Revelation 5 – What is the Scroll?

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.

10 thoughts on “Revelation 5 – What is the Scroll?

  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).

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    • 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.

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      • 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  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.

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