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Does the Book of Revelation Establish a Closed Canon?
At the end of the Book of Revelation, the Lord gives a striking warning to those who would read this book of scripture: “If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: 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” (Revelation 22:18–19). Some have used this verse to imply that the scriptural canon is closed, and no one should add to the Bible as a whole. This is not what this passage would have meant in the original context of this verse.
Rather, John’s warning to neither “add to” nor “take away from the words of the book of this prophecy” were intended specifically to refer to the Book of Revelation itself, especially since the New Testament (and, by extension, the entire Bible) had not yet been fully compiled. This is especially evident when the verse is viewed in the wider historical background and context of the formation of the New Testament as a whole.
For example, many early Christians believed the book of Revelation to have been written during Domitian’s reign in AD 81–96, others believed that it was written a generation earlier during Nero’s reign in AD 54–68.1 Other texts, including the Epistles of John, are typically believed to have been written after the Book of Revelation, even when assuming the later of the two dates. As such, if this verse was meant to mark an end to all scripture, these precious books would not be included in our New Testament.2
Another point to consider is how the Bible has historically been shared and compiled. Although the Book of Revelation is typically placed at the end of the New Testament in modern Bibles, this is not something that John’s immediate audience would be aware of. For centuries, the books of the Bible—whether consisting of the Old Testament, New Testament, or both—were shared as individual books written on papyrus or scrolls. The popularization of the codex — something that closely resembles a modern book — did not happen until the third century AD, which allowed these books to all be written in the same volume. As such, for centuries Revelation was shared and read as a single scroll just containing the one book.3
Furthermore, while Revelation is placed at the end of our New Testament, the order of books in the New Testament was far from set in antiquity, as is evident when exploring ancient codices. For example, a codex from the fifth or sixth century named Codex Claramontanus contains all of the books we find in our New Testament, but it does so in a different order. Revelation is placed after the four gospels and the epistles, and is then followed by the Acts of the Apostles, which is typically placed in modern Bibles after the Gospels. Furthermore, this codex includes texts not found in our New Testament, including the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Acts of Paul, and the Revelation of Peter.
Other codices, such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus, likewise contain other early Christian writings in their New Testament, each placing these texts after the Book of Revelation.4 If this verse was meant to apply to the whole Bible, it would make little sense to place other books after Revelation.5 Even some churches today order the books of the New Testament differently than many Christians may be used to.6
Another point of consideration offers a comparison between these verses and other similar curses found in covenantal or sacred texts, warning others not to alter the words of the text. In Deuteronomy 4:2, Moses warns the people, “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.”7 Another close parallel can be found in the Letter of Aristeas, an early Jewish text describing the translation of the Septuagint. After the translation was completed, “they bade them pronounce a curse in accordance with their custom upon anyone 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.”8
Other texts throughout the ancient Near East contain similar curses for those who would willfully corrupt a text, including various covenantal treaties and texts purporting to have been revealed by the gods.9 These texts help contextualize the end to the book of Revelation: in a world before the printing press, everything had to be copied by hand, as such, the chance for human error in the transmission of these texts was much greater than it is today. Therefore, in many ancient texts considered to be sacred, it was imperative that a warning not to tamper with the text be given to scribes who would later make copies. These curses served as an important reminder to the serious or sacred nature of the text in question, so the utmost care was to be taken by the scribes and copyists not to alter them.
Furthermore, the New Testament canon has a vivid history. The same list of twenty-seven books that form the New Testament commonly used today was first described as “canon” by Athanasius in AD 367,10 yet not everyone accepted this same canon — even into the modern day. The need for a canon arose as various apostate sects had formed by the fourth century, many manipulating commonly accepted texts or adding their own texts written in the name of prominent first-generation disciples.11 This created the need for a set list of books that would allow Christians to easily recognize what texts had apostolic authority attached to them—not so much as a closing of the canon per se, but as a way to identify works that were known to be legitimate.
As noted, even today many Christian churches accept more books in their biblical canon. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches accept many of the books in the Apocrypha as canonical, although both disagree on the status of a few books. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church further adds the book of 1 Enoch to their biblical canon. The opposite is also true: some Protestants, including Martin Luther, felt that some books of the New Testament were not scripture, including the Epistles of James, Jude, Hebrews, and the Book of Revelation itself. Although Luther did not remove these books from his New Testament, he did place them at the end of the Bible in an attempt to separate them from the other books he was willing to accept.12
The Book of Revelation, much like all the other books in the Bible, was given through divine inspiration to a prophet of God. John, having received a divine commission from Jesus Christ, could present his new revelation to the Church, just as other prophets have been able to present their own revelations to the world. As observed by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “The fact of the matter is that virtually every prophet of the Old and New Testament has added scripture to that received by his predecessors,” without detracting from the prophecies and revelations which God has given previously (see D&C 20:35).13
The biblical scholar N. T. Wright has come to a similar conclusion regarding the ultimate authority of a close canon of scripture. Commenting on verses such as Matthew 28:18, which declares that all authority is given to Jesus rather than a set of books, he concluded that “Scripture itself points … away from itself and to the fact that final and true authority belongs to God himself.”14 That is, there is no reason to believe that God did not, and could not, continue to reveal sacred texts to his apostles and prophets after the conclusion of the book of Revelation.
