I have always felt that the Book of Revelation’s position in the Bible was the same as John Peel’s programme in BBC Radio One: the management didn’t understand it at all, but they were afraid to leave it out in case it was important.
While Peel’s programme is the only important thing R1 have ever done, I’m not so sure about Revelation.
It was originally believed that the author of Revelation was the disciple John – he does refer to himself by name as John – and that he had also written the Gospel of John. But the author of “John’s” Gospel doesn’t use his own name. He calls himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. Besides, John was a common name among early Christians, so the modern view is that it is improbable that the John of Revelation was one of the 12.
But perhaps he was. What kind of drugs he was taking when he wrote Revelation, nobody knows.
One of the best-known passages refers to the Number of the Beast:
Here is wisdom. Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.
There is one “mystical” way to get from “a man” to “a number”, and that is the principle of gematria, or numerology. Each letter has a numerical value (in both Hebrew and Greek, numbers were written with letters) and you simply add them up.
Given the context, people thought that “The Beast” must refer to a persecutor of Christians, and tried to make Nero’s name fit. But it doesn’t. You get 616.
The Emperor at the time the book was written was Domitian, who did indeed persecute Christians (although he had his bad points as well). One ingenious suggestion was made by Robert Graves, who suggested that DCLXVI, 666 in Roman numerals, is an abbreviation for the Latin sentence “Domitianus Caesar Legatos Xti Violenter Interfecit”, or “The Emperor Domitian violently killed the envoys of Christ”. Clever, but there is no indication in Revelation that the author knew any Latin, and no reason to think that a Greek hermit would have.
My own opinion is that people have been looking at the sentence the wrong way. I think that “here is wisdom” doesn’t refer to the identity of “the man”, but to the process of gematria, which was secret, arcane knowledge.
Only “him that hath understanding” would get the secret reference: that the numerological sum of the phrase “The Great Beast” (Τὸ Μεγα Θηρίον – To Mega Therion, in Greek) is itself 666.
It was Aleister Crowley who first pointed out this sum, and bombastically true to form, claimed that he himself was the Beast. He probably wasn’t.