Friday, July 31, 2009

Revelation 22:18-21


18. For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: 19. And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and [from] the things which are written in this book. 20. He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. 21. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ [be] with you all. Amen.


Probably every Mormon missionary who has served within spitting distance of the Bible belt has heard this passage quoted as an argument against the Book of Mormon, to the effect that obviously there can be no more scripture after the Bible (for such would "add to" the Bible impermissibly). That argument of course is based on the presentist premise that "this book" is the Bible as a whole. In reality, of course, "this book" is a specific reference to the book of Revelation; the Bible as we know it today did not yet exist as such and would not exist in its present form for some centuries from the time those words were written.

But let's go ahead and correct the argument and restrict "this book" to Revelation. What does this say about the revisions of the JST? What about modern textual critics who make decisions about which words belong in the text and which do not? What about translators who make decisions about how the words and thought of the Apocalypse should be represented in another language? What about commentators? Indeed, what about this Mormon Theology Seminar itself? Have we been in violation of the curse formula for attempting to plumb the depths of what the author was trying to say in these chapters?

In an ancient legal setting that lacked the intellectual property protections of modern copyright law, such curse formulas and their appeals to the gods and divine retribution for meddling with one's text were a common literary device. We see a similar example from the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 4:2:

Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye
diminish [ought] from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

This ancient custom may perhaps be seen most clearly in the Letter of Aristeas 310-11, which describes a decision made when the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) was completed:

310 After the books had been read, the priests and the elders of the translators and the Jewish community and the leaders of the people stood up and said, that since so excellent and sacred and accurate a translation had been made, it was only right that it should remain as it was and no 311 alteration should be made in it. And when the whole company expressed their approval, they bade them pronounce a curse in accordance with their custom upon any one who should make any alteration either by adding anything or changing in any way whatever any of the words which had been written or making any omission. This was a very wise precaution to ensure that the book might be preserved for all the future time unchanged.
In the first instance, this warning was not addressed to future scribes, translators or commentators, but to those members of the seven churches to whom the book was directed, "to everyone who hears" the words of the book. (Note that the KJV's use of "man" in these verses should be translated in a gender neutral fashion.) We tend to imagine that in antiquity people had their own copy of the scriptures and read them personally the way you and I do today. But no, most people experienced the scriptures by hearing them read vocally in groups, and doubtless that is the way the words of this book would have first been experienced by those first hearers. Of course, the curse formula may also be read more broadly as applying to any (including future) attempt to wilfully distort the message of the book. So in my view, those who have attempted to establish the text, to translate that text, and to comment on the text in an effort to understand it correctly (including, yes, the JST) are not guilty of violating the curse formula.

In my opening salvo in this blog series, I pointed out that some scholars are of the view that the contents of our chapters originally appeared in a different order and have been somewhat scrambled. These scholars consider these curse formula verses to be a later addition to the text. The late David Noel Freedman, editor in chief of the Anchor Bible series, commented wryly in correspondence to the author of the Revelation volume in that series on the extreme irony that the curse formula prohibiting additons to the text was (if those scholars are correct) itself just such an addition to the text!

We Mormons are big on testimony and this passage is framed as such a witness. The antecedent to the pronoun I in "I testify" that begins our passage is Jesus (from v. 16 "I Jesus"), and so it is the Savior himself who is saying these words.

One of the joys of reading the text in Greek is being able to see how words are used and how over time many of those words have come into our language. For instance, the "I testify" we have just described is marturO egO. The verb has come into English as the word "martyr," one who suffers death for her unwillingness to recant her witness, and the pronoun egO "I" has come into English as the word "ego." The "plagues" mentioned later in the verse are an English derivative of the Greek word used here, plEgas. For anyone who enjoys words, this is a fun exercise to trace the English derivatives and cognates of the Greek, and to me it sort of helps to make the text come alive.

There is an important textual variant in v. 19. The reference there to the "book of life" should be to the "tree of life." I am going to focus on this variant in my presentation at our in-person conference in Austin, Texas on September 25th; the title of my paper will be "A Book or a Tree? The Erasmian Variant in Revelation 22:19." So I won't say more on that subject here; if you are intrigued by the difference between a book of life and a tree of life in this passage, then by all means please come to the conference.