Based on the historical context surrounding the use and transmission of the Book of Revelation, Revelation was not understood by early Christians to serve as an end to all inspiration from heaven. This interpretation would only arise much later in history, and is rejected by most, if not all, biblical scholars today.
Indeed, as the Lord declared to Moses, Latter-day Saints joyfully believe that His “words … never cease,” as He continues to speak to his chosen prophets and apostles today (Moses 1:4). Because God has again called apostles and prophets in the modern dispensation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it should likewise be understood that revelation continues to bless the world. In addition to other books of scripture, including the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, we can be blessed with additional insights from heaven as we face the challenges of the world today.
Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, The Revelation of John the Apostle (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2013), 533–541.
Daniel Becerra, “The Canonization of the New Testament,” in New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2019), 772–786.
Jeffrey R. Holland, “‘My Words … Never Cease,’” April 2008 general conference.
Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 117–128.
- 1. Harold W. Attridge, ed., The Harper Collins Study Bible, rev. ed. (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2006), 2086–2087.
- 2. For a brief introduction to these epistles, see Lincoln H. Blumell, Frank F. Judd Jr., and George A. Pierce, “Hebrews and the General Epistles: Hebrews, James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude,” in New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell (Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2019), 456–457.
- 3. It is also worth noting that the Greek text of this verse uses the singular book, not books. As such, it would be clear that John was only referring to the singular scroll containing Revelation.
- 4. Codex Sinaiticus includes the Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas after the Book of Revelation. Codex Alexandrinus includes the Odes of Solomon after Revelation. In each of these codices, furthermore, the books of the New Testament are not found in the same order as modern Bibles (this is especially evident in the ordering of Paul’s epistles).
- 5. These codices are also briefly discussed in Daniel C. Peterson and Stephen D. Ricks, Offenders for a Word: How Anti-Mormons Play Word Games to Attack the Latter-day Saints (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992), 120.
- 6. Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible is one example of this, and his ordering of the New Testament is still used in Lutheran translations of the German Bible today.
- 7. This connection is discussed in Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, The Revelation of John the Apostle (Provo, UT: BYU Studies, 2013), 535–537.
- 8. Letter of Aristeas 311. Yet another close parallel can be found in 1 Enoch 104:9–11, wherein the Lord says that wicked scribes will remove or alter His words and exhorts the righteous to faithfully transmit them.
- 9. For example, a copy of the treaty of Esarhaddon found at Tel Tayinat states that “whoever changes, neglects, violates, or voids the oath of this tablet (and) transgresses against the father, the lord,” will be cursed with stagnant water, piercing pain, ill health, and other diseases. Another treaty of the same king, Treaty 94, contains a similar warning: “You shall neither change nor alter the word of Esarhaddon. … Guard this treaty, do not transgress your treaty, (or) you will lose your life.” Another text called the Erra Epic claims to have been revealed to a man named Kabti-ilani-Marduk, and it contains the following statement: “He [a god] revealed it at night, and, just as he had discoursed it while he [Kabti-ilani-Marduk] was coming awake, he [Kabti-ilani-Marduk] omitted nothing at all, not one line did he add.” These texts, among others, are found in David Rolph Seely, “The Rhetoric of Self-Reference in Deuteronomy and the Book of Mormon,” in They Shall Grow Together: The Bible in the Book of Mormon, ed. Charles Swift and Nicholas J. Frederick (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book), 34–36.
- 10. It is also worth noting that Athanasius’s description of the Old Testament canon he felt was acceptable for Christian belief differed from the Old Testament we use today, as Athanasius excluded Esther but included Baruch and the Letter of Jeremiah.
- 11. For a discussion of Marcion and other apostate sects influencing this decision, see Daniel Becerra, “The Canonization of the New Testament,” in New Testament History, Culture, and Society: A Background to the Texts of the New Testament, ed. Lincoln H. Blumell (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2019), 778–779.
- 12. For a discussion on Luther’s views on these books, see Peterson and Ricks, Offenders for a Word, 125–126.
- 13. Jeffrey R. Holland, “‘My Words … Never Cease,’” April 2008 general conference.
- 14. N. T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 2005), 24.
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