Saved By Punctuation


In the illustration above, I believe you would agree that a period placed after the word “hunting” might making being a pedestrian on a walk trail a lot safer.

Recently, a copy of the Signals catalogue arrived at my home. The Signals catalogue is geared “For Fans & Friends of Public Television” and usually arrives about this time of the year. With it, I usually begin my Christmas shopping. As I scanned the pages of this year’s offerings, an item caught my eye. I was drawn to this item not so much because I wanted to buy it, but because this item started me thinking about something that I have wanted to write about for some time. The item was a popular tee-shirt and/or sweatshirt with a design noting that “commas save lives” and demonstrated its point with two similarly worded but radically different sentences:



Commas save lives

And you can have that grammatical “gotcha” for only 19.95 (tee-shirt) or $29.95 (sweatshirt) plus shipping and handling, of course.

Saved by a comma! How important that comma is, especially if you are grandma! The lack or improper placement of punctuation can lead to interesting misunderstandings.

To illustrate, here is an example that I came across some time ago. It comes from an English teacher in New Zealand, though I am not certain that it originated with her. Be that as it may. The following examples show the importance of punctuation. Please note that the words in these two examples are exactly the same, only the punctuation has been changed.


Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we are apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours? Gloria

Example 2.

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we are apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be? Yours, Gloria

The power of punctuation is seen in this example. An English teacher wrote these words on the chalkboard: “A woman without her man is nothing” and asked the class to punctuate it correctly. All the men in the class wrote: “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” But all the women scripted: “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”

And finally, here is a biblical illustration. In Mark’s Gospel, the writer applies a prophecy of Isaiah to John the Baptist saying that his is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Mk. 1:3). Isaiah, however, seems to have said something slightly different. Isaiah wrote: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isa. 40:3) Matthew and Luke, relying on Mark, repeat his slightly altered quotation. The question is: Is the voice crying out in the wilderness or is the way of the Lord in the wilderness? The gospel writers and the prophet seem to have a disagreement. Punctuation might have cleared up this misunderstanding.

Punctuation makes all the difference in the meaning of these examples. But why would I use this post for an exercise on punctuation? After all, this blog is not about English grammar. The simple reason is that such things as punctuation illustrate a primary problem that I have with biblical fundamentalists who make excessive claims for the accuracy of the Bible.

In my not-too-distant past, I was an associate priest with another priest in an Episcopal parish. My colleague professed that he believed that every word of the Bible was the inerrant Word of God – every “jot or tittle,” to use a biblical phrase. (Yes, contrary to popular belief, there are fundamentalist clergy in the Episcopal Church). Such a proclamation was such an astonishing statement that I began to wonder if my associate had ever really read the Bible. Several years separated us in our theological training, but when I was in seminary, I was taught to take the Bible seriously, but not literally. Obviously, my coworker and I went to two radically different seminaries.

When I hear this fundamentalist rhetoric even today, I am still stunned. It is so uninformed that I cannot believe that people who make this claim actually read the same Bible that I read.

The claim of biblical inerrancy is even stranger when one inquires about which version of the Bible is the inerrant one. Is the “correct” version the New International Version (NIV), clearly the favorite among the fundamentalists? Or is it the Jerusalem Bible (JB), the version preferred by Roman Catholics because it does not challenge the dogma of that Church in regard to the Virgin Mary? Or is it the King James Version (KJV), the version that the traditionalists so love? Or is it the Revised Standard Version (RSV), the translation that scholars seem to prefer? Or is it the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the rendering of the text that attempts to remove sexist language from the various texts? Or is it my favorite translation – the New English Bible (NEB) – the version that has been considered by many scholars to be one of the more important translations of the Bible to be produced following the Second World War? How can there be an inerrant Bible if there is such variety in the available translations? And those are just some of the English translations.

When challenged, fundamentalists generally fall back on the argument that inerrancy is in the original text, not in the translations. Fair enough, but let us examine that assertion a little deeper. For instance, does there exist a copy of the original manuscript of any book in the New Testament? Yes, there are fragments of the text, but the oldest full text of any book of the New Testament is dated no earlier than the seventh century of the Common Era (CE). Before Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press came along in the fifteenth century, the Bible had to be hand-copied by a scribe. Is it possible that no scribe in seven hundred years of copying ever made a mistake or added a clarifying word? The answer, of course, is no. The fact is that in various ancient texts of the Bible, there are thousands of places where the oldest texts we possess disagree with one another.

