Weizenfeld mit Sonnenuntergang

The Canon – Part 4: Period, comma, dash – What a difference just one paragraph can make

From Christian

In the last two episodes, we have already deleted two parts from the assertion from the first part of the series:

“The Bible is God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, fully inspired by God and thus containing exactly what God intended. It has been preserved for us to this day exactly as the Bible itself says so, every book, paragraph, sentence, word, comma and period.”

Neither does God assure us through the New Testament that the letters and other texts would be preserved unaltered, nor are all the letters included in the canon. Does this mean that the New Testament is useless in our Bible? No. That would be a false, hasty conclusion. The point is to recognize what God has promised us and not what we would like to have. Hasn’t God even helped many people who had no scriptures at all? How was it with Hennoch, Noah, Melchizedek and Abraham? So we can approach this subject in a relaxed way.

However, some insist that even the words, phrases, periods and commas are exactly as God wants them. Some even go so far as to say that the text of the old King James translation is inspired. Well, that’s another issue we’ll get into later.

But what about the words and sentences, periods and commas. Did God form these and put them into the minds of the scribes? Or dictated them in a vision? Did they sit down and think: Now I will write a Bible book? What do the oldest copies of the autographs look like? Let’s have a look at pictures of the oldest manuscripts, more precisely fragments:

𝔓52 is the oldest known manuscript fragment of the New Testament, which contains part of the Gospel of John
𝔓1 is a fragment of the Gospel of Matthew from the early third century.
𝔓46 is the earliest (almost) complete manuscript of the Pauline letters of the New Testament.
𝔓45 is a manuscript of the Gospels and Acts. It contains the earliest known text of Mark. Scholars find it difficult to read because of its fragmentary state.
Codex Sinaiticus (ca. 350) contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament as well as most of the Greek Old Testament, known as the Septuagint
The Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209 is one of the best available Greek manuscripts of almost the entire Bible.

Apart from the fact that the letters of the Greek alphabet are used. What stands out immediately? No comma, no period, no punctuation marks at all! But even worse: Not even paragraphs between sentences. Not even between words! Let’s look again at 𝔓46 or the other manuscripts. A chain of letters! Where are words and sentences? The answer is: the words and sentences – as well as pronunciation and partly vowels – had to be put correctly by the reader!

This reminds me of a brief example in Latin that I learned – at least I imagine I did – in class. As far as I remember, Caesar is supposed to have sent this message:

Pardon No execution

Three words. What do they mean? The punctuation mark is missing in English! But in Latin there was no punctuation mark either. As well as in Greek. So what does it mean? “Pardon no, execution” or “pardon, no execution”? Just terrible when your life depends on a comma. Am I exaggerating now? Well, let’s look at two different translations of the Bible:

And he said to him: “Truly I tell you today,* You will be with me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:43 New World Translation

And Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:43 BSB

The punctuation mark ‘:’ did not exist in Greek. The translators have inserted it. Interestingly, at least the older New World Translation notes in the footnote that there was no comma in the uncial manuscripts. However, the sense seems to be completely different. Much like the example I gave, which is supposedly from Caesar. In fact, with this text, you have to think much more and look at the context and the language at the time to better understand the text. As an aside: Eric Wilson also had an interesting explanation about this in a video once.

The fact is: dot, comma, dash – forget it, because these did not exist in the languages in which the autographs and copies were written.

And even paragraphs or chapter and verse divisions did not exist, as we have seen in the illustrations. Is that also a problem? Our chapters and verses were introduced at the earliest within the 13th century (Wikipedia). The purpose was to divide the text into verses and chapters of roughly equal length. But in English, paragraphs serve to separate a thought. A paragraph, or a new verse or even chapter, therefore suggests to us a new thought. Think about it: how often, when a text was quoted, did you read the text before it, or even in the chapter before it? Example:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others.

Luke 21:1-3 NIV

Isn’t this a beautiful text describing the widow’s sacrifice? But this is the beginning of the chapter. Who would possibly read the chapter before when the text is quoted? We are doing that now:

While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Luke 20:45-47 NIV

This is the text directly before it. There is no chapter division in the manuscripts. Now how do you feel about the account of the poor widow in Luke 21:1-3? Does a paragraph or new chapter make a difference here? There are other examples, but anyone can find them for themselves if you pay attention from now on, and also read the context at every paragraph change or new chapter.

Let us summarize what the facts have taught us. There were no punctuation marks, paragraphs and verse divisions in the languages of the autographs and copies. With this, we delete another part of the assertion:

“The Bible is God’s Word, the Holy Scriptures, fully inspired by God and thus containing exactly what God intended. It has been preserved for us to this day exactly as the Bible itself says so, every book, paragraph, sentence, word, comma and period.”

So, if someone wants to argue with us about the interpretation of the text because of a punctuation mark or paragraph, we should remember that they were inserted by the translators. And turn to the languages in which the manuscripts were written.

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