Search the Site


The Text of Revelation and Early Scribes


Contrary to what we find in our modern Bibles, the earliest copies of the book of Revelation were not only few in number but also very fragmentary. The earliest complete copy of its text is preserved in a fourth century manuscript, Codex Sinaiticus. Its text, however, differs in significant ways from the one in our Bibles and illustrates the complicated textual history of the book. It is also a full three centuries removed from the “original” first century composition.

How many early manuscripts contain the text of Revelation and how much of the text is preserved in them?

Currently, there are only nine papyrus manuscripts that date from the second (?) to seventh centuries and preserve the text of Revelation. These are fragmentary and contain anywhere from a handful of verses (e.g., P.18 with Rev 1:4-7) to several chapters (e.g., P.47 preserving Rev 9:10-11:3; Rev 11:5-16:15; Rev 16:17-17:2). The first complete copy of the book surfaces in the fourth century parchment manuscript, Codex Sinaiticus, followed by the fifth century codices Alexandrinus and Ephraemi Rescriptus. Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, however, is a palimpsest, that is, a reused manuscript whose original text was washed off and replaced with the writings of Ephraem the Syrian. Most of the manuscripts that preserve Revelation date from the tenth to sixteenth centuries. The book is extant in 310 manuscripts.

Did early scribes alter the text of Revelation and, if so, what kinds of changes were introduced?

The degree to which scribes altered the text of Revelation—and whether they did so intentionally—is debated. What is clear is that the earliest copies of the book exhibit a significant degree of textual variation and that certain patterns emerge. Most textual changes are minor and appear to be due to scribal carelessness. These include misspellings, nonsense readings, thoughtless repetitions, and the accidental omission of words or entire lines. The frequency of these changes depends upon the individual scribe’s competency and carefulness.

Taking a step back, there are broader patterns that emerge within the most extensive manuscripts preserving the text of Revelation: P.47, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, and Ephraemi. The first pattern is that, on the whole, the scribes of these manuscripts appear to omit more words and phrases than they add to their texts. The second is that there is a high degree of textual harmonization to parallel passages in the copied text. That is to say, the copied text was brought in line with adjacent textual material, sometimes unconsciously, either for grammatical or contextual consistency. Scribes also corrected their own errors with varying degrees of success.

The most fascinating instances of textual variation are those that make a significant change to the text and cannot be explained as accidental slips. Codex Sinaiticus exhibits a number of these. The following in Revelation are representative: “his servants” > “his saints” (Rev 1:1); “I am casting her” > “I will summon her” (Rev 2:22); “I am the beginning of the creation of God” > “I am the beginning of the church of God” (Rev 3:14); “and a rainbow surrounded the throne” > “and priests surrounded the throne” (Rev 4:3); “the glory and the power” > “the glory of the Almighty” (Rev 5:13); “there was a rainbow on his head” > “there was hair on his head” (Rev 10:1); and “he measured its wall” > “he measured its edge” (Rev 21:17).

Overall these changes appear to clarify or add specificity to certain passages. The substitution of “his servants” with “his saints” (Rev 1:1), for example, is replicated at the end of the book, where the recipients of the closing benediction in Codex Sinaiticus are the “saints” rather than “all” (Rev 22:21). The variants serve as bookends that leave no doubt as to Revelation’s intended readership. More fascinating still is the transformation of Christ’s title from “the beginning of the creation of God” to the “the beginning of the church of God” (Rev 3:14). Here it is likely that the original title came too close to Arian formulations about Christ as a created deity. The change eliminates such an association from the fourth century manuscript.

Whether or not the scribes of this codex were ultimately responsible for the changes noted is debated. Their primary task was to copy the text. The variation may have already been in the manuscript being copied or introduced into the manuscript before the official copying began. Further, the broader textual tradition is relatively stable, leaving little doubt as to how the original may have read even with the changes. What the textual variants illustrate is the kind of editorializing that took place at various stages of the book’s transmission, editorializing that bears witness to the sociohistorical contexts of Revelation’s manuscript tradition.

  • Hernandez-Jr-Juan

    Juan Hernández Jr. is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Bethel University (St. Paul, MN). He is author of the award-winning Scribal Habits and Theological Influences in the Apocalypse (Mohr Siebeck, 2006), co-editor of Studies on the Text of the New Testament and Early Christianity (Brill, 2015), and lead translator of Josef Schmid, Studies in the History of the Greek Text of the Apocalypse: The Ancient Stems (SBL Press, 2018).