In Greek, Revelation 13.8 says:
ου ου γεγραπται το ονομα αυτου εν τω βιβλιω της ζωης του αρνιου του εσφαγμενου απο καταβολης κοσμου
With only a little correction for English syntax, this can be partly translated as:
anyone whose name is not written in the scroll of the life of the lamb the slaughtered απο καταβολης κοσμου
The question here is twofold:
- What does 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' mean, and
- Does 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' apply to the lamb being slaughtered?
These two questions should actually be answered in reverse order.
Question 2: Does 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' apply to the lamb being slaughtered?
Many English translations differ on whether απο καταβολης κοσμου applies to the lamb being slaughtered or to the names being written in the scroll. I suggest a proper understanding can be determined based on a division of the full phrase into three clauses:
- ου ου γεγραπται το ονομα αυτου εν τω βιβλιω της ζωης (anyone whose name is not written in the scroll of the life)
- του αρνιου του εσφαγμενου (of the lamb the slaughtered)
- απο καταβολης κοσμου
This division is not arbitrary. When we read ahead to Revelation 17.8, we find John uses the exact same phrase except for the second clause:
το θηριον ο ειδες ην και ουκ εστιν και μελλει αναβαινειν εκ της αβυσσου και εις απωλειαν υπαγειν και θαυμασθησονται οι κατοικουντες επι της γης ων ου γεγραπται τα ονομα επι το βιβλιον της ζωης [ ] απο καταβολης κοσμου βλεποντων το θηριον οτι ην και ουκ εστιν και περεσται
If the second clause is not integral to understanding clauses 1 and 3, as evidenced by its absence in Revelation 17.8 (which I've indicated with brackets), it is clear 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' does not apply to the lamb being slaughtered.
Rather, 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' applies to the names being written in the scroll of life.
Question 1: What does 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' mean?
The idiom 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' is only used twice in the Revelation (13.8 and 17.8), and neither occasion really tells us what is meant by these three words. A dictionary definition of the three words is little help either. καταβολης is usually understood as 'foundation', and κοσμου as 'world'.
But απο is the word that is yanked in different directions depending on which bible version you consult, translated variably as 'before' or 'from'. Giving the idiom as 'from the foundation of the world' is arguably neutral. But 'before the foundation of the world' brings the verse into an overtly deterministic theology (i.e. God determined, even before he made the world, who would be saved or condemned), which would not be entirely out of place in the broader stream of first-century Jewish-Christian theology.
However, the exact same idiom, right down to the noun morphology, is found in five places in the new testament outside of the Revelation. Because the wording is used identically in all seven instances, this greatly suggests the idiom had taken on a systematic meaning in Greek-speaking Jewish-Christian thought in the first century.
One of these is again difficult to determine the meaning: Matthew 25.34 uses the idiom, but doesn't give us any direct frame of reference for what 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' refers to.
But the other three all use the idiom with a clear meaning in mind: Hebrews 9.26 says, if his death was not truly sufficient as a 'sacrifice', Jesus would 'have had to suffer repeatedly 'απο καταβολης κοσμου', with the clear meaning being that Jesus would had to have been sacrificed over and over throughout history. Luke 11.50 applies it to the time of Abel and after (i.e. Genesis 4 onward), and Hebrews 4.3 applies it to the time God finished creating the world and after (i.e. Genesis 2.1-3 onward).
The fifth new testament use of the idiom outside of Revelation is Matthew 13.35, where the narrator cites Psalm 78.2 (LXX Psalm 77.2) for Jesus' use of parables. While the Greek in Matthew does not match the Greek in the Septuagint, we can compare the two, to see how each translation understood the original Hebrew.
Psalm 78.2: I will utter riddles from ancient times.
LXX Psalm 77.2: I will utter riddles from the beginning [απ αρχης].
Matthew 13.35: I will utter [things] hidden απο καταβολης κοσμου.
The following verse in Psalm 78 clarifies 'ancient times' as the time of the 'fathers' of the people of Israel. LXX Psalm 77.2 calls this period 'the beginning', which Matthew 13.35 calls 'καταβολης κοσμου'.
Assuming the author of Matthew 13.35 was aware of the original context of Psalm 78, then his use of 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' refers to the early days of Israel's ancestors forward (i.e. at least Abraham onward).
In these four cases – Luke 11.50, Hebrews 9.26, Hebrews 4.3, and Matthew 13.35 – 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' is best translated as 'since the foundation of the world' (i.e. after the world was made), not 'before the foundation of the world' (i.e. prior to the world being made). The consistent usage and the exactness of the phrase implies it was a common idiom that carried a specific meaning in early Christian circles, so it's reasonable to suggest the author of the Revelation picked this up.
Following the above, we have two points:
- The second clause, about the slaughtered lamb, is parenthetical in Revelation 13.8, as a clarification of who owns the scroll of life: it belongs to the slaughtered lamb, previously seen in Revelation 5.
- If we follow the way the idiom in the third clause is used in other first-century Christian literature, as well as a parallel in the Septuagint, the phrase connotes the time after the world was made, not before.
I suggest a translation such as the following best captures the meaning John intended to convey:
All those who live on the earth worshiped it, anyone whose name has not been written in the scroll of life (which belongs to the slain Lamb) since the world’s founding.