What is the Scroll in Revelation 5?

The “one on the throne” holds a seven-sealed scroll with writing on both sides (Rev 5:1). No one in all of creation can be found worthy to open the scroll except the “Lamb that was slain” (5:2-5). This scroll is an important symbol in this chapter, but also for chapters 6-7 since a series of things occur as the seals on the scroll are opened. How did John intend for us to understand this scroll?

Scroll 3 sealsNormally a scroll is only written on one side (the inside), a two sided scroll is rare.  Because of this there are several variations in the textual tradition to try and explain to “fix” the phrase. For example, by changing the wording slightly, one might read the text as “within, on the inside.” David Aune offers several suggestions for the “form of the book.”

First, the book could be an opistograph, or a scroll “written on both sides.” The main problems with this view are the parallels to Ezekiel’s vision of a scroll in Ezekiel 3, and the original reading of the text; if this were an opistograph, it should be described differently.  It is possible, however, John did not know this technical term.

Second, the book could be a doppelurkunde, or “doubly written legal document.” It was common enough for a legal document to be written twice with a short gap between the two parts.  Jeremiah 32:9-15, for example, describes a double-written deed.  A brief description would be written on the outside of the scroll so the general contents might be known without opening the seals.

Third, Zahn argued the scroll is not a scroll at all, but rather a codex (i.e. book). The Greek word used here is βιβλίον, but in the first century the word meant simply “a document” or scroll. While this view has been criticized because there are clear parallels to the scroll Ezekiel, it is a fact that early Christians were very quick to adopt the codex for their collections of letters and gospels.  In addition, a book could be sealed so that individual pages could be opened while later ones remained sealed.

This scroll has been identified as any number of things, including “a bill of divorce for Jerusalem and a nuptial contract for the New Jerusalem” or a sealed copy of the Torah. But the most common suggestion is that the scroll as having something to do with the revelation which follows. In the most general sense, the scroll contains the eschatological punishments inflicted on the world by the will of God.

  • The contents of the scroll begin to occur with the opening of the first seal in 6:1 to the seventh seal in 8:1.
  • The events of the scroll cannot occur until the scroll is completely opened.  This does not happen until 8:1, therefore the contents are 8:2ff.
  • If the scroll is “doubly written legal document,” then it is possible the section 6:-7:17 is the exterior while 8:1-22:5 is the interior, the actual content of the scroll.  (D. Hellholm made this suggestion)
  • The contents of the scroll is Rev 6:1-22:6. The Lamb reveals to John the contents of the scroll after he receives it.
  • The scroll is the whole of the book of Revelation.  The book is described as prophetic (1:11; 22:7, 9, 18-19) and 22:10 commands John not to seal his book.

It is possible the book does not contain the prophecies which follow.  There are several suggested ideas for the contents of the book, such as God’s plan for human beings and the world or even a record of the sins of humankind. After the scroll is opened in chapter 6, it appears that the contents of the book are the seven trumpet and seven bowl judgments.  If this is the case, then the book is the “decree of God” for the judgment of the world described in those sections.

18 thoughts on “What is the Scroll in Revelation 5?

  1. Phillip, from your perspective and position (scholar/teacher), I understand trying to grasp what the scroll is meant to be. But to me, as a well-informed (seminary and beyond, as you know) Bible reader and student (mostly for non-devotional purposes in recent years), it really doesn’t matter to me what it may have been. It, and the contents of both it and the other aspects of the vision(s) are part of a puzzle I doubt we will ever be able to interpret reliably…. And if we did, I’d not put any particular authority to it. Even the proto-orthodox and subsequent orthodox Church was late and divided over its authority and value.

    Having said all that, I do think there is useful (mostly coded) information in the book of Revelation… but mostly for understanding the early believers and issues of “Christ and empire” (read any/all empire, not just Rome).

    • I would agree with that first paragraph in many cases in Revelation (the hair on the locust, for example). But since the seven-sealed scroll is important in chapters 5-8:1 it probably bears more metaphorical weight than other images in the book. If you like, it is a secret document giving the details of the impending fall of Rome, comforting the original readers with the knowledge that judgment on the oppressor was written down long ago by God himself, and now the Lamb is worthy to open that scroll.

