Revelation 22, Curses, and Copy Protection

A medieval scribe. Jean le Tavernier, Public Domain

I first wrote this over 15 years ago, reposted it somewhere else, and both locations have now disappeared from the online ether. So, given that we’re studying Revelation right now, I thought I’d repost it, slightly edited but uncorrected or updated, and complete with my younger, brasher style.

What’s the best LDS response to the idea that Revelation 22:18-19 closes the canon?

The LDS approach is indeed 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 prior 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 ancient Near Eastern  law, ritual, and covenant/treaty theology, on which see here and here.

Surely every LDS 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,” 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-Adduâ’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 ten 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 he 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, closes it, 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.

And if you’re interested in this kind of thing in more recent times, you can check out Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses, currently listed on Amazon, used, hardcover, for only $899.99.

Fortunately, there’s a summary and excerpt at Atlas Obscura.

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 [various Evangelical anti-LDS preachers.]
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. This may not be Joseph Smith. See Gerrit Dirkmaat, “Searching for “Happiness”: Joseph Smith’s Alleged Authorship of the 1842 Letter to Nancy Rigdon” Journal of Mormon History 42:3 (July 2016)
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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s