Revelation 22, Curses, and Copy Protection. Something You Probably Haven’t Heard Before.

As a result of the conversation with Cari on this thread, I dug out something I wrote a few years ago for FAIR on Rev. 22:18-19. I don’t think it ever appeared, but can’t remember why. Today I’d make use of different rhetoric and I’d add more examples, but otherwise, I still like it. ( I didn’t re-check all my references, so if I’m off somewhere, let me know.) Notes are at the bottom.

Basically, the LDS approach to the scripture is correct, but there’s a stronger argument than those usually cited. That argument has to do with curses and their function among the Israelites and their neighbors. (I wanted to write my dissertation on curse typology, but my advisor’s advisor already did that. Stanley Gevirtz, “Curse Motifs in the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East,” PhD Diss., University of Chicago, 1959. Blessing and cursing are a vital part of ANE law, ritual, and covenant/treaty theology, but that’s for another post.)

Surely every missionary, from Hyrum Smith to Elder Jones in Outer Mongolia, has encountered a zealous Evangelical or combative member of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society presenting Rev. 22:18-19 as the trump card, the sure proof, the coup-de-grace against the Book of Mormon. Of the three passages used to “prove” that the Bible is complete and nothing can be added to it, this appears to be the strongest.(1) However, a close reading and some cultural/historical background reveal that this passage does not close the door to further inspired books or prophecies. It is, instead, a common ancient form of copy-protection.

First, to establish the correct context, the “book” of KJV verse 18 is not the whole Bible as we have it today, but the Revelation of John.
We know this both from Revelation itself and the history of the formation of the Bible. In Rev. 1:11, John is commanded to “write [the revelation] in a book, and send it unto the seven churches.” The Greek word translated as “book” is biblion, which is actually a papyrus scroll, not a codex (or bound book).(2) Thus, the “book” referred to in Rev. 22:18-19, “the words of the prophecy of this biblion,” can only be the scroll which John wrote and sent to the seven churches, not the Bible in its entirety.

Rev. 22:18-19 cannot refer to the whole Bible for two additional reasons. Not all the books that would become the “Bible” had been written yet,(3) and these books would not be recognized as “scripture,” as a binding collection of books, for decades. In New Testament times, “the scriptures” referred to the Old Testament, since that was all that had been written and canonized up to that point. (4) Many non-LDS sources recognize these facts and acknowledge that Rev. 22:18-19 refers only to the Book of Revelation and not the whole of the Bible.(5)

Second, in common ANE fashion, John used a curse to protecting the text of his letter from mortal tampering. Before the invention of watermarks and .pdf files, authors had only a few ways to prevent textual tampering. One way was to seal a copy with wax, as in Isaiah 8:16.(6) Another way was simply to bury the text, as with the Dead Sea Scrolls.(7)

A third method, common to many cultures of the ancient Near East (examples are found among the Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Hittites, and others) consisted of invoking a curse or curses on whomever would change, erase, or otherwise modify the text. We find examples of this on royal decrees and letters, burial and other inscriptions, and particularly in covenants and treaties. Although several examples of language and intent similar to Rev. 22:18-19 appear in the Old Testament, one particular example in Ezra matches John’s usage in Revelation.(8)

In the book of Ezra, the Jews at Jerusalem had been prevented from rebuilding the temple by local Persian officials. The Jews appealed the Persian king, Darius, who like John, sent a letter to the officials in Jerusalem. He decreed that the Jews could rebuild their temple, and that all supplies- animals, workmen, and building materials- were to be paid for out of the royal treasury. He closes his letter with a curse and a warning, perhaps to his own officials who did not want the temple rebuilt. “Furthermore I decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it. The house shall be made a dunghill. May the God who has established his name [in Jerusalem] overthrow any king or people that shall put forth a hand to alter this [decree], or to destroy this house of God in Jerusalem. I, Darius, make a decree;” (9)

Outside of the Bible, a royal inscription on a temple foundation closes with the warning that the progeny of whoever “alters [Shamsi-Addu’s] monumental inscriptions” would be struck dead by the gods.(10)

A tablet of Iddi-Sin similarly reads, “He who removes my work, or erases my inscription… that man, may [these 10 gods] inflict on him an evil curse. May they destroy his seed, and rip out his foundation. May they not grant him an heir, or offspring. May his life be taboo.” (11)

Closer to John’s day, the pseudepigraphic Letter of Aristeas records a curse that the translators of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) pronounced on anyone who would modify their translation. “And when the whole company expressed their approval, they bade them pronounce a curse in accordance with their custom upon any one who should make any alteration either by adding anything or changing in any way whatever any of the words which had been written or making any omission. This was a very wise precaution to ensure that the book might be preserved for all the future time unchanged.” (Aristeas 1:311)

Examples could be multiplied well beyond these three to demonstrate the ubiquity of using a curse to protect one’s text.

None of these threats of cursing guaranteed the text against alterations. They simply reminded the mortal readers of the royal and divine retribution that awaited whomever would alter them. Further, such wording is meant *only* to protect the text as it came from its source. In no way do these curses preclude God, the king, or the original author from sending another revelation, letter, tablet, decree, etc.

Third, history shows that God (and his authorized servants) may, did, and do add to his words. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, God continued to send new revelations and guidance to the prophets. His words at times clarified, superseded or even contradicted His former word. (12) Regardless of the content, the word came from God to the prophets, who made it known to the people, who were then free to accept or reject, but not to modify. Some, citing Heb. 1:2, have claimed that prophets stopped receiving revelations from God after Jesus’ death, since Jesus was the ultimate revelation of God. However, Acts names several prophets (13) while the Gospel and Revelation of John both testify that revelation continued to be received and written by authorized messengers many decades after Jesus’ death. In other words, God continued to add to His word through the prophets. Injunctions against modifying or adding to the text apply to unauthorized meddlers, not to God or his authorized messengers. (14)

Thus, Revelation 22:18-19, when seen in its true context, neither refers to the whole Bible, nor teaches that God had finished inspiring prophets. Like others in the ancient Near East, John was simply trying to protect his text by invoking a curse on whomever would change it, which still leaves God free to add to His word. Those who continue to cite this scripture against the Book of Mormon or continuing revelation are simply ignorant of this information, found in plenty of non-LDS biblical resources.

