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"Saints" or ""Nations" or "Ages" in Revelation 15:3?

"And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints." (Revelation 15:3, KJV)

The KJV follows the Textus Receptus reading of "ο βασιλευς των αγιων (King of saints)".  Newer translations, such as the ESV, NIV 2010, and NASB, replace "King of saints" with "King of the nations".  Translations from a few decades ago, such as the NIV 1984 and RSV 1971, have "King of the ages".  "King of the nations" and "King of the ages" are well-supported by Greek manuscript evidence.

Latin Church Father support

The United Bible Society's Greek New Testament, 3rd corrected edition (1983), provides the following witnesses for the Textus Receptus reading: 296, 2049, Victorinus-Pettau (4th century), Tyconius (late 4th century), Apringius (6th century), Cassiodorus (6th century).  As the only two extant Greek manuscripts with the reading are from the 16th century (and possibly back-translated from the Textus Receptus), the Textus Receptus reading finds its support primarily on the patristic evidence.  Relying on patristic evidence alone for certain readings in the Book of Revelation is justifiable.  The page, Book of Revelation in the Textus Receptus, explains why.

Parallel to the seventh chapter of Daniel

Despite the weak Greek manuscript evidence for "King of saints", this reading is supported by the parallel passage in the book of Daniel. 
The content of Daniel 7 is practically a parallel of Revelation 13:1-7, 14:1-5, and 15:1-4.  Consider the following:

Lion, Bear, Leopard, Ten Horns
Daniel 7:2-8

Daniel spake and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea. And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another. The first was like a lion, and had eagle's wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man's heart was given to it. And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh. After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns. I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things.
Revelation 13:1-7

And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy. And the beast which I saw was like unto a leopard, and his feet were as the feet of a bear, and his mouth as the mouth of a lion: and the dragon gave him his power, and his seat, and great authority. And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast. And they worshipped the dragon which gave power unto the beast: and they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him? And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months. And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven. And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations.
 Multitude Before the Throne of God
Daniel 7:9-14

I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened. I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame. As concerning the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away: yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time. I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.
Revelation 14:1-5

And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father's name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps: And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. These are they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth. These were redeemed from among men, being the firstfruits unto God and to the Lamb. And in their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault before the throne of God.
 Victory over the Beast
Daniel 7:15-27

I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me. I came near unto one of them that stood by, and asked him the truth of all this. So he told me, and made me know the interpretation of the things. These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever. Then I would know the truth of the fourth beast, which was diverse from all the others, exceeding dreadful, whose teeth were of iron, and his nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with his feet; And of the ten horns that were in his head, and of the other which came up, and before whom three fell; even of that horn that had eyes, and a mouth that spake very great things, whose look was more stout than his fellows. I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them; Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom. Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces. And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise: and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings. And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time. But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end. And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.
Revelation 15:1-4

And I saw another sign in heaven, great and marvellous, seven angels having the seven last plagues; for in them is filled up the wrath of God. And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God. And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are thy works, Lord God Almighty; just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints. Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest.

The parallel account in Daniel places great emphasis on the fact that those who possess the "kingdom" are "saints" of the most High.  If the question "Of whom is God the king?" were asked to a reader of Daniel chapter seven, the most obvious answer would be that "God is the king of saints".  Since the account in Revelation 13-15 is a parallel of the account in Daniel, it would make sense that God in Revelation 15:3 is likewise the "King of saints" rather than of "ages" or "nations".  Revelation 13:7 is almost a repetition of Daniel 7:21.  Both verses say that the Beast make "war with the saints".  Therefore the focus in Revelation 13-15 are the persecuted saints and God who sits mightily upon his throne.  "King of saints" is the most appropriate title for God in this narrative.

"King of saints" could explain the other variants

In textual criticism, the variant which explains the others is considered very likely to be the original reading.  If "King of saints" were original the other variants can be explained.  The three variants are:
  • King of saints
  • King of the nations
  • King of the ages

To begin with, both "King of saints" and "King of the nations" are fitting titles for God in the context of Revelation 15:3.  The parallel between Revelation 13-15 and Daniel 7, which supports the reading of "King of saints", has been explained above. "King of the nations" also fits the context because the verse immediately after refers to all nations coming to worship before God.  Verse 4 says, "Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy: for all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest."