The KJV wording of the last two verses reflects some elaborations in the text that accrued over time. The original likely was simpler, something as follows (NRSV):

20. The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
21. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints. Amen.*
I was particularly intrigued by the "Come, Lord Jesus!" This appears to be a translation of the Aramaic expression found in 1 Cor. 16:22, which is transliterated through Greek into English as a single word, maranatha. In Aramaic, this is two words, although precisely how they should be divided is somewhat uncertain: either maran atha or marana tha. The mar means "lord," the -an or -ana is the first person plural pronominal suffix meaning "our," and the tha or atha is some form of the verb meaning "to come," usually taken as a perfect "Our Lord has come!" or, as here, as an imperative "Our Lord, come!" This Aramaic expression appears to have been in common use among early Christians.

Thus endeth the formal blog commentary (although comments will continue to be posted). I'll look forward to seeing many of you in Austin come September 25!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Revelation 22: 12-17

12 And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. 13 I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. 14 Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. 15 For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie. 16 I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star. 17 And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is a-thirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.


Verse 12: Stresses the immediacy of consequences or "reward" in relation to "work" or deeds. I like the exclamatory "See" of the NRSV. For a modern audience, it better links the idea of coming-to-awareness (looking and understanding) with the forms of expression (words, writing, etc) that the alphabetical analogy in the next verse invokes. It’s a link by which personal rewards find their meaning (as holiness) when they are folded into relation.

Verse 13: "Alpha and Omega" brings the immediacy of consequences into the divine order. It also repeats the thematic connection developed throughout the book, linking letters (the rudiments of expression and history, the parts of speech by which words/worlds are made) to divine temporal and spacial orders or sets (beginning and end, first and last).

Verse 14: In the KJV rendering, blessedness is the consequence of mindful enactment of the law (those who "do his commandments") which as Leviticus teaches, culminates in the conditions of freedom (I discuss this in more detail below). This blessedness – this mindful extension of freedom – underscores the right to the tree of life, and grants passage into the New Jerusalem.

The NRSV, relying on different authority, begins the verse with "Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life . . ." This alternative suggests a cleansing, a renewal -- entering the city and eating the fruit of the tree of life is no casual event, but highly ceremonial. Acknowledging the many ways we might read the ordinance of baptism onto this verse, I instead take a different but related turn. In fact, I’d like to wind the KJV and NRSV together via the ideal of jubilee outlined in Leviticus.

By way of prelude, let’s begin with the ten commandments: Israel is invited to be free by means of a divine law without which, and left to themselves, would result in their falling back to the habit of slavery. Herbert McCabe has called the Mosaic law the "charter of liberation," beginning with God explaining, "I have brought you out of slavery . . ." and following with the manner by which to avoid various modes of future enslavement (modes far more subtle and common and easy than their experience under the Egyptians, and therefore more dangerous and immediately destructive).

Similarly, in his first recorded sermon, Jesus quotes Isaiah (who quoted Leviticus), saying that he has come to "proclaim release to the captives . . . ., to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour." He is referring to the year of Jubilee (Lev. 25: 8-55) when debts are forgiven, slaves released, and everyone begins anew in freedom. It was an ideal that stood as the antithesis of worldly cities where entire social, economic, and political systems (and for John, think Rome) rested upon domination of the poor by the rich, the weak by the strong, the humble by those who set themselves up as gods. I am always taken aback (being a child of U.S. capitalism) at just how delightfully radical the concept of jubilee is. But more importantly for my point here is that it was also called the day of Atonement, an extended sabbath for the people, and the land, and "unto the Lord."

In short, we might read the KJV’s "do his commandments" as synonymous with the NRSV’s "wash their robes" -- both are forms of ceremonial readiness for the New Jerusalem, for preparing for the sabbath, for the jubilation of atonement, and the celebration of God’s liberation.

