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I noticed that there are several ways that English translations render Revelation 13:8. There is a potentially significant difference in how the clauses connect, but most translations are a little bit ambiguous on the issue. I would like to understand what is going on in the original language of this text that causes these translation variations. For example, note these samples.

The traditional King James Version's rendering seems to connect "from the foundation of the world" to the Lamb's being slain

Revelation 13:8 (KJV)
And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

The ever ubiquitous New International Version goes even a step farther than the KJV does in making this link explicit.

Revelation 13:8 (NIV)
All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.

The somewhat newer English Standard Version's rendering very strongly suggests the connection of "before the foundation of the world" with names being written in the Lamb's book.

Revelation 13:8 (ESV)
and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (and NASV, etc) do something similar.

Revelation 13:8 (HCSB)
All those who live on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name was not written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slaughtered.

The majority of modern English translations seem to follow something along the lines of these latter renderings. This suggests to me that the time clause in the original is probably most logically associated with the writing of the book and not necessarily the slaying of the Lamb. However, there may be other possibilities that are hard to convey in English, such as the connection between "from the foundation of the world" and the lamb's being slain.

What is going on in the original Greek?

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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:

  1. What does 'απο καταβολης κοσμου' mean, and
  2. 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:

  1. ου ου γεγραπται το ονομα αυτου εν τω βιβλιω της ζωης (anyone whose name is not written in the scroll of the life)
  2. του αρνιου του εσφαγμενου (of the lamb the slaughtered)
  3. 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.


Conclusion

Following the above, we have two points:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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    I'm quite ignorant when it comes to Greek translation issues, so please bear with me if you could respond to a couple of beginner questions: Are paranthetical clauses common in the LXX+NT generally and Revelation specifically? Are there any other textual clues apart from semantic context to determine whether a phrase is paranthetical or not? (My interest relates specifically to this verse, but if these are anything beyond simple questions, I'm happy to post them as proper questions on the site or be directed to the appropriate resource for the information. – bruised reed Jul 19 '14 at 4:39
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    @bruisedreed - just noticed nobody answered you. I'm no expert, but in broad strokes: Greek is an extremely hypotactic language, whereas English is mostly paratactic. As such, the GNT is full of strings of dependent clauses without punctuation. This is poor English, so these are variably made into parenthetical statements, marked off by commas, left as is, or re-written as independent clauses. The choice depends on context and translation philosophy. – Susan Sep 12 '14 at 2:58
  • @Susan Thanks for your response - I found it helpful. – bruised reed Sep 13 '14 at 3:30
  • Video: "Hypotaxis and Parataxis | Sentence Structure | The Nature of Writing": youtube.com/watch?v=OTueic-WKdQ – Ruminator Jul 7 at 10:42
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AT Robertson, whom I highly respect, had this to say on the topic:

For the phrase apo katabolh kosmou (not in the LXX) there are six other N.T. uses ( Matthew 13:35 without kosmou; Matthew 25:34 ; Luke 11:50 ; Hebrews 4:3 ; Hebrews 9:26 ; Revelation 17:8 ), and for pro katabolh kosmou three ( John 17:24 ; Ephesians 1:4 ; 1 Peter 1:20 ). It is doubtful here whether it is to be taken with tou espagmenou (cf. 1 Peter 1:20 ) or with gegraptai as in Revelation 17:8 . Either makes sense, and here the most natural use is with espagmenou. At any rate the death of Christ lies in the purpose of God, as in John 3:16 .

  • We generally expect original content here, not just a quote from a respected author. Is there anything you can add? Some analysis or summary of Robertson perhaps? – ThaddeusB Sep 29 '15 at 20:46
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    My apologies! I don't have anything to add to Robertson; thought he answered the question better than I could. – Bob Blocher Sep 30 '15 at 21:40
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It would seem that the key to this situation is to define apo. It makes no sense to interpret "the lamb" as having been sacrificed at the inception of the present order with its effects flowing throughout history (an interpretation of the apo and Greek perfect tense). However, it all makes sense when you have apo (meaning "from") parenthetically qualifying the gk. perfect "having been written down" in an accumulative way from the beginning of time. Now that makes perfect sense and squares with the incidents of this apo phrase in Scripture. Apo is "from" and Pro is "before". Giving apo the meaning of "before" injects a whole new Augustinian meaning into the text.

  • Welcome to SE. Often what makes no sense to one, makes perfect sense to another. -So it may make a better answer to soften it. ..It makes sense to some if the lamb slain to cover Adam and Eve was a type and the Lamb in Revelation is it's fulfillment.. ..And if time is an artifact of the fall, then it is even more tightly coupled. Thanks for joining. Have fun. – Bob Jones Feb 13 at 5:29
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I address John (and Paul's) usage of KOSMOS in another post. I hold that in this passage Paul is referring to the Passover lamb which, as an antitype of his own death was killed while the Jews were in Egypt, before they ever entered into the Sinai covenant. While John prefers a different word for "Lamb" in Revelation than is used in Exodus he clearly associates Jesus with the Passover lamb both in Revelation and in the 4th canonical gospel (if indeed they are the same "John"):

[Rev 15:3 ESV] (3) And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, "Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations!

Notice that in the song of Moses it speaks of the place of God's abode as already having been established by God's hands.

[Exo 15:17 ESV] (17) You will bring them in and plant them on your own mountain, the place, O LORD, which you have made for your abode, the sanctuary, O Lord, which your hands have established.

The LXX uses a different word but there is evidence that John was not a fluent Greek speaker and that he was comfortable translating directly from the Hebrew.

I have no formal training in biblical languages but from the context I surmise that John is saying that Jesus' death was presented in an antitype from the beginning of the Jewish nation.

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Patristic witness overwhelmingly understands the passage as the Lamb being slain apo katabolis kosmou. The Fathers appear much more comfortable with understandings of Scripture and salvation that don't "make sense" in strictly linear, temporal, or "historical" terms. Not being from a sola Scriptura tradition myself, I find within the context of prayer, holy Eucharist, penitence, almsgiving, and in the communion of the saints, that this older reading is the one that is worthy of the eternity and incorruptibility we have been given in Christ.

  • Hello Sjojiman, welcome to BHSE, glad to have you join us! If you have time, please make sure to take the tour, to see how things work around here and how we are different than other sites you may know. Thanks!hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour – sara Aug 30 at 14:41

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