What Are the Elders Actually Sitting On?

by Tad Lindley

How many thrones do you count in each of the following Bible passages?
New Internal Version: At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it. And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and ruby. A rainbow that shone like an emerald encircled the throne. Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, and seated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white and had crowns of gold on their heads. (Revelation 4:2-4)
King James Version: And immediately I was in the spirit: and, behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne. And he that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold. (Revelation 4:2-4)
Did you notice that although this is the same passage of scripture, the NIV has 25 thrones and the KJV has only one throne (and 24 “seats”)? If you caught that, reach around and pat yourself on the back.
Who’s right?
Originally, the Revelation was written in Greek. There are many translations into different languages, including both English and Yup’ik. The two English translations above seem to conflict with each other. They both can’t be right. You can’t have 25 thrones in one version and 1 throne in the other version and say they are equal. When something like this happens and you really want to know what the 24 elders are sitting on you have to go back to the original language.
It’s all Greek to me
The first throne mentioned in the original language is the Greek word, θρÓνος. Transliterated into English we would write “thronos”. Both the King James Version and the New International Version translate this word the same, throne. How about the second situation? Is it 24 seats, or 24 thrones? To answer it we look again at the Greek for the answer.
KJV vs. NIV Round 1
It all centers on what the 24 elders are actually sitting on. If the original Greek has a different word for seats, such as πρωτοκαθεδρiα, or καθεδρα (that’s pronounced protokathedra, or kathedra), then the KJV wins this round. If the original Greek has θρÓνος, thronos, where the KJV has the word “seats” then the NIV wins. What I’m doing while I write, is I am looking up a Greek concordance which allows me to look at the word in English and find out what Greek word it was translated from. The book I use to do this is called Strong’s Concordance. Blueletterbible.org on the internet also has this same tool.
And the winner is
I’ll let you call the winner. Here is the Bible verse in question once again. I have added the Greek word after the English where it describes what the 24 elders are sitting on.
NIV: Surrounding the throne [thronos] were twenty-four other thrones [thronos], and seated on them were twenty-four elders.
KJV: And round about the throne [thronos] were four and twenty seats [thronos]: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting…
Who came closer in the translation?
What were they thinking?
Now I do not doubt for a second that the throne that the Lord sits on is way nicer than whatever the four and twenty elders are sitting on, but it seems to me that any way you slice it, the elders also are sitting on thrones. The men who translated the King James version have been dead for about 400 years, so we cannot ask them what they were thinking, but I suspect that the KJV translators were perhaps trying to paint a picture of the elders having less comfy accommodations than the Lord, but the Greek doesn’t say seats (καθÓδρα) or even important seats (πρωτοκαθεδρiα), it says θρÓνος, thrones.
Does this mean that the Bible contradicts itself?
Absolutely not. What this means is that there are some translators who might not agree on the way to represent a Greek word in English. All of you who are bilingual fully understand the difficulties in going from one language to another. The Bible was originally written in Hebrew and a small amount of Aramaic in the Old Testament, and in Greek in the New Testament. If you find two translations that seem to disagree, go back to the original!
Tad Lindley is a minister at the United Pentecostal Church in Bethel, AK.