Punctuating the Bible

Thus, for example, Ephesians 1:3-14 (one extended sentence in Greek) is divided into three sentences by the KJV, and up to fourteen or so sentences by some of the modern simple language translations. But this punctuation is a matter of editorial choice.

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic (the Aramaic portions are as follows: Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:11-26; Daniel 2:4-7:28; Jeremiah 10:11, and two words in Genesis 31:47). The New Testament was written in Greek.

The original Hebrew (and Aramaic) manuscripts were written without vowels and without punctuation. The fact that vowels were not written is not as problematic as it might seem, due to the character of the Hebrew language. In fact, most Modern Hebrew is also written without vowels. Vowels are inserted only when necessary to prevent possible misunderstandings.

At least in the Hebrew manuscripts, the scribes did have spaces between words. For an example of such Hebrew manuscripts, see http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/sacredtexts/images/deadseascrolls_lg.jpg.

The earliest Greek manuscripts were written in all capital letters (called uncials), and were written without spaces between the words but with some punctuation, though the punctuation seems not to have been used consistently. For an example of such a manuscript, see http://www.bible-researcher.com/papy66big.jpg.

In the Middle Ages, Greek manuscripts began to be written in a cursive script called miniscules. These manuscripts at least had spaces between the words, and a more sustained use of punctuation. For an example, see http://www.greekingout.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/ntmanuscript.jpg.

Over the course of the Middle Ages, the Hebrew scribes that preserved and copied the biblical text developed a system for indicating the vowels in each word. These scribes are known as Masoretes, and the text they produced is the Masoretic text. In addition to this vocalization system, they developed a system of accents for the text.

In this system, each word has its own accent. The accents serve three purposes. First, the accent indicates which syllable in the word is accented. Second, the accents serve as a sort of musical notation, indicating how the text is to be chanted. Third, the accents serve somewhat like punctuation. This system is still found in modern printed editions of the Hebrew Bible.

The punctuation in modern editions of the Greek New Testament comes in part from the punctuation found in manuscripts. In addition, punctuation is added by the editors of the Greek text.

The punctuation of English versions of the Bible is dependent in part on the punctuation indicated by the Hebrew accent system and on the punctuation of the Greek text. However punctuation in English is different and more extensive than punctuation in either Hebrew or Greek. Thus, the punctuation of English versions is determined by the translators and editors of the particular version.

Thus, for example, Ephesians 1:3-14 (one extended sentence in Greek) is divided into three sentences by the KJV, and up to fourteen or so sentences by some of the modern simple language translations. But this punctuation is a matter of editorial choice.

So for example, in Eph 1:4, the KJV reads, “that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:” The ESV reads, “that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love” (with the sentence then continuing into verse 5). The difference between the two renderings is that in the KJV, the phrase “in love” is understood to go with what precedes, as is indicated by the punctuation. In the ESV, the phrase “in love” is understood to go with what follows, again as indicated by the punctuation.

In this case, the KJV is supported by the punctuation as it is found in the 27th edition of the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. Most modern English versions, however, do the same as the ESV. In this case, the interpretational difference may be minimal. But where you put the comma, or whether you even use a comma, is not always so simple.

Benjamin Shaw, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Hebrew & OT and Academic Dean at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He blogs periodically at GPTS Rabbi where this article first appeared. It is used with permission.

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