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In Revelation 5:10, should βασιλεύουσιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς be translated “They will reign on the earth”, or “They will reign over the earth”?

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  • In order to keep my question simple, I have answered my own question below to provide background information as to why this is a question to begin with. I present evidence for translating the preposition as “over”, however since almost all translations render the preposition as “on”, maybe I'm overlooking something significant. Dec 10, 2020 at 14:20

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The ESV is representative of the vast majority of English translations in rendering the preposition ἐπὶ as “on”, understanding it to describe the location from which the saints will reign.

and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth." (ESV)

I could only find two English translations that render the ἐπὶ as “over”, those being the Aramaic Bible in English on Biblehub.com and the NWT produced by Jehovah's Witnesses.

I’m assuming that the former is not a translation from the Greek, based on its title (I could find nothing about this translation online), and that the latter might have some sort of theological motivation.

However, I believe “over” is ultimately a better translation. I draw this conclusion based on the following evidence.

Evidence from BDAG BDAG's first definition for ἐπὶ is:

marker of location or surface, answering the question ‘where?’ on, upon, near.

The first example is, in fact, 

ἐπὶ (τῆς) γῆς on (the) earth

This would seem to indicate that BDAG supports translating ἐπὶ as “on” in Revelation 5:10, since ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς is the exact phrase found there.

However, notice definition 9:

  1. marker of power, authority, control of or over someone or someth., over a. w. gen...βασιλεύειν ἐ. τινος (Judg 9:8, 10; 1 Km 8:7) Rv 5:10.

It is clear that BDAG believes “over” is the correct translation for ἐπὶ in Revelation 5:10

Evidence from LXX The phrase Βασιλεύειν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς is also found in 2 Kings 11:3 and clearly means “over”.

και ην μετ' αυτης εν οικω κυριου κρυβομενος εξ ετη και γοθολια βασιλευουσα επι της γης

And he was with her in the Lord’s house, hidden for six years, and Gotholia was reigning over the land. (NETS)

In fact, Βασιλεύειν ἐπὶ occurs commonly throughout the LXX and usually means to “reign over”.

Contextual Evidence It seems strange to me if the purpose of Revelation 5:10 were merely to inform the reader of the location from which the saints reign.

This is not to say that they do not reign on the earth, but that the purpose of the verse more likely is to inform the reader that they will reign over it.

This would indicate the fulfillment of God's will for Adam and mankind, who was to rule over the earth. (Gen 1:26) That he was to rule on the earth is self evident and doesn’t need to be stated.

The saints ruling over the earth is also the realization of God's promise to Abraham that his seed would inherit the earth, and is the ultimate fulfillment of the land promises to God's people (Matt 5:5). While inheriting the earth might include being located on it, the primary idea is possession and ownership of it. 

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The key to this matter of whether it's 'over' or 'on' the earth, might need to include another point in Revelation, in addition to the very good points raised by the OP.

As I'm often inclined to say in questions about two possible, alternative translations of a word, it need not be "either", "or". It could be both. This is what context might indicate in this instance.

The book of the Revelation gives prophetic visions about a progression of events in time from Christ's ascension to his return at "the last day". Increasing plagues are poured upon an increasingly godless world, causing all but the saints to curse God all the more-so, and to refuse to repent of their sins and abominations. The culmination comes when Christ suddenly returns to start the Day of Resurrection and Judgment. This also brings about the spectacular, total destruction of the old heaven and the old earth. After that, God creates a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1).

Well, if the view is taken that Christ's return to heaven in glory marked the start of deceased saints thereafter being raised to go to sit with him in heaven on thrones, ruling as kings and priests with him, then for the duration of that part of the Revelation, they would be said to be ruling over the earth - the old earth. They would not, and could not, be on that old earth. Revelation 5:10 explains the situation in heaven after the Lamb (the glorified Christ) begins to open the seven seals in the book God held. Four (symbolic) living creatures and 24 (symbolic) elders fall down before the Lamb and cry:

"Thou are worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every kindred and tongue, and people, and nation; And hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth." (Rev. 5:9-10)

Notice that those redeemed people are not yet reigning on the earth? They speak of a future time when they will, and 'on' is the correct translation. But at that time, they are not on the earth; they are in heaven, before the throne of God. At that time, the outpouring of the things in the seven seals have still to come down on to the earth. At that time, the old heaven and earth are in existence. All those yet to be martyred for the faith of Christ are still to be killed while they are on the earth, then to find their souls under heaven's altar, to wait till the full number of the saints will be killed (Rev. 6:9-12). That is what the fifth seal reveals, when opened in its proper sequence. But in 5:10 that exclamation comes before even the first seal is opened (Rev. 6:1).