For example, in the Gospel of John the passage relating the story of Jesus’ and the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) does not appear in manuscripts until very late in medieval history. During the sixteenth century, Western European scholars – both Roman Catholic and Protestant – sought to recover the most correct Greek text of the New Testament, rather than relying on the Vulgate Latin translation. At this time, it was noticed that a number of early manuscripts containing John’s Gospel lacked John 7:53-8:11 inclusive; and also that some manuscripts containing the verses marked them with critical signs, usually an asterisk.

In Mark Gospel, Jesus institutes the Last Supper with these words: “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” Some ancient texts, however, add the word “new” before covenant. A minor change, one might say, but an example of how a word might have been added by a scribe to address a later conflict between the followers of Jesus and the traditionalist Jews. Surely some scribes took liberties in their copying by inserting words to make the text conform to later teaching. No passage from any book in the Bible can be guaranteed to be the exact copy of the original author’s work. How then, knowing this, can anyone claim inerrancy for a text, the accuracy of which could never be guaranteed? I suspect only fundamentalists can.

Beyond these complications, fundamentalists must contend with the fact that Jesus’ earthly life seems to have ended around the years 30-33 CE. Biblical scholars believe that Mark, the earliest of the gospels, wrote around 70 CE, during Nero’s persecution of the Christians in Rome, and John, the final gospel, was composed in three “layers,” reaching its final form about 90–100 CE, so every word attributed to Jesus in the gospels, and every gospel story about Jesus, existed in oral transmission during that 40 to 70 year period. Were the words or stories always repeated identically? I believe it stretches credibility to think that! Do you remember the children’s game called “Whispers?” The name derives from the game in which one person whispers a message to the person next to him and the story is then passed progressively to several others, with inaccuracies accumulating as the game goes on. The point of the game is the amusement obtained from the last player’s announcement of the story he heard, that typically being nothing like the original. So much for the accuracy of oral transmission.

The gospels themselves are not even in agreement with one another. We know that both Matthew and Luke had Mark in front of them when they wrote their later narratives, yet they omit some things that Mark had included, change others with which they do not appear to agree and add new things to Mark that perhaps he had not known. Where there is a clear textual disagreement in the gospels themselves, can the claim be made with any credibility that any particular version is the inerrant word of God?

Add to the mix the fact that Jesus spoke Aramaic, yet all the gospels were originally written in Greek. So every word of Jesus that we have has undergone a translation. Is there such a thing as a perfect translation? Of course not! Every language is deeply influenced by its culture so that few words in any language can be translated exactly into another language. Anyone ascribing inerrancy to the Bible apparently has no knowledge of these elementary facts.

The final thing that fundamentalists do not seem to understand is that in the earliest manuscripts of the gospels, there is no punctuation! If we were to study these ancient manuscripts, we would find that they have no chapters, no verses, no paragraphs, no capital letters, no commas and no periods. There is not even a space between the words. These manuscripts are simply row after row of Greek letters. If a word could not be completed on a line, it was simply broken wherever the space ran out, without a hyphen, and the remaining letters of that word continued on the next line. There is nothing to indicate to the reader that a word has been broken. So when we read the gospels today, we need to be aware that every paragraph, every comma, every period and every word division that we find in the New Testament today has been imposed on the text hundreds of years later by interpreters. Did those interpreters always get it right? The suggestion that they always did defies rationality. Punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence dramatically as we saw earlier.

Relatively speaking, punctuation is a modern invention. So are spaces between the words, although they have been around longer than colons, semi-colons, and full stops. By around 1000 CE, European texts were written with spaces between words. Spaces were the bright idea of Irish monks working on early medieval manuscripts. The introduction of a standard system of punctuation has been attributed to the Venetian printers Aldus Manutius and his grandson. They popularized the practice of ending sentences with the colon or full stop, inventing the semicolon, making occasional use of parentheses, and creating the modern comma. By 1566, Aldus Manutius the Younger was able to state that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax. Punctuation marks were not even all that common when the translators of the Authorized (“King James”) Version made their estimations of where to put them in the biblical text in 1611.

I believe that one can only hold to a fundamentalist view of the Bible if every rational faculty is suspended. The slogan “God said it; I believe it; that settles it” is more a search for security than it is a pursuit of the truth. That approach to reality is what makes real dialogue with fundamentalists, whether that discourse is over evolution, or homosexuality, or abortion, or contraception, so unbearably difficult. No rational basis exists upon which to explore an issue if one believes that quoting the Bible is the only way that one arrives at conclusions.


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