      • Makes sense, that the scroll is indeed an important image in the vision… and that the nature of it, its role and secret contents may signify the unknowns of specific historical developments. Somewhat like my growing hunch about the unspoken understanding of authors and readers in “Gospel” lit., maybe both parties assumed the specifics were just story (creative, illustrative), as we do with movies, while the main points (themes) were taken as important truths (again, as we often do with movies). Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that, in that gospel-writers clearly wanted some specific elements to have apologetic or persuasive effects. But they obviously were not particularly concerned to be “seen” re-working stories for effect.

  2. An opisthograph was so rare that when a roll is described written on front and back (cf. Juvenal, Pliny the Younger, or Ezek 2:10), the emphasis is on the excess of material, as here in Rev 5:1. The term “opisthograph” only occurs 3x in Latin and Greek (Pliny the Younger, Lucian, Ulpian). Most of the opisthographs extant today are simply the economic re-use of the less-desirable vertical fibers on the outside of a discarded scroll by a later scribe writing a different text. Opisthographs were rarely the same text continuing on from recto to verso.

  3. There are two new books available on the Revelation of Jesus Christ. The first is subtitled “The writing on the outside of the scroll” and the second is subtitled “the writing on the inside of the scroll.”
    Considering the importance of the scroll with seven seals and the fact that Jesus is King of kings, High Priest, and Judge, it would seem likely that after all seven seals are broken, the scroll would open to show the Book of Life from which Jesus will judge while on the White Throne of Judgment.

  4. I find this blog post rather interesting. When I read text like Revelation 5:1 I read the passage literally. I find it interesting how many people search for different explanations for the passage. Understanding that the scroll being written on both sides is rare, experts decide to find a more common explanation. I feel that the fact that a scroll with writing on both sides being rare makes sense within the book of Revelation. These scrolls are special, so special that they can only be opened by one person, Jesus. Since these scrolls are special it would make sense that the description of them would be out of the ordinary. There does not always have to be a explanation for things, especially with descriptions of the future. There is some room for the imagination and unknowing.

  5. I think that one of the ways that we can understand the scroll is when it says that no one is worthy to open and read the scroll except for The Lamb, Jesus Christ(Revelation 5:2-5). He is the only one who is worthy to open and read the scroll, the rest of creation is not worthy enough to do so. It is interesting to read about and speculate all of these different ideas as to what kind of scroll and what the scroll could be/contain. I think that the only way of truly knowing is when we get there to that moment. I think that a lot of the ideas and thoughts that we have are off, and it will be really cool to see what actually happens instead of speculating or imagining.

  6. When I first read this passage I pictured each seal as a separate scroll that needed to be opened. I did not catch that this was one single document that had seven different seals on it. For familiarity sake, it makes sense that the scroll described by John is similar to the scroll in Ezekiel 3. The Jewish readers of this book would have clearly understood the imagery because it was something they had heard before. The thing that does not make sense to me would be the fact that this scroll would have seven separate seals. How can one seal on a scroll be opened but another left unopened? In my mind, there is no other way to partially unroll a scroll and seal it again. This is why I am in favor of the view that it is a codex. If this were a book with pages someone could seal some pages separately than others. This solves this issue of the scroll. Another idea is that books have double-sided pages that help interpret the text.
    While understanding the scroll is important, I think it is more important to understand what the scroll and its purpose are for believers. When a seal is broken something new is revealed but the things revealed cannot take place until everything is revealed (8:1). God’s plan has been progressively revealed as history has passed and he is acting no different in Revelation. Revelation is a book of prophecy that helps us understand what the end shall look like and also gives us an understanding of what we need to do today. The judgments that take place and the seals that are open in Revelation 6:1-8:1 just plead to believers to have faithfulness and loyalty in this world. No matter what is to come, whether we are here or not, we need to be faithful to our Lord and Savior and hold fast to our “first love” as Jesus tells the Ephesians to in Revelation 2:4-5.

