Feb 12, 2017

Punctuating the Bible

4 Min Read

In speaking, we indicate emphasis and pauses simply by the way we pronounce the words. Punctuation and other ways of marking a text are used to attempt to accomplish with the written word what it cannot do, that is, imitate the spoken word. Thus someone might say the three simple words “I love him” in three different ways. He might say, “I love him,” putting the emphasis on “I,” which is indicated here by putting “I” in italics. The meaning communicated is that “I” as opposed to others, love him. Or he might say, “I love him” putting the emphasis on the verb (again, indicated here with italics). Thus the meaning is I love him as opposed to “hate” or “like” or “put up with.” Or he might say, “I love him;” communicating the idea of loving that particular person as opposed to others. The pauses and emphasis indicated by punctuation therefore help clarify the meaning of what is written, in place of the emphasis provided by voice and facial expression in conversation.

The importance of proper punctuation is well-illustrated in Lynne Truss’s recent bestseller, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. This is particularly pointed out in the publisher's note (p. xv) to the effect that the book is written in English English as opposed to American English, and so follows the rules of English rather than American punctuation. All of this is to say that the punctuation of the text of the Bible in English serves an important interpretive function that might be easily overlooked by the causal reader.

Ephesians 4:12 provides a useful example. For context, I have also included verse 11. In the KJV, the verses read,

And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” (Eph. 4:11–12)

Notice that the commas in verse 12 indicate three purposes for the work of the officers listed: perfecting the saints, the work of the ministry, and the edifying of the body of Christ.

In the NKJV, the passage reads,

And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.

In this version, there is only one comma in verse 12, indicating a two-fold purpose for the work of the officers: equipping the saints for the work of ministry and edifying the body of Christ. The whole range of modern translations, from the NASB to the NLT, does exactly the same thing that the NKJV does, indicating two purposes for the work of the officers.

The question is which of these possible interpretations is right; and how do we determine that? The first place to go is to the original language.

The modern reader probably reads only one English version, and for the most part probably pays little attention to the punctuation. Therefore, he might not notice the different possible understandings that the verse provides.

The question is which of these possible interpretations is right; and how do we determine that? The first place to go is to the original language, in this case Greek. The problem that results is twofold. First, the modern editions of the Greek text punctuate the passage in the same way as the translations do. Second, the vocabulary and grammar of the passage are not capable of eliminating one interpretation or the other. Both interpretations are possible, based on the Greek vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. That leaves context as the last means of determining what the punctuation ought to be, and hence what the meaning of the passage is.

Does the passage say that God has provided these officers in the church in order to equip the saints in two ways: 1) for the work of ministry, and 2) for the building of the body of Christ? Or does the passage say that God has provided officers in the church for three purposes: 1) to equip the saints, 2) for the work of ministry, and 3) for building up the body of Christ.

The modern versions prefer the former explanation. One reason for this is the current emphasis in the church on every-member ministry. Such an emphasis is certainly healthy, and supported clearly by such passages as Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12. In addition, in the past the second approach to Ephesians 4:11-12 has perhaps been used to support “clericalism,” which is the idea that only the members of the clergy really carry on the work of the ministry of the church.

However, when considered in its context, it appears to me that the second interpretation (that supported by the punctuation of the KJV) is in fact the correct one. Paul’s concern in this portion of the epistle is not, like Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, on every-member ministry. Instead his focus is on the doctrinal foundation and stability of the church. Paul wants all to attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God; to mature manhood, no longer children tossed about by winds of doctrine. This can only be achieved if those specially gifted and appointed by Christ for the instruction of the church are careful and faithful in carrying out their particular ministry in the church. They are to equip the saints doctrinally, that is their ministry by which the body of Christ is built up.

This is not clericalism, nor does it deny the importance of every-member ministry. Instead it emphasizes the importance of the faithful ministry of men called by Christ to that necessary doctrinal work in the church, for the safety and preservation of all the church. For these reasons, it seems clear to me that the KJV had it right when they punctuated Ephesians 4:12 in the way they did.