alphabet, the transliteration of Nero Caesar from Latin into either Aramaic or Hebrew could be the same. The point is moot since it is a Latin name. And of course, the important point is that the papyrus is from the second year of Nero’s reign, so it could have been the spelling John was familiar with if he was thinking in Hebrew letters. While this is certainly no “slam dunk” for the argument that John’s hearers understood Nero to be the Beast the existence of a papyrus with such a spelling shows that it is a possible interpretation.

2. Why Aramaic and not Greek?

Put another way, why would John the Revelator, writing his visions in Greek, expect his audience to know they are not to count by using Greek letters, when he writes the cryptic command to “count the number of the beast”? Why would he expect them to think of the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet’s rendering of Nrwn Qsr?

This seems on the surface to be an unwieldy and contrived means to get preterism to “work” with the name of Caesar Neron. But it is not a stretched explanation if we begin with several presuppositions.

The first presupposition is that John was writing during the time of Nero, the sixth king who now “is” according to Revelation 17:10.

And there are seven kings: five are fallen, and one is, and the other is not yet come; and when he cometh, he must continue a short space (emphasis mine).

This is interesting because one of the first “names” of Rome comes from Revelation chapter 9:11.

And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon (emphasis mine).

Some preterists have argued that the Greek-speaking Jewish converts to faith in Jesus Christ living in Asia Minor had some knowledge of the Hebrew language. They would have been conditioned in chapter 9 to think in terms of both languages. In chapter 11, the “two witnesses” appear who are killed “in great city, which spiritually is called Sodom and Egypt, where also our Lord was crucified” (11:8) Then in chapter 12, they are introduced to the woman and the dragon, who represent faithful Israel and Satan.

In chapter 13, the Beast from the Sea appears, which nearly all commentators say refers to a Roman power (but are divided as to which era). It is therefore not a stretch to think that first century readers would be prompted to think of both the Hebrew and Greek languages when considering the “number of the beast,” which is a “the number of a man” (13:18).

John is writing to a specific audience who are commanded to “have understanding” and “count the number of the beast” (13:18). It would be strange to think that John would have made such as statement without expecting his audience to know his identity.

The second presupposition is that John is writing to a group of Greek speaking Christians — mostly Jewish converts — who were familiar with Greek, but many also knew at least some Hebrew and Aramaic due to their connection with Jerusalem during their pilgrimages to the feasts.

We read in Acts 2:5-9 that Jews and proselytes from all over the world were present on the feast of Pentecost and witnessed the birth of the Christian Church. The miracle of Pentecost was that they each understood the tongues as their own regional languages and dialects, such as Latin, Syriac, North African dialects, etc. The ability to speak in a common tongue was not a question. They all spoke either Greek or Hebrew or both.

The third presupposition is that the early Church must have known that 666 referred to Nero Caesar, but almost soon thereafter forgot the connection.

Or did they?

Irenaeus himself, in Against Heresies Book 5, said he did not know the identity of the Beast, and commented on the 616 variant without mentioning Nero. On face value, this is one of the weakest points for preterism. But when we consider the 616 variant, the question comes into clearer focus.

The question is not whether the early Church thought that the Beast of Revelation could be Nero. There are numerous evidences that many Christians, although futurists in their interpretation or Revelation 13,17, believed that Nero would rise from the dead as the dreaded beast whose “fatal head wound was healed” (13:3).

The question is not even whether there are any examples of Christians attempting to count the number of the Beast to equal the name for Nero in some language.

A better question is whether John was simply referring to a well-known cipher or nickname for Nero. Surprisingly, there is ample evidence that this proposition is correct.

In other words, it is possible that John was not proposing a secret code for Nero, but actually a wide-spread practice of making despots’ names into codes.

The first early evidence in support of this hypothesis, there is also a textual variant in some early copies of Revelation that has the reader count the number of the Beast as “616” – “Caesar Nero” – and not the Aramaic “666” – “Caesar Neron.” The difference is in the Latin versus the Aramaic spelling of Nero’s name. Dropping the last “N” subtracted the number 50 from the total. This variant has been known from the mid-second century and was mentioned by the Church Father Irenaeus in his writings.

Another attempt to make Nero’s name equal the variant “616” is the Liber genealogus, a chronology written in Latin by an unknown North African Donatist Christian in the fifth century. It uses the Latin spelling, not the Hebrew or Aramaic spelling. It also advocates a Nero Redivivus futurist view, not a preterist interpretation. Literally, “Nero Revived,” this was a popular fable among Jews and Christians that Nero would rise from the dead and appear once again as an Antichrist world ruler who would touch off events that would lead to a messianic kingdom.

Citing a portion of Revelation 13:18, paragraphs 614-620 of the version that was written in AD 438 states that the letters of Nero’s name are to be used in calculating the number of the Beast (Francis X. Gumerlock, Westminster Seminary Journal 68 (2006):347-360, “Nero Antichrist: Patristic Evidence of the Use of Nero’s Name in Calculating the Number of the Beast”).

Much has been written by preterists that “Caesar Neron” (Qsr Nron, נרון קסר) adds up to 666 when spelled in Hebrew letters. In ancient cultures, numerals were expressed by certain letters of the alphabet. In fact, our modern numerals are derived from Arabic letters. Since each letter in an ancient language had a numerical value, a person’s name could be added up to equal a certain number. Apparently, counting the number of the “Beast” Nero was a popular past-time even among pagans. Suetonius wrote that a piece of graffiti often scrawled on the walls of the empire had the following saying.

Count the numerical values,
Of the letters in Nero’s name,
And in “murdered his own mother”:
You will find their sum is the same.

The letters of Nero’s name in Greek when converted into numerals, had the sum value of 1005; and so had the letters of “murdered his own mother.” This shows that it was a well-known practice to use numerical “code” to speak of this dictator.

