Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Lowly Punctuation Mark in the New Testament

Something to which we pay little attention when we read the New Testament are the punctuation marks in the text. In a sense, we take them for granted. The truth is that in the earliest extant Greek manuscripts of New Testament, texts only received a few marks by their first inscribers. Originally punctuation appeared in a text “as an aid in reading, especially in reading aloud, by marking the various resting-places for the voice.”1 Texts in antiquity were read audibly and not silently.  The words of the sentences were not separated, but sentences were written in a continuous string of letters. The result of this lack of standardization in Greek texts of the New Testament is that “modern editors are compelled to provide their own punctuation and hence often their own interpretation. The latter is very definitely the case, e.g. when a mark of interrogation occurs (found in [manuscripts of the ninth century] AD at the earliest).”2

            What this means in a practical sense is that punctuation in translations of the Bible is due to the interpretation of modern editors of a text. Editing a Greek text for use by readers or translators means separating the string of letters of a line of text into specific words, correcting the ancient scribes’ errors, and deciding how the text should be punctuated. These procedures constitute an initial interpretation of a text. Translators of a text into modern languages usually work from such a “critical Greek text” that has already undergone these interpretative procedures.

            It is not uncommon that editors and translators of a text will themselves make errors in their interpretation of the text, or at the very least disagree in what should appear in critical editions of Greek texts and their translations. Editors are, after all, human and prone to error, and that is why we have different editions of critical texts and translations.3

            Here are two examples showing that what has been construed as interrogative sentences in the Gospel of John make good sense in the context as statements. My two examples demonstrate that editors of a text can come to different conclusions about a question mark. In John 14:2 a sentence that is construed as a question by one translation is construed in another as a statement:

If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? (New Revised Standard Version).

If it were not so, I should have told you; for I am going to prepare a place for you. (The Revised English Bible).

The Nestle-Aland 28th edition of the critical Greek text punctuates the sentence with a question mark.

            Here is the second example. In John 20:29 a sentence that is construed by one translation as a question is construed in another as a statement:

Have you believed because you have seen me? (New Revised Standard Version).

Because you have seen me, you have found faith. (The Revised English Bible).

The Nestle-Aland 28th edition of the critical Greek text punctuates the sentence with a question mark.

            What is the difference between a statement and a question? Basically, a statement is the expression of an idea. A question is the expression of uncertainty and/or request for information. Hence in John 20:29 the paper character of Jesus affirms that the basis for Thomas’ faith is seeing the resurrected Christ (REB). In the NRSV, on the other hand, the character Jesus is unsure why Thomas believes. In the REB version of John 14:2 the character Jesus appears to admit an error on his part; that is, he should have told them he was going to prepare a place for them, but failed to do so. In the NRSV, on the other hand, Thomas finds faith precisely because he has seen the risen Jesus, which Jesus notes is not true of everyone.

One finds this same disagreement between construing the text as a question and a statement between the translators of the REB and the NRSV in John 6:42. I have also found a number of other places in John’s text where it appears to me that the sentence arguably works just as well as a question or as an affirmative statement: John 7:26, 9:40; 11:8, 16:19, 19:10.

            I do not know how familiar readers of the New Testament are with the above information. The information, however, should make a difference to them. What is the significance of this ambiguity in the Greek text of the gospel of John of which the translators of the Revised English Bible and the New Revised Standard Version were surely aware? In the first place the problem of ambiguity lies with the extant Greek texts. They are ambiguous enough that they can reasonably be read at some points in two different ways by readers of ancient Greek. In the second place it is a virtual certainty that the original Greek text of the gospel of John would not have been any different because scribal practices were similar. That is to say, the author’s original hand-written copy is likewise flawed. Readers of the author’s copy would have faced the same ambiguity.

