Punctuation Matters

“Let’s eat grandma.” is a very different statement from “Let’s eat, Grandma.” The first is the start of cannibalism, the second is a brief invitation. This one sentence has been a favorite example of mine for years on why punctuation matters. The irony here is that I am absolutely horrible at grammar and have to google things regularly to make sure I’m not breaking major rules. But do you know who didn’t have to worry about punctuation? Jesus. That’s right, sentence punctuation was something that was invented several hundreds of years after Jesus was born and most of the oldest manuscripts from the Old and New Testament were even written in all capital letters. 

While this makes the part of me that hates punctuation really happy, it has also been the source of a lot of frustration for theologians. Because we are in Lent and are looking toward the cross, Jesus said to the man hanging beside him “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43 NRSV). Out of all the possible things to debate concerning this verse, my guess is most people never think about the comma. The way the translators of the NRSV placed it after the word “you” means that “Truly I tell you” is a side bit, and that the main focus is that “today you will be with me in Paradise.” This leans towards an eschatology of when we die, we immediately go to heaven, or at least to what we presume to be our final destination. However, this passage could also read “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” which would lead to “Truly I tell you today” being a qualifier of when he said it, and then “you will be with me in Paradise” as the statement that is not dependent on a timeframe. It could be that that very same day, he was in Paradise, or it could be that he won’t be in paradise until Jesus returns. One comma has a considerable impact on an entire eschatological view, or what we think about the end things. (As a note, no major translation that I can find has the comma placed after “today”.)

Another horrible English nerd joke is making fun of Paul for his long run on sentences, and even sometimes how clunky his wording can be. As someone who doesn’t actually speak or read Greek, I have no idea if it sounds much better in Greek, but I can tell you that in Greek the run on sentences are much worse. Ephesians 1:3-14 is actually one entire run on sentence in the earliest Greek manuscripts. It is literally a 270 word run on sentence that I’ll post at the end of this blog. 

But as much as punctuation matters, it can get in the way of what really matters. We can do word studies. We can spend hours in the world’s most boring debate talking about where a comma or period should go. We can talk about the history of bad translations. But at some point, academic discussions become meaningless. It doesn’t really matter if I die and immediately go to heaven or if I’m in a some sort of suspended animation. The way I’m supposed to live my life isn’t dependent on what happens after it. If we get so caught up in the details that we lose sight of the key commands of loving God and loving our neighbor, we in effect don’t see the forest for the trees. 

But there is one thing that everyone should agree on. The Oxford comma is absolutely necessary. 

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ[a] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,[b] having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this[c] is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.”