Verse 15: Those that restrict true freedom are "without" the city -- in English, there is the double possibility of meaning both "outside the parameters of" and also "without benefit of" the freedoms offered by the city. The English translation suggests that there are, on the one hand, those who intentionally seek to limit the forms of divine freedom God has offered to humanity. Yet on the other hand, there seem to be those who are stymied by the paradox of ignorance: preparatory knowledge is required to enter the city, but the knowledge required is contingent on obedience to the laws of which these actors stand without benefit. The latter sense makes the invitation in verse 17 particularly poignant.

Verse 16: Jesus ratifies the symbolic iterations of the angelic messenger. The elision between "to you" and "in the churches" (KJV) makes explicit the public orientation of the prophetic/visionary content – this is not a private revelation, but revelatory poetics meant to provoke and inspire the community of the saints. Having repeated the theme of word/world, Jesus winds around it another theme that has been prominent throughout Revelation, that of the "root." Somehow, the architecture of the city is bound up with a specific orientation towards his role as creator: he is not merely the manufacturer of things (objects), but the "root" of ancestry, and the city is to be conceived of in these terms.

Jesus is also the "offspring," and if we want to link this to Adam’s point about divine deferral, we might take this to mean that while he typifies Divine power, that power is re-typified when others follow the law (and again, I am using law in the sense of actions that create the conditions for freedom and holiness). Being both root (tree) and offspring (fruit), Jesus anchors the actual world and its history to the transforming potential of holy capabilities. As D. Tutu and others have suggested, the miracle of repentance and forgiveness is that they transform the past. The facts of the past don’t change, but the meaning of the past – its formative effects in the lives of real people – does.

Verse 17: Spirit and Bride give a welcoming greeting; those that listen and seek and desire are singled out and especially welcomed. Freedom is again stressed, even celebrated, as the appropriate mode for dipping into the water of life. Of special note: the musicality of this verse creates a beautiful swelling of welcome – it begins with the duet of "Come!" by the Spirit and the Bride, and it gathers power as a chorus of "everyone who hears" sings "Come." And then, in a significant shift, the "let everyone who is thirsty come" – now heard as the dynamic harmony of Spirit, Bride, and Hearers – crescendos with the final line, "Let anyone who wishes, take the water of life as a gift." A gift. The city, the tree of life, the fruits of holiness, words and worlds, the water of life – all, a gift. This is why I hear the echoes of the year of jubilee throughout Revelation.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Revelation 22:8-11

8And I John saw these things, and heard them. And when I had heard and seen, I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things. 9Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not: for I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book: worship God. 10And he saith unto me, Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book: for the time is at hand. 11He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.


Because our examination has divided the text into manageable units that sometimes differ from other ways of dividing and outlining the text, I thought that it would be useful to first place this pericope (22:8-11), and some of the material treated by Adam in a slightly different framework in order to see its literary context perhaps a bit better, as well as allow us to make a few generic considerations.

Most divisions of Revelation see its final section or Epilogue as comprising 22:6-21. In a sense this final section revisits the kind of direct revelation to John in the Introduction (1:1-3) and the specific, individual direction to his readers that characterized the Letters to the Seven Churches (1:4-3:22). Indeed, there is a great deal of verbal resonance between the opening and closing sections of the apocalypse, and generically they form an epistolary frame for the whole work. Thus rather than just a series of symbolic visions as in the body of the apocalypse, here John is given specific instructions which he is implicitly instructed to write down and disseminate, as is suggested by the discussion of not sealing the prophecy (22:10) and repeated references throughout the Epilogue to the "book" and the "book of this prophecy."

While John's guide up to this point has been an angel, who was introduced in 21:9, his speaking the words of Christ creates a similar ambiguity to that which confronted John, and the readers, in 19:9-10. Indeed, while the angel is still technically the interlocutor in this passage, by the time we look at the material that Brandie will be treating this week (22:12-17), the speaker is unambiguously the risen Christ, "the Alpha and Omega." In this passage, the fact that it is an angel, rather than Jesus, who seems to be speaking makes little difference: the servants of God bear his name and speak his words.

