Title: The Revelation of John the Apostle
Author: Draper, Richard D. and Michael D. Rhodes
Publisher: Provo : BYU Studies
Genre: Scripture study
Year Published: c2016
Number of pages: xix, 918
Reviewed by Dennis Clark for the Association for Mormon Letters
This volume is one in the series Brigham Young University New Testament Commentary, and like the others it is very large and very detailed. Other titles now in print, according to the BYU New Testament Commentary website, are The Testimony of Luke and Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. This series is a new and long-needed addition to LDS scripture study aids. For me the primary need it fills is of a new translation, by LDS scholars, in contemporary idiom, to supplant the Authorized, or King James, Version. It is not these authors’ intention to supplant the Authorized Version, so they call their translation a “new rendition” instead. But when latter-day apostles, in General Conference, quote from other translations because they want a greater clarity, one might conclude that the AV wants clarity. I do.
I took English classes in college for 11 years, studying Spenser, Shakespeare, Johnson, Donne, Milton and other writers of the period, and I often have a hard time following the AV. From the comments in various Church classes, I have concluded that many of my fellow Mormons do, too. So I welcome this evidence of serious Biblical scholarship in the Church, and urge those behind this effort to undertake an Old Testament commentary as well. The footnotes and translations of Hebrew and Greek words in the current Bible help. But we need all the help we can get. Yet the spirit of Joseph Smith’s eager gospel scholarship has seemed in past years to fade. Long after he had already revised the AV in what we now call the Book of Moses, Joseph studied Hebrew so he could better understand the text. I admire that eagerness to learn.
So I welcome this series, and especially this book. Draper and Rhodes treat Revelation as a literal vision, although I believe it reads better as a poem, a vision of a corrupted world and the hope that it will be cleansed. As they put it, “It was the overpowering forces of apostasy that prompted the revelation” (73), a comment that could apply to both views of the text.
In their 76-page introduction, Draper and Rhodes demonstrate not only a willingness to rely on relatively mainstream Biblical scholarship, but a thorough familiarity with it. This they complement with commentary from Restoration sources, much of it from Joseph Smith — but they do not make the mistake of blindly accepting the blunders of other LDS commentators. They apply genuine scholarship to the Greek text — rather than the Textus Receptus underlying the AV, for example, they use the Greek text of the Society for Biblical Literature, a more recent compilation of older manuscripts — and to evaluating the work of other scholars regarding it. Theirs is scholarship one can respect, if not always agree with.
Draper and Rhodes do not shy away from the controversy surrounding this long poem. They are even willing to acknowledge that it is a poem, or at least includes poetry. The LDS edition of the Bible calls this work “The Revelation of St John the Divine,” somewhat sidestepping the question of the identity of its author. But Draper and Rhodes come down squarely on the side of apostolic authorship, of John the Beloved as the author, somewhere near 100 A.D., when John would have been in his eighties or nineties. That makes this poem a book-end to his career (assuming he died, which they don’t), with his gospel at the other end.
Of particular interest to me is the difference they dwell on between a rendition and a translation, in part because I recently reviewed Sarah Ruden’s The face of water: a translator on beauty and meaning in the Bible for this site. Draper and Rhodes state their process this way: “We have included copious notes and explanations so the reader can have a clear understanding of why we have translated a passage in a certain way. This is especially true when our Rendition differs from the KJV” (35).
I must here interrupt our commentators to state that I find the LDS Church’s reliance on the Authorized Version puzzling, since it is the translation Joseph Smith was referring to when he wrote “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly.” By the time of the Wentworth letter he was already familiar with how much of the text was missing, at a minimum. And, as already noted, he never stopped trying to learn more about the text. So why shouldn’t the Church sponsor a new translation worthy of the Restoration?
What Draper and Rhodes describe as their process seems to fit such an undertaking: “Our goal” they say “has been to provide an English translation that is as easy to read and understand while, at the same time, being as true as possible to the sense of the Greek text” (35). This is Ruden’s goal as a translator, of both Biblical and Classical texts, although she includes in the “sense” of the text elements of beauty that Draper and Rhodes do not seem to recognize. They continue: “We have, therefore, followed Bruce Metzger’s dictum to be ‘as literal as possible, [but] as free as necessary’ in order to communicate to the educated reader the meaning of the text” (35; brackets in original).
Robert Frost famously said “I could define poetry this way: it is that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation” (Conversations on the Craft of Poetry). In acknowledging that both prose and verse contain poetry, Frost opens the way for me to compare two texts here, both produced with the goal of Metzger’s dictum in mind, because in her book Ruden includes discussion of and translations from seven texts from both Old and New testaments, including . In the following comparison, the verse numbers only appear on the first line, that from the AV; the second, labeled “D&R,” is from the present text, and the third, labeled “Ruden,” is from Sarah Ruden’s sample translation of what she calls “Revelation’s Martyrs in Paradise” and what Draper and Rhodes call “The Countless Multitude of the Saved.” [I present only those lines where Ruden differs significantly from Draper and Rhodes, with my comments in brackets like these.]
