Written Before the Foundation of the World? Translation Matters

I got a few interesting comments on Facebook and Twitter recently when I wrote that I find it increasingly humorous to run across what seem to be theological biases in published standard translations of the Bible, and I must say that it’s not always so humorous. Some questions of translation could go either way; others should not be handled so poorly. So, I thought I would point to another verse where there is almost always an unhelpful discrepancy between the original and the published translations.
The ESV renders Revelation 13:8b like this: “everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” This translation suggests that the action of having one’s name written (or not) in the book of life took place “before the foundation of the world.” The NRSV, NAS, and NLT each handle this verse in a similar way. This translation has a certain Calvinistic odor about it suggesting that one’s fate is unconditionally predetermined before the dawn of creation. Arminians (like myself) don’t appreciate that too much precisely because we think it maligns the character of God. Why would a good God condemn any of his creatures, if he has the power to save them without doing harm to their will? Arminians insist that he would not. In the case of Revelation 13:8, the Greek text does not support the Calvinist view.
In the Greek syntax of Revelation 13:8, the prepositional phrase does not modify the verb rendered “has not been written” (γράφω); instead, it modifies the substantive participle translated “who was slain” (σφάζω). So, a proper translation would read: “everyone whose name has not been written in the book of life of the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world” (cf. the NIV). You can easily see that the Greek makes no comment on the timing of when one’s name is or is not written in the book of life. The emphasis is altogether different. The emphasis is on God’s eternal commitment to reveal himself as the one who is self-giving sacrificial love in the person of Jesus, the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. Revelation 13:8 says nothing about individual or unconditional predestination; it says that God is unconditionally committed to the cross, and he is committed to it from eternity.

8 thoughts on “Written Before the Foundation of the World? Translation Matters

  1. In the Greek case system, words like τοῦτο (touto G5124) change form to match the case of the object that is their grammatical antecedent.

    In English that does no such thing, so it appears the nearest grammatical antecedent of 'gift' is 'faith'.

    However in Greek this is not the case. Just as Matt's shown with [Rev 13:8], the Greek is clear.

    The form τοῦτο (touto G5124) is neuter in gender, while faith (πίστις pistis – G4102) is feminine. Clearly 'faith' is not the grammatical antecedent of τοῦτο since in Greek a relative pronoun must match both gender and number of its antecedent (Mounce, 1993, p.111).

    The grammatical antecedent of the τοῦτο (THAT gift) is not faith but 'salvation' since the gender of σῴζω (sōzō G4982) is neuter.

    Salvation is the free gift of God. Faith is not – as Russ says above.


  2. Sorry unknown forgot to comment on the calvinist interpretation in Ephesians. Calvinist state that the gift is not salvation but rather faith, which is obviously pressing something that's not there into the text.

    Bill Mounce (calvinist) even states that the gift here is not faith but rather salvation is the gift that is received by faith.

    Hope that helps.



  3. Unknown:

    Ephesians 2:8-9
    8For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

    My comments are people are dead/alienated from God. In Ephesians we learn that the gift of salvation is received by faith. In other words faith are the hands that receive the gift of salvation.



  4. Thanks for pointing this out. I did a quick check on the NIV in my Bible software, which didn't have the footnote. My guess (and I could be wrong) is that they include that option in a footnote because the other major translations do it that way. Interestingly (and oddly, in my view) translation precedent seems to carry some weight in the production of new translations. I still think the syntax is pretty “cut and dry”. The Greek text is not really ambiguous. It's quite straightforward.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.


  5. Hey Matt,

    The NIV does footnote an alternate rendering: “or, written from the creation of the world in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain.”

    So, the NIV translators also acknowledge some legitimate debate in the translation of that verse. Not cut and dry.


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