The Bible did not fall to earth in flawless English and bound in leather. It has been translated by scholars who are tasked not only with finding the right words, but inserting punctuation too. These colons, commas and more can make a big difference to how we read the text, as Dr Jonathan Rowlands explains 


Source: Image by wisconsinpictures from Pixabay

There’s an episode of The Simpsons where Bart meets a homeless man called Chester J. Lampwick. He claims to have created a famous cartoon character and Bart decides to help Chester sue the animation studio for stealing it. This leads them to the office of slimy lawyer Lionel Hutz. When Hutz demands money upfront to take the case, Bart produces Hutz’s business card, which says:



Hutz takes the card and adds punctuation. The card, he says, should read:



Punctuation matters. It changes how we communicate and how we understand each other.

Theologians and biblical scholars naturally spend a lot of time thinking about the words of scripture and their meaning. But what about everything in between these words: the commas, full-stops, colons, semi-colons, brackets, quotation marks, question marks, and exclamation marks? Or even the spaces between words and breaks between paragraphs?

This might seem an odd question. However, when I teach students training to be vicars, they’re often surprised to learn the Bible originally lacked punctuation, spaces, and paragraph breaks. These are added by translators to help us make sense of scripture. Students are aware the Bible has been meticulously translated into English, but the addition of punctuation results in an extra layer of complication.

To take a trivial example, Mark’s Gospel starts with the voice of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’” But we could punctuate this differently: “The voice of one crying: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.’” Can you see the difference? In the first version, the wilderness is where the “voice” is crying out; in the second, it’s where the “way of the Lord” is being prepared. Thankfully, it’s fairly straightforward to resolve. Immediately afterwards, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness to proclaim Jesus’ arrival. As the voice preparing the way of the Lord it makes sense that this voice is the one in the wilderness. 

Other examples are more significant. Take Jesus’ crucifixion in Luke’s Gospel. There, Jesus is crucified with two criminals, one of whom asks Jesus to remember him as he enters his kingdom. Jesus replies: “Truly, I say to you: today you will be with me in paradise” (23:43). But again, we might punctuate it differently: “Truly I say to you today: you will be with me in paradise.” Does the criminal enter paradise that day, or will he do so at some point in the future? The answer might shape our thoughts about life after death. Once again the wider context of Luke’s Gospel gives us a clue to the solution. Jesus uses the phrase “Truly I say to you” in five other places in the Gospel, and never says “Truly I say to you today,” (see 4:24; 12:37; 18:17; 18:29; 21:32). Putting “today” after the comma (as the translators of the NRSV do) aligns more closely with how Jesus speaks elsewhere.

However, punctuation isn’t the only issue translators face. Formatting is important, too. Ephesians 5:21 comes between one paragraph about being filled with the spirit, and another paragraph about husbands and wives (sometimes called a ‘household code’). It reads: “being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” There’s an issue, however. Is this verse the end (and summary) of the previous paragraph (as in the ESV), or this the start (and governing principle) of the following paragraph (as in the NIV)? When formatted as the former (like in the ESV), the phrase about being subject to one another is disconnected from statements about husbands and wives. When formatted as the latter (like in the NIV), the relationship between wives and husbands discussed in 5:21-33 is understood under the umbrella of everyone being subject to each other. Stated more plainly, the ESV’s formatting might more easily be read as suggesting a hierarchy between husbands and wives. Resolving this one is tricky, and either formatting is plausible. However, 5:22 doesn’t have the verb “submit” in the Greek (it literally reads “Wives to your own husbands as to the Lord”). It suggests this clause is borrowing the verb from the previous one: “Being subject to one another, wives [being subject] to your own husbands as to the Lord.” This places 5:21 as the start of this paragraph about husbands and wives, rather than the end of the previous one.

whichever version of the Bible we read, it is always the result of other people’s interpretations

There are many other examples, but you get the point. We can often assume the Bible fell to earth in flawless English and bound in leather. Not so. In the process of translating it into English (or any other modern language), translators format and punctuate the text in ways that lead passages to be read in certain ways. To be clear, this is done with the best of intentions; translation is hard work, and translation committees do not do their work lightly. But it’s important to recognise whichever version of the Bible we read, it is always the result of other people’s interpretations, even before we get to reading it ourselves. Punctuating and formatting the text is simply one (often overlooked) way scripture is interpreted before it reaches us.

This doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t scripture, or that God doesn’t speak through it. But it does mean the Church must be transparent about this fluidity - even if it can be unsettling at times, nobody benefits from pretending it doesn’t exist. Acknowledging this fluidity becomes even more important when biblical texts are brought to bear upon the lives of believers and non-believers alike. It also means wrestling with the nitty-gritty reality of how punctuation can and does shape our understanding of scripture as the word of God. Because punctuation matters. Full stop.