            The Bible is extolled as divinely inspired by Christian believers, but many of its passages (like Psalm 23 and 1 Corinthians 13) are also regarded as inspired and inspiring as is all exceptional literature. In the end the biblical text that reaches the hands of the reading public is due as much to human inspiration, ability, skill, and flaws as all literature is.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1George B. Winer, A Grammar of the Idiom of the New Testament (7th ed. Enlarged and improved by Gottlieb Lϋnemann; Draper, 1892), 55-56.

2Blass, Debrunner, Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (University of Chicago, 1961), 10. E. M. Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1912), 60; both of these authors say that the question mark appears in the 8th or 9th century, common era.

3The current critical Greek text in use by Western scholars is the so-called Nestle-Aland Critical text: “Novum Testamentum Graece.” Based on the work of Eberhard and Erwin Nestle. Edited by Barbara and Kurt Aland, et al. We are currently in the 28th Revised Edition of the Novum Testamentum Graece.


  1. Could not the interrogatives of the Nestle-Aland 28th Ed be reflections of the Divine nature of interrogation, where there is not uncertainty, but the utilization of a question to make the heater search deeper within? Are not all questions of God rhetorical, at least to Him? Does Jesus ever ask to mine for things he does not already know? A theological question, for sure, but one that must be considered.

  2. Very interesting, Charlie. Your blog piece makes it clear that, without added punctuation, John 20:29 can be taken as a sentence in either in the interrogative or declarative mood.

    This is a fascinating instance where, although the syntax is indeed ambiguous, the message of Jesus’ words to Thomas (and to the readers of John’s Gospel) is not.

    You maintain that, as a declarative sentence, these words of Jesus underscore Thomas’ direct encounter with physical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection is the basis for his faith.

    And that, as an interrogative sentence, these same words express Jesus’ uncertainty about the reason Thomas has faith.

    We can maintain the distinction you point out here only if we do not go on to consider the rhetorical effect of the words spoken as a question.

    In the light of the rest of the verse—“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe"—we are surely justified in understanding that even as a question, Jesus’s words affirm that the reason Thomas has faith lies in his direct visual experience of Jesus' resurrected body. This is the same reason Thomas has faith according to Jesus’ words taken as a declarative statement, per your note.

    In that case, whether as question or statement, the words of Jesus to Thomas rhetorically convey not two different things (certainty or uncertainty about the reason for Thomas’ faith) but the same thought: that direct eyewitness experience of the resurrected Jesus is not necessary for faith in him.

    This thought leads immediately to the next one, expressed in the very next two verses where John insists that pistis does not require a direct encounter with the resurrected Jesus but can be founded on the basis of John's biblion. This message is conveyed regardless of whether Jesus spoke a question or a statement to Thomas.

    It would seem that we have in John 20:29 a syntactical difference without a rhetorical difference.

    At least so it seems to me.

  3. Your post always cause me to pause when I am reading scripture, or anything really. I have had resent discussions on this type of observations. Thank you again for enhancing to my life.


  4. Charlie,
    Without seeking to create new myth, a point is made in John 20.19-31. The other disciples needed to see Jesus’s hands & side to rejoice & believe (similar to Thomas, who also needed to feel the wounds). They received the Spirit. Thomas missed the meeting, thus was demoted and didn’t receive the Spirit. Whether interrogative or declarative, Thomas is singled out for a downgrade, unlike the others. Or, Jesus ran out of Holy Breath.

    There is another narrative that might help to explain this. When writing a foundation myth for Christianity which sought to, among other things, reinterpret Paul, Acts 1.21-22 excluded Paul from eligibility to be one of the group of leaders. It seems that Gospel of John is doing the same thing with Thomas. Posing the first half of v.29 as a rhetorical question fits this scenario better than a statement (though the purpose of a rhetorical question is to effect a statement, to make a point ). Thomas wasn’t given the Holy Spirit, just as Paul was ineligible to be a leader. This seems to bring one into the political world of “schism myth,” of sects either accepted or rejected in second century Christianity.

    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.