Punctuation Is Important

Speaking of punctuation (were we?), this is part of a conversation I had with a friend some time ago:

Just when did the second thief find himself in “Paradise” with Yehoshua (“Jesus”)? Just what does Luke 23:43 actually say?

Here’s the standard Greek text:

Ἀμήν σοι λέγω, σήμερον μετ’ ἐμοῦ ἔσῃ ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ.

Literally: Truly to you I am saying today with me you will be in the Paradise (or in the Park).

King James Version: Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.

But if there is to be a comma, does it belong before or after “today”? The KJV and other standard renderings place a comma before “today.” That seems to mean that the thief would be in Paradise with Jesus on the day the words were spoken. But the New Testament states that Jesus was in a tomb from Friday afternoon and did not rise from the dead until early Sunday morning; and the traditional view is that he ascended into Heaven 40 days after the Resurrection. For these reasons, some have argued that the comma should be placed after “today” – “I am saying to you today, you will [at some future time] be with me in Paradise.”

There has been a lot of arguing and writing about this (including the claim by the traditionalists that “Paradise” and “Heaven” are not the same place). However, I don’t want to go into any of that. I just want to comment on the “comma thing.” Why should there be controversy about where the comma should go?

The oldest New Testament manuscripts are written in Greek Uncial script. Uncials are something like upper-case letters. And in the oldest NT Uncials, in addition to the text being presented in “all caps,” there are no spaces between letters, words, or paragraphs. There are also no accent, breathing, or punctuation marks. So the Uncial presentation of Luke 23:43 looks (something) like this:


If this were in English, it would look like this:


No comma. Which day? When?

3 thoughts on “Punctuation Is Important

  1. Turns out that grammar is important too, as I discovered when researching Genesis a few years back.

    I was using Richard Friedman’s 2001 *Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text* as a primary source. This translation of the Masoretic Pentateuch has much to commend it.

    Friedman earned his first theological degree from Jewish Theological Seminary, then a Th.M. and a Th.D. from Harvard. He has served as a visiting fellow at Cambridge and Oxford and as a senior fellow of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Jerusalem, where he has researched and taught the Hebrew Bible, the languages and civilizations of the ancient Near East, and comparative religion. Friedman’s understanding of Biblical-era Hebrew grammar and usage is based on the most recent and in-depth scholarship, upon analyses of extra-Biblical manuscripts and scraps that were not available to previous generations. The translation is a marvel, somehow endowed with the highest level of scholarly accuracy while retaining poetic sensibility; I recommend it.

    New scholarship allowed—forced—Friedman to understand Genesis 1:2 in a new way. The phrase traditionally rendered “the earth was shapeless and formless” is now understood to be written in the past perfect tense, and should be translated as “the earth had been shapeless and formless.” In other words, as Friedman writes, the earth “already existed, in this shapeless and formless condition, prior to the creation.”

    If Friedman’s scholarship is to be trusted, the corrected translation sweeps away scriptural support for the creatio ex nihilo doctrine that has defined a fundamental attribute of God for billions.

    I admire people whose faith is tied to a strict reading of scripture, much as I admire people whose understanding of government comes from a strict reading of the Constitution. (Strict adherence to scripture is an ideal of the Orthodox Jewish community, with which I have more than a passing acquaintanceship despite my years of teaching Sunday School.) Ultimately, however, I think the strict reliance on texts falls short. A religious life draws from tradition, from interpretation, from inherited ways of understanding the relationship between faith and life.

    I have come to think that a genuine religious life arises from a dialog between the text and the man. Human understanding, human commitment to certain doctrines or views of the divine, human passion and needs…all of these inform our beliefs and practices. Isn’t it more satisfying to think that God intends creation as an incentive to partner with him in creating a relationship?

  2. Hi, Jack.

    As usual, you hit me with a big issue at a time when I cannot respond fully (with references, arguments, etc.). :)

    This “discovery” of Friedman and others is something that was recognized in ancient Christianity (and also, I’m pretty sure, in ancient Judaism). The “Old Boys” (Fathers of the Church) in the Christian tradition, working with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek collections of the Judaic Scriptures, recognized a “gap” or “interval” between Gen. 1:1 and Gen. 1:2. Many of those ancient scholars proposed various “corrections” of Gen. 1:2: “and the earth was laid waste;” “and the earth became waste and void;” some used “had become;” etc. Origen (2d-3d centuries) argued that, between the original creation (1:1) and the “Then God said” of 1:3, something had caused the creation to be “cast downward.”

    Various Christian thinkers – ancient, medieval, and modern – have spoken of “a fall before the Fall,” linking these ideas to ancient Jewish and Christian traditions concerning fallen angels, war in heaven, a Satanic disruption, and so forth.

    I can’t go on with this at this time, but I don’t see that Friedman’s “had been” undermines conclusively the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (aside from the fact that that doctrine does not depend entirely on what – or whatever – the Bible says),

    Gotta stop! Thanks again for your provocations. :)

  3. Ah, very interesting. Thanks for that.

    A few years ago, I remember, a rabbi explained to me that although most believers believe that Adam and Eve were the first human beings, the Bible doesn’t say that anywhere. The gap between scripture and belief seems to be bridged by tradition and years of exegesis by religious thinkers. In Judaism, lots of the hair-splitting has been preserved. Fascinating stuff — no wonder people devote their lives to studying it.

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