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The following verse towards the end of Revalation has an interesting turn of phrase:

Revelation 20:4 (ESV) (emphasis mine)
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

Most translations I've checked have something pretty similar here, but a few of them differ quite radically.

Revelation 20:4 (NASB) (emphasis mine)
Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.

I have heard this verse preached two different ways, one which has people judging something or other and another which has them being judged. This seems like a pretty significant different interpretation, but judging from the various translations it looks like there might also be ambiguity in the original.

My Greek ... isn't. What exactly is going on in this verse that leaves translators in the position of filling in gaps, and for those translations that do try to make sense out of it, what else do they have in the passage to build on? Is the same phrase used elsewhere in Revelation?

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2 Answers 2

Abstract

The ESV's interpretation is correct: rather than being judged, authority to judge is being given to those seated on the thrones.


It's worth backing up quite a ways before we get to the Greek. Structurally, John's visions within Revelation "take off" in 4:1, with the upward call to see "what must take place after this." The first vision is thematically important to our understanding of 20:4, in that it develops significantly the throne motif seen throughout Revelation. At the center of the vision is a throne, and the pantokrator seated on the throne. Space doesn't permit me here to develop this more, but it's important for us in that everything in the rest of John's visions emanates from this throne and from the Almighty One seated on the throne.

The effect of this is seen throughout the rest of John's visions in the use of the divine passive and the word ἐδόθη (was given) - the word we're concerned with here in 20:4. Consider the uses of the Greek ἐδόθη in the rest of Revelation. Here are several examples:

Revelation 6:8

I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.

Revelation 9:3

Then out of the smoke came locusts upon the earth, and power was given them, as the scorpions of the earth have power.

Revelation 13:5

There was given to him a mouth speaking arrogant words and blasphemies, and authority to act for forty-two months was given to him.

Revelation 16:8

The fourth angel poured out his bowl upon the sun, and it was given to it to scorch men with fire.

Taking this last example, we can see clearly the use of the divine passive ἐδόθη to denote the giving of authority. What is being given to the sun in 16:8? "It." But we understand that "it" refers to a delegated authority. Everything flows outward from the throne. The four living creatures are around the throne. They give the bowls of God's wrath to the angels. The angel pours out the bowl onto the sun, which is given power to scorch those on the earth. All of this positions God's throne at the center of the judgments, but various actors being given authority to execute these judgments.

Consistent then with the rest of its use in Revelation, ἐδόθη here in 20:4, "judgment was given to them" should be understood in the sense of authority being given to them to judge. This is consistent with the throne motif present in 20:4 as well as with John's use of the divine passive across his work.

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Καὶ εἶδον θρόνους, καὶ ἐκάθισαν ἐπ’ αὐτούς, καὶ κρίμα ἐδόθη αὐτοῖς is the phrase in question.

"And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them..."

αὐτοῖς is a dative plural and, outside of its temporal function, usually indicates indirect object. This would result in the latter of the two renderings (which is by no means conclusive anyway - "judgment was given to them" does not imply that they were "judged."). However, the lack of another good candidate for direct object in this phrase (αὐτούς and its referent θρόνους would render a nonsense translation).

So could this be a direct object? In many other languages, the Dative can be used as a direct object when dealing with bestowal, or transfer of possession. In Koine Greek another common use of the Dative direct object is one of close personal relationship.

What does all of this mean? The NASB probably has the best pure rendering of the Greek. However, many of the suppositions that follow are usually rooted in bias or theological understanding. So, one person can read it as "the judgment that God declared was pronounced upon them" while another person could see it as "the object/concept/authority that is judgment was given to them." It's still syntactically ambiguous.

The theme of the rest of the following phrases and clauses (until we get to a transition in v. 7) seems to indicate a positive connotation for the referents in this passage. So while I'm inclined to say that the NASB is the most accurate translation, it also seems to lead to some misunderstanding which makes the ESV hold more closely to the author's intent.

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You hint in your last paragraph about the "theme of the rest of the following phrases and clauses". Is this just the topical connection that I can see in translations or is there a grammatical thing going on that draws a closer connection than that? –  Caleb Sep 13 '12 at 8:55
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Actually the best clue that I can find is the shift from aorist (vv. 1-5) to future (v. 6-8). Otherwise, I think it's a thematic connection. –  swasheck Sep 13 '12 at 15:27
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protected by Daи Feb 17 at 0:58

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