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!


  1. Kevin has handled 22:18-19 so well, that there is scarcely much need to add to what he has written. As additional clarification, however, in regard to “not adding” to the words, I would point out exegetically that the Greek text clearly states that the Lord is talking about tous logous tēs propheteias tou bibliou toutou (the words of the prophecy of this book). Hence it is not just that those who tamper with the book are under a curse, but rather those who take away or add to the “prophecy” (singular) of the book. While many may see this as a collective, referring to all the prophecies and visions as a set, my approach is to see it as specifically referring to the testimony of Jesus (cf. 19:10) that the visions enunciate, namely the “unveiling” of Jesus in his true identity as glorified Lord and the one who unlocks and guides the course of history.

    As Kevin has pointed out, “this book” (tou bibliou) must refer to the book of Revelation itself. I am not the apologetic sort, but for those who still find themselves forced to counter evangelical arguments about not adding to the canon, one simply needs to recall that “Bible” (ta biblia) is a neuter plural, literally “books,” and that this collection of books postdates Revelation by at least a century and a half. Only much later did a feminine singular, hē biblia, develop once the Bible was thought of as a book and not a collection of books.

    But I want to share a final thought regarding the possible expositional significance of “not adding” to the prophecy of this book in particular and indeed to all scriptural books in general. Textual and redaction criticism on the one hand and prophectic revision, expansion, and correction a la the JST on the other witness the potential fluidity of the text. What is significant to me is that the meaning of the text when it comes to the testimony of Jesus, rather than the actual collocation of words in surviving or revised texts is what is important . . . and that is because a correct knowledge and appreciation for the identity, nature, and majesty of Christ, the God of Israel and the whole earth (see 3 Nephi 11:14 comes first and finally through revelation: he must unveil himself to each of us, at first through the spirit and then (hopefully) in actual fact. This is the testimony of the Book of Revelation that I see and, indeed, that I have received.

  2. I would like to share as one of my final posts something a bit more devotional in nature. It is the text of a beautiful musical setting “E’en So Lord Jesus Quickly Come,” by Paul Manz. Its lyrics allude to several passages from Revelation, including 1:4-5, 4:8, 12:12, 22:20, 21:22-23. Wish there were a way to upload an *.mp3 file to the blog, because Ron Staheli and the BYU University Singers have performed this masterfully.

    Peace be to you and grace from Him,
    Who freed us from our sin,
    Who loved us all, and shed his blood ,
    That we might saved be.

    Sing holy, holy to our Lord ,
    The Lord almighty God ,
    Who was and is, and is to come ,
    Sing holy, holy Lord.

    Rejoice in heaven, all ye that dwell therein,
    Rejoice on earth, ye saints below
    For Christ is coming, is coming soon,
    For Christ is coming soon.

    E'en so Lord Jesus quickly come,
    And night shall be no more,
    They need no light, no lamp, nor sun,
    For Christ will be their All!

    Now THAT is the message of Revelation!

  3. Fabulous post, thanks.

    Some thoughts:

    --v18: "every man that heareth" As you point out, we have already violated the expectations of the text by reading it instead of hearing it. I wonder what we are missing by doing that.

    --I really appreciated the questions you pose in your second paragraph of comments.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.