Textual Criticism of Translations: Punctuation
When do we get to heaven? Immediately after death or at the resurrection? It is the theological doctrine in Christianity that Paradise is the immediate reward for the Christian after death. This view is widely based on a translation like this,
Verily* I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luk 23:43 KJV)
*Greek has the Hebrew word “Amen”. Please, read what we have written in the article The accountability to say “Amen”.
According to the KJV translation, Yeshua said to the man that on that day (the very day of crucifixion) he would be with him in paradise. This interpretation is suggested by the placement of a comma as it appears in the KJV translation.
Why did the translators feel it was necessary to place the comma before the word “today” as this may not agree with the language employed here? From the grammar in the above verse, we can see that there is another way to punctuate the sentence.
We may glean a better understanding of the subject when that neither Hebrew nor Greek have punctuation marks; the punctuation is a much later invention in the modern languages.
In the Hebraic mindset, this statement may read quite differently, though, if we remove the commas from the sentence. Then according to the plain meaning of the text, we read,
Amen I say to you today you shall be with me in Gan-Eden. (Luk 23:43)
The word יוֹם yom “day” can have different expressions, and therefore, different meanings in Hebrew, as shown below:
- כַיּוֹם cha-yom, this (special) day, (literally, like the day). This is explained by Rashi in his commentary on Gen 25:31 to mean “as this day”: just as this day is certain, so make me a sure sale (when Ya’akov said to his brother to sell his birthright “today”).
- הַיּוֹם ha-yom, this day, today, even now, presently, (literally, the day), as found in Deu 31:21.
- בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא ba-yom hahu, on that same day, on a certain day, (literally, on the that day).
- כׇּל־הַיָּמִים kol ha-yamim, always, (literally, all the days).
All these applications of the Hebrew word יוֹם yom translate into “this, that day, or today, depending on the context.
But by having removed the comas, we have come to another problem though: a lack of clarity, as it is not clear how the word “today” relates to the timing.
The ancient Hebrews did not have that problem. They simply read a script in its contextual sense, and the syntaxes (the grammatical arrangement of words in sentences) determined the beginning and end of the sentences; no punctuation was needed.
So to add clarity, the non-existent comma can be placed into two positions. Notice how the meaning of the sentence changes when moving the comma:
(1) “Amen I say to you, today you shall be with me in Gan-Eden”.
According to this punctuation, Yeshua assured the man that on the day of the crucifixion he would be with him in Gan-Eden.
But the Hebrew הַיּוֹם ha–yom “today”, i.e. “this day” could also be rendered “that day”, because ha–yom simply means “the day”, wherein the definite article ha- signifies and emphasizes a special day. Then, the possible translation would be,
Amen, I say to you, that day you shall be with me in Gan-Eden. (Luk 23:43)
Thus read Yeshua said that that day, i.e. a future day the man would be with him in Gan-Eden. What special day Yeshua meant before he gave up his last breath? The Judgment Day.
There is an allusion to this in the Scripture which considers death as a long sleep until the Judgment Day, as we read thus,
And David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the City of David. (1Ki 2:10) … And Solomon slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David his father. … (1Ki 11:43)
When read in its proper context, our verse is telling us that Yeshua told the man he would sleep until the day of Judgment, just like all his fathers did.
If this is the correct understanding of our verse, then Yeshua assures the man that on that day, i.e. the Judgment Day, he will enter Gan-Eden, because he turned away from his sins, even on the execution stake.
(2) “Amen I say to you today, you shall be with me in Gan-Eden”.
According to this possible punctuation, on the day of the crucifixion, Yeshua assured the man that he would be with him in Gan-Eden (one day).
Why did Yeshua assure the man on that day? Because on that same day, the day of his crucifixion, the man repented and found favor.
Which position of the comma is the correct punctuation, we would not know. We do not know the intonation of Yeshua’s voice, the pause he made before or after “today”, etc. But the contextual sense will tell, and we will leave this to the reader to decide. Sometimes asking questions is more important than finding the answers, since an answer is a matter of opinion while asking a question shows that we have found an issue. And this is more important.
In conclusion, what we need to remember is that when we read translations we read the opinion of the translators, which often can be subjected to doctrinal bias.
With that being said, the reader may do well to read what we have written in our commentary on another translational or editorial interference in the article Textual Criticism of Translations: Capitalization.
But the point we want to make is to show how much dependent we have become on the punctuation and on the decision of the translators and editors to determine the final content of a text. And sometimes they decide to “fix” the text for us wherever needed. The aforesaid verse is just one example of many.
May we merit seeing the coming of our Mashiach speedily in our days.