Further readings on scripture and authority
Stephen Ricks and Daniel Peterson, Offenders for a Word, (Salt Lake City: Aspen Books, 1992), 117-128.
Stephen Robinson, Are Mormons Christians?, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991), 45-56.
Craig Blomberg and Stephen Robinson, How Wide the Divide?- A Mormon & an Evangelical in Conversation, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 33-76.

Further readings on curses:
Morrise, Mark J. “Simile Curses in the Ancient Near East, Old Testament, and Book of Mormon.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2:1 (1993).

Anything that discusses biblical/ANE covenants/treaties has to cover curses, since they were an inherent part. See, for example, “What is a Covenant?” here.

A large bibliography on imprecations (curses) is here.

NOTES:

  1. The other two are 2 Tim. 3:15-16 and Heb. 1:2.
  2. See BDAG or any Greek dictionary, biblion. Codices were not invented until much later. The word “Bible” is an Anglicism of Greek ta biblia, “the books,” indicating the composite nature of the Bible as an inspired library of books, not one single book.
  3. While the exact dates are unknown and disputed, most scholars believe John’s Gospel was written after the book of Revelation. See Edgar J. Goodspeed, How Came the Bible (New York: Abingdon Press, 1940), 62-64. Cf. the Jehovah’s Witness New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, 1547. For an opposing view, the NIV Study Bible conservatively places the Gospel at 85 or later, and Revelation at 95 AD. pp. 1922, 1588.
  4. This also clarifies 2 Timothy 3:15-16, which can only refer to the Old Testament, because the New Testament isn’t written or canonized yet.
  5. See Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, “Pinning Down Mormon Doctrine,” Christian Research Journal 23:4, 11. David Reed and John Farkas, Mormons: Answered Verse by Verse
    (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992), 103. Cf. NIV Study Bible note at Rev. 22:18-19.
  6. See John W. Welch, “Doubled, Sealed, Witnessed Documents: From the Ancient World to the Book of Mormon,” in Davis Bitton, ed., Mormons, Scripture,and the Ancient World (Provo, Utah: The Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1998), 391-444.
  7. This method is useless for letters or decrees, which are meant to be read, not preserved.
  8. The others are Prov. 30:6, Deut. 4:2, 12:32.
  9. Ezra 6:11-12, NRSV. Emphasis mine.
  10. William Hallo, ed. The Context of Scripture (Leiden: EJ Brill, 2000), 2:259.
  11. Ibid., 2:255. Non-biblical examples abound, although most are not close to John’s time.
  12. For example, in 2 Kings 20:1-6 and Jonah 3:10 God changes His mind. Also, compare Gen. 17:13 with Gal. 5:6. Peter’s vision in Acts 10 overturned previous Church policy/doctrine vis-a-vis the Gentiles. Joseph Smith stated, “God said, ‘Thou shalt not kill;’ at another time He said, ‘Thou shalt utterly destroy.’ This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed.” Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 256.
  13. See, for example, Acts 13:1-2, 15:32, 21:10-11.
  14. Rev. 22:18. Cf. Jer. 36, (esp. v. 32) in which a scroll of a revelation from God is burned by the king. Jeremiah writes the revelation again and adds to it. Cf. D&C 20:35.

6 thoughts on “Revelation 22, Curses, and Copy Protection. Something You Probably Haven’t Heard Before.

  1. Very valuable insight.

    FWIW, another reference related to your #13 is Ephesians 3:5 — “…as it is NOW revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” — written by Paul many years after Jesus’ death.

  2. Ben, as a relatively new convert, I never found convincing the evangelical Christian argument that Rev. 22:18-19 is somehow some kind of prohibition on further revelation.

    You provide many of the reasons in this post. I think the whole definition of what is a “book” and the fact that Revelation may have been written before other books in the New Testament are very strong arguments. But beyond that, there is the tradition in the scriptures of having language similar to this. Let’s take a look at what Rev. 22:18-19 says

    18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
    19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

    Now, let’s look at Deut 4:2:

    2 Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

    This part of Deuteronomy is one of the most-studied part of the Pentateuch by ancient Jews because it comes near the Shema. So, by the logic of this commandment, we should never add anything to the discussion of the Old Testament (as Jeremiah, Isaiah and all of the other prophets until Malachi do). And we certainly should never add such a thing as the New Testament with all its new commandments. Clearly, there is something else we are intended to learn from the commandment not to add to or take away from the words in the scriptures. And certainly there is a precedent for allowing new commandments over time (otherwise, we need to get to work stoning adulterers and homosexuals).

  3. you say that Rev. 22: 18-19 are only refering to The book of revelation because that all that was available to John at the time. But I was wondering how is it that there are any rewrites of the revelation in any form. I can understand language to language, but how can I be reading 10 different re-writes to a passage that warns agains re-writes. I agree that there can and should be additions and changes to documents such as these. Our guidlines should change with the times, but we cant pick and choose and change things for out own benefits. You cant preech the unchangable word of God, by changing the word of God. please write me back with your thoughts on this matter. thank you for your time and i wish you all the best.

  4. I rather enjoyed your research Ben. But then I am bias, and always enjoy your research anyway! GRIN!

    Best,
    Kerry A. Shirts (aka, The Backyard Professor)

Comments are closed.