When the view is taken that "the thousand years" reign of Christ started at his ascension back to heaven, and is a symbolic number, to continue until the time when he spectacularly returns, then it is easily seen that there is a reigning over the old earth until the new heaven and the new earth replace the old one. Then those redeemed ones can reign on the new earth. Then their location might change, but not while the old, sinful world keeps going.

That is not "easily seen" by those who have a doctrine of those kings and priests never returning to earth but staying permanently in heaven, to rule over the new earth from there. That is why, despite the Greek text they use (in their K.I.T.) having 'upon' in vs. 10 and also in vs. 13, they translate it as 'over' in vs. 10 but 'on' in vs. 13 as that makes it look as if that doctrine is correct, which includes billions never getting to heaven but staying on a paradise earth to be ruled over by a tiny number in heaven. When there is such inconsistency in translating the same word within three verses, suspicions must be aroused.

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    Thank you for your answer. I particularly appreciated your point “ Notice that those redeemed people are not yet reigning on the earth? They speak of a future time when they will, and 'on' is the correct translation.” Sep 28, 2022 at 22:54
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Sorry to be difficult here, but I think that this one of the extremely rare occasions where the NWT translation is broadly correct, but only because it agrees with BDAG (epi #9). HOWEVER, I also think that "on" or better, "upon" is also correct.

Therefore, I would render this passage:

"reign upon/over the earth."

The reason for this is simple. The words following "the earth" are genative and can be rendered as BDAG as either "on/upon". However, the fact that someone reigns on/upon the earth does not necessarily imply that they reign over the earth.

Equally, the fact that someone reigns over the earth does not necessarily mean that they are upon the earth; indeed, God is in heaven but reigns over the earth!

The primary purpose of this passage appears to me as a promise to restore the governorship of the earth to mankind that was lost by Adam. Compare Gen 1:28 vs Gen 3. If this is true, then humans will both reign over the earth (as Adam should have) and reign upon the earth.

The context (Rev 5:9, 10) makes this clear - this rulership handed to the saints is on the basis of Jesus sacrifice and the fulfillment of the covenant promise to make them a kingdom of priests and rulers:

Ex 19:5, 6 - Now if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession out of all the nations—for the whole earth is Mine. And unto Me you shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

1 Peter 2:9 - But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, to proclaim the virtues of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

Rev 5:9,10 - And they sang a new song [to the Lamb]: “Worthy are You to take the scroll and open its seals, because You were slain, and by Your blood You purchased for God those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign upon the earth.”

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I defend an allusion and contextualization between the story of Athaliah and the great whore of Revelation, with Jehoash referencing the story of Jesus' birth.

(2 Ki. 11:3 BGT) ... καὶ Γοθολια βασιλεύουσα ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

(2 Chr. 22:12 BGT) ... καὶ Γοθολια ἐβασίλευσεν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς

(Rev. 5:10 BGT) ... καὶ βασιλεύσουσιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς. (Simple Future)

Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. (Revelation 12:4-5 NIV)

the Root of David (Rev. 5:5)

Upon hearing the news of Ahaziah's death, Athaliah seized the throne of Judah and ordered the execution of all possible claimants to the throne, including the remnant of her Omri dynasty. However, Jehosheba, Ahaziah's sister, managed to rescue from the purge Jehoash, a grandson of Athaliah and Jehoram of Judah, who was only one year old. Jehoash was raised in secret by Jehosheba's husband, a priest named Jehoiada. Wikipedia

Athaliah - Revelation 17 Babylon, the Prostitute on the Beast

For some years before, the prophets Elijah and Elisha had already announced the end of the Royal House of Ahab. Platts, John. A New Universal Biography, Vol.I, p.156, Sherwood, Jones and Co., 1825

Vide Revelation 11 "The Two Witnesses"

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.” (Matthew 2:14-15)

Luke 1:33 καὶ βασιλεύσει ἐπὶ τὸν οἶκον Ἰακὼβ εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας καὶ τῆς βασιλείας αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔσται τέλος

"and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end"... Luke 1:33 NVI

Similarly, Athaliah did not fully reign, she never reigned over the house of David.

This differentiation is perceived in the addition of πᾶσαν

Zechariah 14:9 καὶ ἔσται κύριος εἰς βασιλέα ἐπὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν (Zech. 14:9 BGT)

This is implied by the 3rd, 6th, and 13th verses of the 5th chapter of Revelation.

I understand in this way that the translation of “βασιλεύουσιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς” is "They will reign on the earth"

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  • Very interesting first answer. I don't necessarily agree with it but it is well researched and insightful. Sep 27, 2022 at 20:13

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