That Nero was nicknamed the “Beast” is attested to in several ancient sources. There are other instances of cryptograms that were used to refer to the insane emperor, who had killed his mother. The Sibylline Oracles had done this as well calling Nero a “terrible snake” and citing that Nero’s name had “fifty as an initial.”

One who has fifty as an initial will be commander, a terrible snake, breathing out grievous war, who one day will lay hands on his own family and slay them, and throw every-thing into confusion, athlete, charioteer, murderer, one who dares ten thousand things. He will also cut the mountain between two seas and defile it with gore. But even when he disappears he will be destructive. Then he will return declaring himself equal to God. But he will prove that he is not. Three princes after him will perish at each others’ hands (Sibylline Oracles V.25-35).

The Sibylline Oracles, which are Greek language pseudo-prophecies written after the fact, may have drawn on the idea that the name of Nero equaled the number of the Beast. In any case, the Apostle John was not the only writer to use cryptogram as the name of Nero. Criticizing a mad emperor in writing was a dangerous business. So cryptic references were necessary, although some were more obvious than others.

Nero also possesses the attributes of the Antichrist in the Sibylline Oracles, a collection of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic verses attributed to the prophecies of the ancient Sibyl, who identifies herself as a native of Babylon (III.786; also Lactantius, Divine Institutes, I.6) and a daughter (or daughter-in-law) of Noah (III.808ff). In Oracle V, which dates to the late first or early second century AD, Nero has become a resurrected and demonic power symbolic of Rome, itself. “One who has fifty as an initial [the Hebrew letter “N”] will be commander, a terrible snake [the serpent or dragon], breathing out grievous war…. But even when he disappears he will be destructive. Then he will return declaring himself equal to God” (V.28ff)….

The Sibyl presents Nero both as king of Rome (Oracle V, 138ff) and the means of God’s retribution in destroying it. A matricide and megalomaniac, who presumed to cut through the isthmus of Corinth and was perceived as responsible for the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70, Nero “will come from the ends of the earth” as a champion of the East and an instrument of God’s punishment. He will overthrow tyrants and “raise up those who were crouched in fear” before falling in a final battle against the West. Then there will be peace and “no longer will anyone fight with swords or iron or with weapons at all.” In this expectation, as in Oracle IV and Oracle VIII, one can perceive the hope raised by the False Neros among the oppressed provinces of the East (“Nero as Antichrist,” Encyclopaedia Romana).

It is interesting that the Sibylline Oracles hint at the 666 cryptogram of Revelation 13:15-18 saying the letter of the Beast’s name has “fifty as an initial.” This would be the Greek letter, for “N,” – Nu. Conveniently, the Hebrew letter for “N”, Nun, also equals fifty. This indicates that early Christians probably understood the cryptogram of a popular Hebrew spelling of “Neron Caesar” added up to 666 when spelled in Hebrew letters, with the initial letter, Nun, equaling the number 50.

It is typical even today for oppressed people living under a dictator to use cryptic language when peaking of their “fearless leader.” During Brazil’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, graffiti artists took to writing political slogans and names in a cryptic alphabet on tall buildings. The former dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo, was known as El Jefe (“The Chief”) by supporters or El Chivo (“The Goat”) by detractors. Cuba’s Castro was “the beard” often made with a hand gesture. Nicaragua’s Manuel Noriega was known as “Old Pineapple Face.” In the USA, Richard Nixon was often referred to as “Tricky Dick.”

Most people living in the USA don’t know this in 2017, however, the nature of folklore and cultural legend is that these nicknames are immediately recognizable even as an allusion in contemporary culture, but soon forgotten in the next generation.

Of course, it is also possible that the saying about Nero having “fifty as an initial” was known in Asia Minor in AD 64. John’s cryptogram would have been understood by his hearers even though it was not the Greek letters, but the Hebrew, that added to up to six-hundred sixty-six. Thus John may have been referring to a popular piece of folklore known at that time — as did the the later pseudo-prophecies, such as the Ascension of Isaiah and the Sibylline Oracles — whatever their origin.

This explains why John’s hearers in Asia Minor may have understood the reference, but over a century later it was forgotten by Irenaeus’ audience, who were centered in western Europe.

The first part of the book, The Ascension of Isaiah (chapters 1-5), generally referred to as the “Martyrdom of Isaiah,” is a Jewish midrash on the events of 2 Kings 21. Isaiah warns the dying Hezekiah that his heir, Manasseh, will not follow the same path. When Manasseh takes over, and Isaiah’s warning proves true, Isaiah and a group of fellow prophets head into the desert, and a demon named Beliar inspires a false prophet named Belkira to accuse Isaiah of treason. The king consequently condemns Isaiah to death, and although Isaiah hides in a tree, he is found, and Belkira leads the execution, thus the title of the work is “The Martyrdom of Isaiah.”

Interpolated into the middle of this (3:13-4:22) is a Christian apocalypse called the “Testament of Hezekiah,” which describes a vision of the coming of Jesus, the subsequent corruption of the Christian church, the rule of Beliar, and the Second Coming. All of which is phrased in such a way that it is clearly a code for the persecution of the Church by Nero, and the belief that Nero was the Beast of Revelation.

While it is uncertain whether The Testament of Hezekiah was influenced by Revelation, there are many pre-Christian era Jewish apocalyptic writings that cast an Antichrist figure, often called “Beliar,” as a “beast” in echo of Daniel’s prophecy and other writings of the Old Testament. The point here is that John’s audience would have been familiar with the typology and numerology. Nero would have been the obvious choice here.

The only question is whether they would have been they would have immediately thought that this was an Aramaic cipher and that Nrwn Qsr in the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet was the solution.

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