In terms of the internal structure of the Epilogue, G.K. Beale sees it as consisting of five exhortations to holiness (vv. 6-7, 8-10, 11-12, 13-17, and 18-20) followed by a single verse conclusion (v. 21). While many other divisions of the epilogue have been advanced, and while most agree that there is no explicit flow of thought, the idea that it comprises as final exhortation for God's people to manifest "holy obedience" so that they can become heirs to the heavenly Jerusalem and the new earth that was the subject of the last vision seems clear. A repetition in 22:10 of the earlier idea that the time is at hand (see 1:3) adds to the sense of urgency that believers, whenever they may be living, must respond to the message of Revelation.


I John saw these things, and heard them. Here the emphasis on senses, seeing and hearing, is again prominent. The visions of John were an actual experience, and since the overarching message is of the person and work of the Risen Lord, there is a certain resonance with the opening testimony of 1 John 1:1: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life."

I fell down to worship before the feet of the angel which shewed me these things. The reasons for John's act here are somewhat more clear than in a similar moment in 19:9-10. At least here, in a vivid example of Talmage-esque "divine investiture of authority," the angel has just quoted, in first person, the words of Jesus: "Behold, I come quickly . . ." (22:7). Accordingly it is possible that John actually confused the angel with the person whose words he was quoting. Commentators, however, tend to focus more on the disorienting effect the fantastic visions have had on John.

Then saith he unto me, See thou do it not . . .worship God. Because of the emphasis on idolatry throughout the book, some have suggested that the angel's rebuke of John is a final message that none besides God alone, or perhaps Christ with God, are worthy or veneration or worship (See Beale, 1128).

I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren the prophets, and of them which keep the sayings of this book. Paralleling 19:10, the prophets here may well be those who have the testimony of Jesus, since "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." If one accepts that the revelation of Revelation is the unveiling of the risen, glorified Christ, those who keep the saying of this book are those who know Jesus for who he really is, who testify of that, and who are his at his coming.

Seal not the sayings of the prophecy of this book. Here a clear echo to the end of another apocalyptic book (or more correctly the ending of the apocalyptic section of a book) can be seen by comparing it to Daniel 12:4, where Daniel was commanded to seal up his book until the end. A similar injunction to seal something up was seen in the direction to seal the voice of the seven thunders in 10:4, but overall the thrust of 5:1-11:18, and by extension that of the whole book, has been to unveil and unseal.

For the time is at hand. A purely futurist interpretation of Revelation robs this expression of all sense. Clearly the time for the final wrapping up scene was not at hand at the time that John wrote Revelation, but an eclectic approach (and especially progressive dispensationalism) allows it to have meaning to readers in every age.

He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still. This verse (really part of the third exhortation according to Beale's schema) is difficult grammatically, because the exhortations are, in Greek, actually imperatives and aorist imperatives at that. The aspect of the tense gives the sense not of continuing action but of instantly begun action or accomplished state (although this is tempered in each instance by the adverb eti, which is difficult to take as anything but "still" or "yet" although "further," meaning more than before, might work). A grammatical answer to this is that these imperatives may actually be what Wallace calls "conditional imperatives" (pp. 489-91)

The question, then, is whether this applies to a post-judgment state or, if the passage applies in every age.


Passing reference above to the standard LDS idea of "divine investiture of authority," has bearing on Latter-day Saint responses to verses 8-9, since an angel or prophet can in fact speak the very words of God or Christ as if he were the very deity acting or speaking. While this passage, and its parallel in 19:10, might serve as examples of the actual practice of such representational authority, members of our community might be well served by learning from the rebuke to John when he confused the message (and its originator) with the messenger: while we may respect, sustain, and even honor prophets and leaders, only God alone deserves worship of any kind.

The concept of sealed books, while here clearly resonant with Daniel, is important in other restoration scripture, especially the Book of Mormon. In fact the direction given to Nephi in 1 Nephi 14 (and presumably similar direction given to Mahonri Morinancumer and Moroni in regard to material associated with Ether) privileges the very text of John now under discussion.

