Monday, December 05, 2011

Punctuating the Bible: Ephesians 4:11-12

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, “11And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:” 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, “11And 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 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. Next time we will look into the matter of determining which punctuation of the verse is probably right, why, and what it means for the reader.


Unknown said...

Ben, in English Bible translations, I find punctuation to be especially important in reading the psalms since, in most Bibles, the psalms are physically laid out as poetry. Paying attention to their punctuation not only helps to understand the "rhythm" of a psalm while reading, but also helps to bring out the meaning, not only of the psalm as a whole, but of portions thereof.

Also, on my own blogs ( and (plug! plug!), I post quotes from published writers - in many cases, older ones. The trick is to be able to update and modernize older punctuation habits while, at the same time, allowing the author to say what he wants to say - and to say it the way he wants to say it.

Also, pastors (the smarter ones, anyway!) learn that paying attention to punctuation in the Bible allows them to give real vocal expression to the words, and to bring out their meaning, when reading the Bible aloud to their congregations.

Unknown said...

Correction to previous post. I don't even know the URL for my own blog, which I plugged before. It SHOULD be: My first mistake since, oh, about 1963 (heh).

adam said...

Dr. Shaw,

I am very eager to read your second post on Eph.4:12 (as I have pondered this very text and question myself) but I can't seem to find it on your site!