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Grandma Grammar

One of the tenets of our faith is to strive for accurate understanding of the Bible by careful reading.
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Proper punctuation can be a matter of life and death.

Lest you think this is an extreme position, consider the fate of poor Grandma in this sentence: “Let’s eat Grandma!” Oh, how she might long for a comma! All of us remember our teachers drilling punctuation, spelling, and grammar rules. And why? To bring clarity and meaning to our written word, to imitate in writing what we say in speech. That’s also why it’s so important to scrutinize punctuation in our Bible study.


The Bible didn’t always have a system of punctuation. Early Old Testament manuscripts written in Hebrew contained no vowels or verb tenses. Determining vowel sounds and past, present, and future verb tenses required scrutiny of context.

It’s so important to scrutinize punctuation in our Bible study.

Over time, more complex and helpful grammar rules were introduced to written Hebrew, principally by a group of scholars called the Masoretes. They invented a method of points to indicate proper choice of vowel sound and tense.

The New Testament is almost entirely written in Greek. The Greeks used no punctuation and wroteallthelettersandsentancestogetherwithoutspaces. The reader had to overcome this chal­lenge by carefully studying the text. In the third century BCE, the head of the famous Alexandrian Library, Aristo­phanes, introduced a set of primitive punctuation marks to help the reader. However, as Latin became the domi­nant language, Aristophanes’s system languished.


The classical languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin were primarily intended to pass traditions verbally. And so, written rules weren’t considered essential. But Christians preferred to spread the word of God using written gospels and letters. They emphasized Scripture study. Consequently, through the years, various systems of punctuation, often borrowed from musical notations, were employed.

And then in the fifteenth century, the printing press was invented! Almost immediately punctuation marks were frozen in time. Dashes, commas, hyphens, and periods; colons and semicolons; question, quotation, and exclamation marks joined with more obscure marks such as ampersand, manicule, octothorpe, and pilcrow, to provide a lexicon of reading cues. Of course, we also celebrate how the printing press increased the availability of Bibles to the common man.

When it comes to translation from one language to another, different grammar rules pose a challenge

Modern punctuation has basically remained consistent for over 500 years. However, it turns out the new era of computers, tablets, and smartphones has ushered in a constantly evolving system of punctuation—emoticons and emoji! In some sense, these marks are a contemporary version of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics.


When it comes to translation from one language to another, different grammar rules pose a challenge. Considering the context is important. Indeed, in the case of all Bible versions, theological bias has crept in. For the purposes of this article, we’ll overlook semantic and cultural nuances that can affect the final translation. Let’s look at only situations where punctuation mark choices can influence meaning:

  • Perhaps the most famous comma in the KJV is in Luke 23:43. “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Moving the comma to after “Today” solves a first principle doctrinal problem. There are many deep explanations of this passage, but it’s at least certain Jesus did not assure the thief he would go to heaven with him on that day.
  • “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.” (Psa 121:1) We get our help from the hills? Not true! But when punctuated “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills. From whence cometh my help?” the next verse clearly indicates the source of our help. “My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.”
  • What does this passage mean? “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema Maranatha.” (I Cor16:22) Anathema means “accursed,” and Maranatha means “May the Lord come.” Should the passage read: “Let him be accursed. Let the Lord come”? Or should it be “Let him be accursed at the coming of the Lord”? The addition of a period makes a big difference.

Compare these two translations of Isa 40:3:

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (KJV)
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (NIV)

Is the voice crying in the wilderness or is the wilderness the place being prepared for the coming of the Lord? Perhaps context indicates the proper meaning because Isaiah continued in the next verses to describe how the terrain will be altered for this purpose. A new look should also be taken in the places where John the Baptist quotes this passage. (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23).

  • Sometimes when we read the Bible, we ignore the punctuation altogether. For example, in the following passage, many readers ignore the comma between “take” and “eat.”“Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.” (Matt 26:26). This habit imparts a Me-Tarzan- You-Jane tone to our very solemn memorial service. Both take and eat are verbs and a pause, indicated by a comma is appropriate. The real meaning of the phrase is translated thus in another version: “Take and eat. This is my body.” (Matt 26:26 CEB).


We could go on. But these few examples illustrate the principle that punctuation in Bible study is an important consideration. One of the tenets of our faith is to strive for accurate understanding of the Bible by careful reading. Because translator bias is a real “thing,” we must remember all word and grammar choices were made by knowledgeable and sincere, but also fallible, humans. Maranatha!

Melinda Flatley
(Pittsburgh, PA)

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