  7. To start off, I love this article and your thoughts on what the scroll is/what it contains. You stated that it could be “a sealed copy of the Torah.” I have often thought this myself, especially when I read Ezekiel 2:9-3:4 since that would have been a much more common of a scroll for Ezekiel to receive, if he was supposed to recognize its contents. However, I have seen a roughly one-hundred Torahs, yet I have never seen a double-sided one. In fact, I had never even heard of double-sided scrolls until recently. Most Torahs I have seen have seen have become Pasoul because the ink has flaked off or faded to a point where the scripture is illegible, this is caused from a scroll being used (rolled and unrolled). If a Torah contained scripture on both sides it would not remain in a Cosher state for very long, most likely less than ten years, whereas Torahs with scripture just on the inside last roughly one-hundred years. Blackwell states that, “the scene for the unsealing of the scroll, best understood as the will of God for the world” (Blackwell 66). Therefore, if Blackwell is correct and the scroll contains God’s will for the world, then it is not a sealed copy of the Torah. Blackwell lands in the theory that the scroll contains the seven trumpets and seven bowl judgments, which appears to be the most accurate interpretation.
    Furthermore, I also thought about βιβλιον and its other uses. We have it translated in this passage as scroll in most English Bibles, but βιβλιον can also mean book. However, as you stated above, the connection here between Ezekiel’s vision of Heaven is too similar, causing me to land on the idea that John also sees a scroll.

  8. The discussion on this scroll is very interesting to me because many people have thought it to be so many different things. An article I read by MacLeod provided eight different views on what this scroll could be and what it read on the inside. The first view is it was the book of the new covenant. Second, it is the lambs book of life and all the names of those who are saved and will be spared are listed. Third, it is the Jewish Torah. Fourth, it contains what will happen in the end times, mainly during the tribulation. Fifth, as stated in the original post, it was a bill of divorce to separate God from the old Jerusalem and the unifying of him with the new Jerusalem. Sixth, it is a list of all the sins of mankind. Seventh, it is the future and destiny of all things, living and nonliving. And eighth, it contains the will and inheritance of all those who believe in God and are his followers. All of these views are interesting and I can understand them to a certain extent but no one is ever truly sure on which one is correct.

  9. I believe that it is indeed a strong possibility the scroll is representative of a Doppelurkunde, that is, a doubly written document. This type of document, as mentioned here, would have had a brief description of its contents on the outside, so one would know what it was without necessarily opening it and reading the entire thing. What is different about this scroll mentioned here in Revelation 5 and the one in Jeremiah 32 is that the one in Revelation is a “double sided” scroll, where as in the old testament one was most likely not one but in fact two scrolls. Scribes in this era, when dealing with important writings such as scrolls, legal documents, and so on, made two copies of the article, one to be sealed and the other to be left open for viewing by other witnesses (ESV, p. 1432, footnote 32:11). It would thus make since that the scroll described by John could be a Doppelurkunde. We are told that no one could open it, or see its contents. Thus, it could very well have contained some type of description or brief annotation on the outside that allowed those in its presence to know the importance and significance of it without seeing the actual writing of it on the inside. All of this can and should be an encouragement to us. When the lamb received the scroll, we are told that the angels and elders “sang a new song” (Revelation 5:8), signifying His power and greatness in regards to redemption. Let this be an encouragement to us to live our lives as the redeemed saints of God that we are

  10. I am most certainly perplexed that the book of Revelation takes so much time to establish how important this scroll is, yet we as the readers of Revelation have no idea what is written either on or inside the scroll. We know of it’s importance, as God himself is the one who holds out the scroll to the lamb who was slain, and the Lamb is the only one who is worthy to open the scroll and read its contents, out of all creation (Revelation 5:1, 6). While these verses shed light on why we do not have the right to know what the scroll says, it hasn’t stopped people from speculating on what it says. To be honest, my views on this line up with my views regarding other topics found in the Bible, such as when the return of Jesus would happen: if we are not meant to know what is written within this scroll, does it truly benefit us to speculate what is inside it? My views aside, I do take issue with one specific theory—that the scroll is the book of Revelation itself. Why would only the Lamb be permitted to open the scroll and see its contents if Revelation is part of the most widespread book of all time, read by billions of people?

  11. In Revelation 5, John describes a scroll that no one can open. John weeps because no one can open the scroll. He however rejoices that Jesus is able to open it. Revelation 6-8 describes the contents of the scroll. During the time that Revelation was written, documents were used for legal documents such as marriage certificate or divorce certificates. They were also one-sided documents the majority of the time. I find it interesting that both John and Jeremiah mention a double-sided document considering how rare double-sided documents were during that time. I also find it interesting that one side contains the description while the other side contains the rest of the details of the document. Jeremiah’s double-sided document was a land deed whereas the one that John describes as the book of Revelation. The scroll described by John contains the details of the punishments God will use to judge the world. It also does make sense if the school was a codex as it enables one to open different parts of the book by opening individual seals. In conclusion, the scroll was a double-sided document that could only be opened by Jesus and told the punishments were to come.

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