In the past, I have been asked more than once what the correct readings are in Revelation 5:9-10. Once again, today someone emailed me asking whether the King James Version readings are correct, or the modern translations are more faithful to the original reading. So this has prompted me to write a brief post explaining these variants. There are at least three related variant readings in these two verses that concern us here. We will address the first two in v.10, followed with the third in v.9. Here is the text,
“And hast made us [hemas] unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:10 KJV)
“You have made them [autous] to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.” (Revelation 5:10 NASB)
This verse is part of a praise song that the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders are singing regarding the Lamb’s redemptive victory of God’s elect of a diverse people (the Church). But between the KJV and modern translations there is a significant difference: Are the four living creatures and twenty-four elders claiming that they (“us”) have been redeemed? (according to the KJV reading). Or are they singing, not about themselves, but about a body of people (“they”) who are not found in this heavenly scene? (according to the modern translations).
The question of which reading is correct is quickly solved by examining the support of the manuscripts. First, by far, most of the majority of the witnesses testify to “them.” This is an interesting point because King James Only advocates often use the “majority” argument as a defense for their readings. They cannot in this case. But the majority argument in itself does not prove this point. More importantly, the earliest and the best manuscripts support “them.” As far as the Textus Receptus (KJV) reading of “us,” it is found in a minimun of patristic and versional witnesses. There is no question that “them” is the reading that would be found in the original text. And therefore the KJV contains the inferior reading, and the modern translations have the correct reading.
One wonders, then, why King James Only advocates make a mountain out of this variant in light of the prodigious hard historical and textual data? For those who are familiar with pretribulationism, you may guess why. Here is their reasoning:
i. Since the KJV says, “made us,” then the four living creatures and the elders are (or represent) the church.
ii. Since the living creatures and the elders are in heaven, therefore the church must be in heaven.
iii. And since the church is in heaven, and the vision of the Beast and the Great Tribulation against God’s people is yet to unfold, the church has been “raptured” before all that persecution.
But as noted above, the first premise rests on a phantom support of textual data. But only the most recalcitrant KJVO advocate will be unmoved from this Tradition.
One other variant in this verse should be mentioned briefly regarding the persons of the action (1st or 3rd). The KJV reads,
“we shall reign” (basileusomen)
Modern translations read,
“they will reign” (basileusousin)
Once again the KJV reading is attested by nothing of significance. Whereas, the modern reading, “they”, is attested by the vast majority of manuscripts–and the earliest and best of them. It is obvious that the scribal replacement of “they” with “we” was intended to conform with the agreement of the 1st person plural of the previous “us.”
Moving on. In v.9 we have a similar variant reading:
“And they sung a new song, saying, Thou art 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;” (Revelation 5:9 KJV)
“And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.” (Revelation 5:9 NASB)
Notice how the KJV contains, “us”, which is absent from the NASB and modern translations. Again, textual considerations will help us to clarify this discrepancy. Though there are not many manuscript witnesses that testify to “purchased for God,” it is supported by the best witness to Revelation, Codex A. Further, the internal evidence of the shorter reading explains the emergence of other longer readings. That is, there was a scribal tendency to “clarify” ambiguous readings. And in this case, it makes much more sense that a scribe would add an object to clarify who is being purchased, rather than a scribe omitting the object of God’s purchasing.
With this understanding, one can see now why scribes in the following verse 10 would change the inconsistency of the third person pronoun to the first person so as to have agreement with the “us” in verse 9.
(Incidentally, since the four living creatures are clearly celestial beings, it is absurd to argue that they have been redeemed.)