The title, "King of the ages", however, does not fit t
he context because nothing in the narrative says anything about "the ages".  The phrase "King of ages" (or "King eternal" in the KJV translating "βασιλει των αιωνων") is found elsewhere in the New Testament in 1 Timothy 1:17.  The context of 1 Timothy 1:17 supports a reference to the title "King of ages" (βασιλει των αιωνων) because the passage refers to the eternality of God:

"Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen." (1 Timothy 1:17).

There is no compelling contextual reason why God's title in Revelation 15:3 should be "King of the ages".  Partly for this reason, the consensus among most translators is that the correct reading is not "King of the ages" but rather "King of the nations" (βασιλευς των εθνων).  The following translations have "King of the nations": CEV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV 2011, NLT, TNIV.  This is the reading found in the majority of manuscripts, including A, 051, Majority Text, etc. (Nestle-Aland: Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th revised edition (2006)).

The problem, however, is that the oldest manuscripts have "King of the ages".  The two earliest extant manuscripts of Revelation 15:3 are Papyrus 47 (250 AD) and Codex Sinaiticus (350 AD), both of which have "King of the ages".  The earliest manuscripts for "King of the nations" is Codex Alexandrinus from 400 AD.  This is an example where modern textual critics do not always follow the "earliest manuscripts" for any given passage if that early reading does not support their views.


"ο βασιλευς των αιωνων" in Papyrus 47 (250 AD)


"...σιλευς των αιωνων" in Codex Sinaiticus (350 AD)

One could gather from the evidence that "King of the ages" is a very ancient reading despite its incongruency with the context.  It then begs the question of how this anomalous reading arose at such an early stage.  This anomalous reading could be explained if "King of saints" is in fact the original reading.

Metzger believed that the Textus Receptus variant arose as the Latin word for "ages" (saeculorum (sclorum)) was confused with "saints" (sanctorum (sctorum)).  He said:

“The reading of the Textus Receptus (ἁγίων [hagiōn]), which has only the slenderest support in Greek witnesses (296 2049, neither of which was available when the Textus Receptus was formed), appears to have arisen from confusion of the Latin compendia for sanctorum (sctorum) and saeculorum (sclorum [=αἰώνων [aiōnōn]]; ‘saint’ is also read by several Latin writers, including Victorinus-Pettau, Tyconius, Apringius, and Cassiodorus.” (Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994) at p. 680).

What
Metzger does not mention is the similarity between the Greek words for "ages" (αιωνων) and "saints" (αγιων).  In fact, the singular "age" (αιων) is just one letter different from "saints" (αγιων).  As such, the following hypothetical history of the transmission of Revelation 15:3 could explain how all three variants arose:


ο βασιλευς των αγιων (the king of the saints)
This is the original reading


ο βασιλευς των αιων (the king of the age)
The Gamma dropped out of "αγιων".  A grammatical mismatch occurs.


ο βασιλευς των αιωνων (the king of the ages)
A scribe pluralized "αιων" to "αιωνων" for correct grammar and theology


ο βασιλευς των εθνων (the king of the nations)
A scribe was contextually or theologically motivated to change "αιωνων" to "εθνων"


This hypothetical transmission explains all the extant variants, especially the early variant "ο βασιλευς των αιωνων" (King of the ages) which is anomalous to the context.  It would be difficult to explain why the contextually fitting "King of the nations", if it were original, would be changed to "King of the ages" if it were not for the αγιων/αιωνων connection.  As for why scribes may have changed "King of the ages" to "King of the nations", there are several reasons.  As discussed, one reason could be that the context favors "King of the nations" more than "King of the ages".  Second, "ο βασιλευς των αιωνων" can give rise to the meaning of "King of the Aeons", which may have given uncomfortable Gnostic undertones.  Aeons in Gnosticism are the various emanations of "God" (Aeon (Gnosticism): Wikipedia Article).

The major weakness of the reading "King of saints" is that it is not supported by any Greek manuscript conclusively predating the Textus Receptus.  We find its support in the Latin Church fathers.  However, since there is evidence of scribal editing at Revelation 15:3, with either αιωνων or εθνων being a certain corruption, it is not at all unreasonable to suppose that both major variants are corruptions of a reading that is only preserved now by Latin Church Fathers and the Textus Receptus.  This is not a place where all authorities have a united front against the Textus Receptus reading.



Images of manuscripts from:
  1. Kenyon, Frederic G. The Chester Beatty Biblical Papyri: Descriptions and Texts of Twelve Manuscripts on Papyrus of the Greek Bible. London: Emery Walker Ltd., 1933, 1937.
  2. The Codex Sinaiticus Project Website: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/