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The Scribes and the Book of Revelation

How Do You Copy a Book Full of Bad Grammar?

By Stephen Broyles

Rev. 2:20 in Codex Sinaiticus

Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century) showing Revelation 2:20 and corrections to a case of bad grammar in lines 4 and 5. Image courtesy of www.csntm.org.



We tackled this topic at a recent Andreas Forum, after an excellent cheese-and-broccoli soup. Not only did we have to think about the question, How do you copy a book full of bad grammar, we had also to think, How do you turn Greek grammar into a pleasant evening for your friends? So we began with a story . . .

Dionysius of Alexandria

Book Seven of Eusebius’ Church History—completed around the year 313—tells about a book I would like to add to the Andreas Center Library. But I can’t, because the book has disappeared off the face of the earth. Eusebius does, however, give us some nice long quotations from it, and he tells us how the book came to be written. The story begins long, long ago in Egypt.

Around about the year 200 (we don’t know exactly) a male child was born and given the name Dionysius. He became a Christian and attended the catechetical school in Alexandria, where he was a student of the greatest Bible scholar the world has ever known, Origen. Dionysius himself became a great scholar and became the head of the catechetical school in 233. After fifteen years as an academician, Dionysius was made bishop of Alexandria, and he served until he died in 265.

He was a good bishop, broadminded and wise. He led his church through the perils of famine, plague, civil war, persecution, heresies, and controversies. The book I wish I had for the Andreas Center Library was written after the amicable settlement of one of the controversies.

Here is how it happened. The controversy was sparked by an Egyptian bishop named Nepos (deceased at the time of this story). Nepos had believed that the Book of Revelation ought to be understood literally, not symbolically, and that there would be a kind of millennium reign on earth and, apparently, a lot of good food and wine. So he had written a book called Refutation of the Allegorists (which I also wish we had, but alas, it has perished, too). Nepos’ book had been taken up by a fellow named Korakion down in the Arsionite Nome, and his promotion of its contents had caused the peace of the churches to be unsettled.

So Dionysius went down to Arsinoe—or maybe an Egyptian would say he went “up,” since Arsinoe is upstream on the Nile—and he called together the elders and the teachers in the village churches, and anyone else who cared to come, and for three days they talked about Nepos’ book and its teachings. It must have been a good, clean talk, because this is how Dionysius wrote about it later:


I conceived the greatest admiration for the brethren, their firmness, love of truth, facility in following an argument, and intelligence . . . as far as possible attempting to grapple with the questions in hand and master them. Nor, if convinced by reason, were we ashamed to change our opinions . . . with hearts laid open to God we accepted whatever was established by the proofs and teachings of the holy Scriptures.


At the end of the meeting, Korakion stated that he had been sufficiently convinced and would cling no more to the ideas of Nepos. Everyone went home happy and “rejoiced at the joint conference, and the mutual deference and unanimity which all displayed.”

When Dionysius got back to Alexandria, he wrote the book I want, and called it On Promises. Eusebius had a copy of it, and as I said, he at least gives us some long quotations. In the first part of the book, Dionysius laid out his own understanding of how God would keep his promises. In the second part, he discussed the Book of Revelation.

Dionysius said that before his own time, some people had rejected the Book of Revelation and didn’t acknowledge it as Scripture. They said it was unintelligible and illogical. They said its title was wrong—the Revelation of John: it wasn’t a revelation at all because the book was so obscure it didn’t reveal anything, and it wasn’t of John because John didn’t write it.

For his own part, Dionysius did not dare to reject the book, since many Christians held it in esteem. But he admitted he didn’t understand it and thought its meaning must lie hidden way below the surface.

Whatever the book’s meaning, however, Dionysius felt sure that the man named John who wrote it was not the same John who wrote the Gospel of John. Here were his reasons. The author of the Gospel (and letter) of John, nowhere gave his name, but the author of Revelation did, in several places. John was such a common name that the author of Revelation didn’t have to be the same person. The Gospel of John and the Letter of John had similar ideas and expressed them in similar words. Dionysius made quite a long list of these, and said they show that the Gospel and the letter had the same author. But he found no such agreement with the Book Revelation. Finally there was the matter of style. The Gospel and letter were written in faultless Greek and showed great literary skill. But Dionysius observed that in Revelation the use of Greek was not accurate, but the author employed barbarous idioms and in some places committed downright solecisms. Dionysius didn’t mean this as an insult: he agreed that the author had seen revelations and received knowledge and prophecy. He only meant to establish authorship, and the barbarisms and solecisms were an important clue.

In this story about Dionysius, we find a number of rabbits on the run. How was Revelation understood and interpreted in the early church? An interesting rabbit, because opinions were divided quite early and remain so. Where, when, and by whom was Revelation acknowledged as Scripture? Opinions were divided there, too. Who wrote Revelation? Was it the same John who wrote the Gospel, or was it another John, or was it someone else? All of these are fine, plump rabbits. But the rabbit I want to chase has been set running by Dionysius’ words about the bad grammar—the barbarisms and the solecisms.

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Map showing Alexandria and Arsinoe

Map showing Alexandria and the Arsionite Nome (nowadays called The Fayum).


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