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