One note of explanation: Ruden states that “the ‘lamb’ on the throne this crowd surrounds” in this passage is a “‘little lamb,’ the diminutive form of the word. That diminutive does occur also in , but Revelation has a flood of occurrences. There, Christ is only, and relentlessly, a ‘little lamb'” (The face of water, 59). That may bring to mind Blake’s line “Little lamb, who made thee?” as well as “‘Mary had a little lamb,” but Ruden has something different in mind. As you read these lines, note the contrast between little and large in this scene, and bear in mind that the lamb is but one of many unusual animals gathered at the throne of God:
9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number,
D&R: After this I looked, and there was a great crowd, that no one was able to count,
Ruden: Next, with my own eyes, I saw a giant crowd, of countless people
of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues,
D&R: of every nation and tribe and people and tongue,
Ruden: from every nation and tribe and community, and speaking every language in the world
stood before the throne, and before the Lamb,
D&R: standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb
Ruden: and they stood facing the throne, and facing the little lamb who sat on it.
clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands;
D&R: dressed in white robes and they had palm leaves in their hands.
Ruden: They were draped in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands.
[Note that Ruden is using more words in her translation of this verse, but they clarify the text, as, for example, in specifying who is dressed in white, the lamb or the crowd.]
[And again, in the next verse, note that Ruden clarifies the image presented:]
11 And all the angels stood round about the throne,
D&R: And all the angels were standing around the throne
Ruden: And all the angels stood in a circle around the throne,
and about the elders and the four beasts,
D&R: and around the elders and the four animals,
Ruden: the elders and the four strange animals with them
and fell before the throne on their faces,
D&R: and they fell before the throne on their faces
Ruden: and they all fell on their faces in front of the throne
[I like the alliteration of Ruden’s last line — using the oldest ornamental feature of English poetry, going all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon days of the poet who wrote Beowulf.]
13 And one of the elders answered, saying unto me,
D&R: And one of the elders answered and said to me
Ruden: And one of the elders responded, speaking to me with these words:
What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they?
D&R: “Who are these who are dressed in the white robes and where did they come from?”
Ruden: “These whom you see draped in their white robes — who are they, and where did they come from?”
14 And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me,
D&R: And I said to him, “My Lord, you know.” And he said to me,
Ruden: And here is what I said to him: “But *you* know, my good sir.” And he said to me
[Here Ruden is not only clarifying the text, but vivifying the interaction between the elder and the narrator of the poem.]
These are they which came out of great tribulation,
D&R: “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation,
Ruden: “These are the ones coming out of the great ordeal,
and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
D&R: and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
Ruden: But now they have washed their robes; but now they have bleached their robes white in this little lamb’s blood.
[The repetition here of the adverbial clauses beginning “but now” helps sustain the surprising image of robes bleached in blood. One final example:]
15 Therefore are they before the throne of God,
D&R: For this reason they are before the throne of God
Ruden: “Because of this they stand facing the throne of God
and serve him day and night in his temple:
D&R: and serve him day and night in his temple,
Ruden: and they serve him all day, and they serve him by night in his sanctuary,
As in almost all of her lines, Ruden uses more words to translate the sense, as in this line from verse 15: “and they serve him all day, and they serve him by night in his sanctuary.” The repetition of structure in the clauses strengthens the sense of the service given by the multitude of the redeemed. Draper and Rhodes remains a little more oblique in their rendition throughout, as here in “and serve him day and night in his temple.” The difference is in the rhythm, which reinforces through the repetition of clauses the repetition of the service. This concept of service in the temple, all arrayed in spotless white, will mean something different to Draper and Rhodes than to Ruden, but her translation captures the rhythm of such service faultlessly.
Ruden, as a translator, makes a point that Draper and Rhodes overlook in their dating of Revelation. If the poem “circulated early along with the Gospels and Epistles, so that the contrast of the ‘lamb’ and ‘little lamb’ was noticeable,” then “ordinary ancient readers themselves may have felt the heightened verbal staging of the ‘little lamb'” (59).
As I noted above, Draper and Rhodes date Revelation much later than the Gospels and Epistles. In that case, Ruden says, “the imagery that modern Christians tend to digest unthinkingly, because it is so familiar, communicates in what would originally have been quite a startling way the essence of the faith. This tiny creature, like any of the thousands sacrificed every Passover, is the savior of the world” (60). Ruden goes further in discussing the chronology involved: “If Revelation postdates the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., then the difference is even more momentous: this little lamb is now the only Jewish sacrifice left in the universe.”
Although Draper and Rhodes in their commentary discuss the sacrifice of Jesus extensively, because they are focused on presenting a contemporary rendition, this nuance has escaped them. Ruden, at the same time, does not include this possibility of a temple reference in the text, but in her commentary. Rendering the sense of the text is, as I said, the place poetry should appear in a translation, the place where beauty and meaning are conjoined — but not at the expense of fidelity.
So I welcome Draper and Rhodes’s new rendition. I have great respect for the scholarship everywhere on display in this work. I hope that all of these commentary volumes are as carefully written as this one. This is a great resource for personal scripture study, for helping the ordinary Mormon grapple with the meaning of a sometimes obscure and certainly obsolete Authorized Version. It is also a great resource for use in Gospel Doctrine class, where we should be working hard to understand the manual, which is, we are assured, the Biblical text. I can see that it would be invaluable in the classroom at BYU. I would have found such an aid invaluable when I was studying the New Testament back in the mid-Sixties. Its appearance this late in my life as a student is still welcome, and I plan to obtain and use the other volumes, especially in trying to understand Paul in his letters.
Still, I yearn for a new Mormon translation, incorporating Joseph Smith’s additions and corrections, and the poetry of his soul. Such a great life deserves a great monument.