Can Commas Be That Important?
Jun 30, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 2 Comments
“You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out” (1 Thess. 2:14b-15a, updated NIV).
Unfortunately, many Bible readers today form opinions about the merits of various translations based on hearsay rather than firsthand examination of the text of Scripture, even if that hearsay is quite mistaken or slanted in what it claims. Sometimes people just accept the opinion of a trusted authority in their lives. Maybe they base their decision solely on the rendering of a single verse, or collection of verses on the same topic or involving the same issue. Some people stress very literal renderings at the expense of clarity of meaning, or freshness of style at the expense of faithfulness to the original languages.
Having read large swaths of many of the major English translations of the Bible and having been involved in the production of four of the major recent translations (ESV, HCSB, NLT and updated NIV), I am convinced that the updated NIV achieves the best combination of accuracy and clarity of meaning most frequently. Each translation has its appropriate niche, but the NIV seems to serve best the broadest cross-section of purposes and audiences. This is the first in a series of blogs, which I hope to produce a bit more often than my past blogs, looking at a diverse collection of texts and topics that I believe support my conviction.
We begin with the omission of a comma.
Several years ago a fundamentalist church in the Denver metro area gained notoriety during Lent by quoting on their marquee a small fragment of the sentence that spans 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15: “the Jews, who killed the Lord Jesus.” It was a frightening throwback to the days of the Nazis who labeled all Jews as Christkillers. Only after significant publicity called attention to it, did the church take it down.
Most English translations aren’t much better. The KJV (1611) used a colon to separate the verses; the ASV (1901), a semicolon. Neither of these works according to the grammatical rules of modern English, so the RSV, the first of the major translations after World War II, opted for a comma. Most others have followed suit. I suspect the translators haven’t necessarily even stopped to think about what the comma could communicate.
Consider the two sentences, “I thanked my teachers who had spent time with me,” and “I thanked my teachers, who had spent time with me.” For some readers, these might mean the same thing. But for those who make a distinction between them, the first sentence contains a restrictive clause specifying those teachers who had spent time with me out of a potentially larger group of teachers. In other words, it implies that only some of my teachers may have spent time with me and it was that subgroup of teachers whom I thanked. The second sentence contains a non-restrictive clause and implies I thanked my teachers, whoever they were. Then, it supplies additional information, namely, that all my teachers spent time with me.
Apply this to 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 and it means that, at least technically speaking, all translations that put a comma after “the Jews” are saying that all the Jews killed the Lord Jesus, which is patently false. Frank Gilliard pointed this out in the journal New Testament Studies back in 1989, in an article entitled “The Antisemitic Comma between 1 Thessalonians 2:14 and 15.” But most translators seem not to have noticed.
The ESV and NRSV, as revisions of the RSV, may have never even thought about the issue. The HCSB, probably trying to simplify the sentence structure, made matters worse by putting a period and starting the next sentence with a “they.” Now there is no question that all Jews killed Christ! Not surprisingly, the Complete Jewish Bible, a Messianic Jewish translation, takes the comma out. So does the more idiomatic God’s Word to the Nations. The NLT, with the freedom of a dynamic equivalence translation, made the true meaning crystal clear by starting a new sentence, reversing the sequence of the first two clauses and adding the word “some” twice: “For some of the Jews killed the prophets, and some even killed the Lord Jesus.”
The updated NIV takes the simplest approach, while remaining completely literal—and just takes the comma out. After all, the Greek is merely the aorist adjectival participle (apokteinantōn, “having killed”), which is seldom separated from the noun it modifies by a comma in fluent English translation.
Can commas be that important? Ask your Jewish friends!