After having offered some of my speculations last week on Revelations 13:16-17, I was re-examining the text of those verses as they are presented in the NIV version which says:
(16) He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, (17) so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.
Normally, I'm not especially interested in seeking to interpret the original Greek when interpreting the New Testament. In Scripture, most of what one needs to understand is available from the immediate context of the passage. Most any correct interpretation of a passage that one can arrive at by reading the original New Testament Greek, one can also arrive at from a good English translation of a passage by interpreting the passage in the context of textual clues that are available to be cross-referenced in the passage itself and in the context immediately before and after the passage.
There are instances, however, when examining the original New Testament Greek can provide better clarity on the meaning of the passage. In the case of Revelations 13:16-17, I wanted to see if the original Greek text supports the idea that the anti-christ/beast directly forces people to get the mark of the beast against their will or, rather, manipulates a situation into existence wherein people must get the mark of the beast in order to buy and sell. To see which understanding the original Greek leans toward I decided to seek the help of Steve Blackwelder, who is very knowledgeable of ancient New Testament Greek and the various ways that is has been translated into different versions of the Bible.
After having discussed it and examined it with Steve, he and I, Greg Wertime, co-wrote the following examining of Revelation 13:16-17. Here is the passage in Greek, Romanized, with the verbs we want to examine in boldface.
Here is the almost word for word translation, with the same verbs in boldface:
16 And it (the second beast of verse 11, the Greek word for "beast" is grammatically neuter) caused everyone,
the small and the great,
and the rich and the poor,
and the free and the slave,
that they may give themselves a sign on their right hand or on their forehead
17 and that no one may be able to buy or sell
unless that one having the sign of the name of the beast or the number of its name.
Verses 16 and 17 are one sentence in Greek. The first verb, poiei, has several possible translations into English, expressing varying levels of force or manipulation from "make" to "bring about". The beast is the grammatical subject and also the agent of this verb. The second verb, dosin, is in the subjunctive mood, which is grammarspeak for not being %100 definite-- for presenting only a possibility and not an absolute reality. Like dosin, the third verb, dunetai, is also the result of poiei, and so dunetai also subjunctive, reflecting its parallel relationship with dosin. Considering the relationship that poiei has with these two subjunctive verbs, poiei is better translated as "cause", which is a softer verb than "make" or "force". This translation of poiei indicates that the beast is not the only agent in advancing the sign of the beast. Rather, the beast causes a situation to exist wherein "everyone" is also an agent, and "everyone" has some degree of choice or volition in the matter.
As a supplement to examining the ancient Greek directly, Steve and I also examined some other New Testament translations of the passage. Here is the NASB (1977) translation, done by a theologically conservative committee who were committed to translating as literally as possible and were less concerned about English style:
And he causes all, the small and the great, the rich and the poor, the free men and the slave, to be given a mark on their right hand, or on their forehead, and he provides that no one should be able to buy or sell, except the one who has the mark, either the name of the beast or the number of his name.
Here is the NRSV (1989) translation done by a committee of theological conservatives, moderates and liberals who followed the maxim, "as literal as possible, as free as necessary":
Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name.
Both of these translations do not express the idea of people "giving themselves" the sign in the active sense as it indicated in the original Greek. Both of the NASB and the NRSV translate dosin as the more passive "to be marked" or "to be given". However, both of these translations do use the subtler, more manipulative translation of poiei as "causes".
Now here, again, is the passage in the NIV (1984), translated by a committee of theological conservatives and moderates:
He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, so that no one could by or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name.
Unlike the NASB or the NRSV, the NIV translates poiei as "force" instead of "cause". This clashes with the agency of "everyone" that is implied in a careful analysis of the original Greek. It is the NASB and the NRSV translations that are closer to conveying the proper degree of agency on the part of both the beast and "everyone".
Conclusion -- Having examined the original Greek under a microscope, and having cross-referenced other New Testament translations of the passage, the best interpretation of Revelations 13:16-17 is this: that the beast will manipulate people in such a way that leads to an infrastructure wherein one cannot participate in the markeplace without having the mark of the beast. Careful examination of these verses reveals the possibility that the anti-christ will operate more like a vampire than Atilla the Hun, and the mark of the beast will be the result of an infrastructure that is created and nurtured into existence by a populace that has been deceived.