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:
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:
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 the 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:
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.
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