Since Book of Mormon scripture and some of its concepts presumably were not available to John, parallels with that book are properly the realm of exposition not exegesis. Still, the idea of no unclean thing being able to enter the kingdom of God and a place being prepared for those who remain filthy (see 1 Nephi 15:33-34, 2 Nephi 9:16, Alma 7:21, etc.) illustrate an important doctrinal point suggested by 22:11. Especially if the imperatives of 22:11 are in fact conditional, readers are presented with a choice to be filthy or righteous. As the Lord, through his angel to John, exhorted his people to holiness, he was in fact applying the drama of the visions of Revelation to them: they could be with the Great Whore or the Living Christ.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Revelation 22:4-7

Verse 4: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.”

I’m reminded by this passage of my favorite Psalm (the translation is Robert Alters):

One thing do I ask of the Lord,
it is this that I seek –
that I dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to behold the Lord’s sweetness
and to gaze on his palace. . . .

Hear, O Lord, my voice when I call,
and grant me grace and answer me.
Of you, my heart said: “Seek My face.”
Your face, Lord, I do seek.
Do not hide your face far from me
(Ps. 27:4, 7-8)

In general, however, I’m not sure where to begin with respect to the question of the “face.”

Here we have a face that is “seen” and no longer hidden by a veil of any kind. Yet (as in Emmanuel Levinas’ profound phenomenological analyses of the face-to-face encounter) there are few moments when we are more struck by the transcendent inaccessibility of the other person than when we are brought face to face with them.

In the other person’s absence it is not so difficult to pretend that we “know” them, have taken their measure, and have a handle on who they are. But, brought face to face with the other, this pretension evaporates.

Why? Because when we come face to face with the other, it is no longer the case that we are simply seeing them. Rather, face to face, we see them and we see ourselves being seen. Face to face, we find ourselves gripped by their inaccessible gaze. We discover that there is another perspective from which the world unfolds and that, in fact, we are not (as we pretend) the center of the universe.

There is a kind of nakedness in this revelation as we bear our own bareness in the eyes of the other. Exposed to what we see required of us (and from us) in the other’s face - exposed to our responsibility to them and for them - we are simultaneously exposed to what we cannot see in this face that exceeds us.

The revelatory intimacy of this face to face encounter hinges on just such an exposure: I both see and see myself being seen by something that I cannot see.

Of the immense number of things, then, that could be said about having “his name on our foreheads,” I’ll suggest only this: it is the essence of such a face to face encounter that it inscribes the other’s name in us.

Having seen their face, having seen ourselves being seen, we continue to bear both the other’s name and a responsibility for what that name/face revealed to us about them and ourselves. And here, insofar as God’s name is a metonym for every other face - “inasmuch as you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me” - bearing God’s name on our foreheads means that we bear the name of all the other others who need assistance from us.

A final note: it is especially interesting that we bear this name in a place where it will be visible to everyone else we see . . . but, simultaneously, in a place where it is not visible to us. Our only access to this name (this name that we bear inscribed in our own flesh!) is through the eyes of others.

Verse 5: “And night will no longer be, and they have no need of the light of a lamp or the light of the sun because the Lord God will give forth light on them, and they will reign into the ages of the ages.”

This recapitulation of the promise already given in 21:23 nicely rounds out the end of the vision proper.

Verse 6-7: “And he said to me, ‘These words are faithful and true, and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place. Behold, I am coming quickly. Blessed is the one keeping the words of the prophecy of this book.’”

These verses mark the end of the vision and the transition to the book’s “concluding sayings.” They call our attention back to the role of the messenger/angel, the status of the recipients as “servants,” and emphasize the imminence of all of the dread/beautiful events that were foretold.

“The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets” is an interesting locution. God is here identified as “the one who is on the side of the prophets.” Also, insofar as the “spirits” (pneumaton) are cognate with breath, we might hear an echo of God’s being on the side of the “breath” of the prophets (i.e., on the side of the words that they breathed out on God’s own behalf).

Interesting, also, that blessedness is here directly tied to a text/book. Righteous living in general is not addressed. Rather, blessedness is tied to “keeping” the words of the prophecy of the book. I’d like to address this further (in connection with the rest of what we’ve hinted about the importance of words, writing, texts, etc.), but I’m simply out of time. So, for the moment, I’ll simply lay down another (hopeful!) promissory marker with respect to this question.