Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts, Part III (Quotations)

This morning I heard Peter Carman preach on Matthew 2:1-12. He did a super job, striking a great balance between scholarship and pastoral guidance.

As the scriptural text was being read aloud in English, I followed along in my Greek text. [Yes. I am one of those geeks who takes the Greek text to church. I don’t use it to intimidate other worshipers but because I find reading the Greek texts to be a meaningful experience.] As I was reading this text, it hit me that it’s a great example of the problem posed by the lack of clear indication of where quotes begin and end in Ancient Greek.

While it’s usually very easy to see where a quote begins, finding the end of the quote is much more challenging because there was no punctuation, and no grammatical convention, to indicate this. The particular point at which the issue appears in this text is in the priests’ and scribes’ response to Herod when he asks them about where the Christ will be born.

Ηρῴδης . . . συναγαγὼν πάντας τοὺς ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ γραμματεῖς τοῦ λαοῦ ἐπυνθάνετο παρ᾿ αὐτῶν ποῦ ὁ χριστὸς γεννᾶται (verses 3 and 4).

Herod . . . gathering all the high priests and scribes of the people, inquired of them concerning where the Christ would be born.

The clause introducing their response is quite clear:

οἱ δὲ εἶπαν αὐτῷ·. . .

And they said to him: . . .

So it’s not hard to find the beginning of the quote. Where we decide the quote ends, though, has a significant impact on the meaning of the passage. The NRSV, NIV, NET Bible, and TEV all use quotation marks to have the response include all of the following:

ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας· οὕτως γὰρ γέγραπται διὰ τοῦ προφήτου·  6 καὶ σὺ Βηθλέεμ, γῆ Ἰούδα, οὐδαμῶς ἐλαχίστη εἶ ἐν τοῖς ἡγεμόσιν Ἰούδα· ἐκ σοῦ γὰρ ἐξελεύσεται ἡγούμενος, ὅστις ποιμανεῖ τὸν λαόν μου τὸν Ἰσραήλ. (verses 5 and 6)

“In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah, for from you will come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

This interpretive decision is perfectly reasonable, of course, but it is not the only one possible, and it does have significance for what Matthew intended. It asserts that the chief priests and scribes quoted scripture to Herod. While there is no clear reason to think they wouldn’t do this, it’s also not clear that Matthew meant us to understand the text in this way.

Let’s consider another option that is equally well supported by the the text. Suppose Matthew meant only that they answered, ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας (in Bethlehem of Judea).

Keep in mind that the raised dot in the printed text further above is an editor’s decision based on evidence that first appeared in the text much later than its date of composition. A period is an equally reasonable interpretation of that same evidence.

If the author of this text intended the quote to include nothing more than ἐν Βηθλέεμ τῆς Ἰουδαίας, then the rest of this section would be his own attempt to explain why they gave this answer.

οὕτως γὰρ γέγραπται διὰ τοῦ προφήτου·  6 καὶ σὺ Βηθλέεμ, γῆ Ἰούδα, οὐδαμῶς ἐλαχίστη εἶ ἐν τοῖς ἡγεμόσιν Ἰούδα· ἐκ σοῦ γὰρ ἐξελεύσεται ἡγούμενος, ὅστις ποιμανεῖ τὸν λαόν μου τὸν Ἰσραήλ.

For thus it has been written by the prophet: “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

In this reading of the text, the scriptural quote does not represent something the high priests and scribes said to Herod, but something the author quoted to his readers to show the significance of the answer given by the high priests and scribes to Herod’s question.

I apologize to Peter for thinking about this while he was delivering his insightful sermon this morning. While he didn’t discuss the punctuation of the text, he did make me think a lot about the text’s significance for today’s church. For that I thank him seriously.

Here’s a little reflection on why we should care about the punctuation:

Punctuation matters. When I mentioned this issue to my 16-year-old daughter earlier this afternoon, she responded, “Of course punctuation matters. ‘Let’s eat, Grandma’ doesn’t mean the same as ‘Let’s eat Grandma.'” She’s right, of course. It matters.

For a competent reader of Ancient Greek to fail to question the punctuation in our printed editions of the Ancient Greek texts is an abdication of a significant part of our responsibility. If we don’t struggle with the punctuation, we are simply handing that responsibility off to the editors of those texts. While that is a reasonable thing for students early in the study of the language to do, it is not a reasonable thing for accomplished readers to do. Question the punctuation. Struggle with it. Ask how the text would change if we punctuated it differently. What options are reasonable? Which ones are not? This is a part of what it means to read seriously.

Here are some other posts dealing with the lack of punctuation in Ancient Greek:

There is also one tangentially related topic that arose out of this discussion earlier:

Happy reading!

Important! [Added Jan. 19, 2015]
While the earliest manuscripts of the biblical texts did not contain punctuation, it is usually clear to a competent reader of Ancient Greek where the punctuation belongs.

It is a serious mistake to assume that the absence of punctuation in those manuscripts means a person who does not read Greek is free to choose where to put the punctuation in an English translation. To make decisions about where the punctuation belongs it is necessary to read Ancient Greek very well. Many options that would seem to be available in an English text are ruled out by the structure of the Greek text.

12 Thoughts to “Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts, Part III (Quotations)”

  1. Wray Bryant

    Michael

    This is GREAT. I tell my Greek students this all the time. You cannot just accept the decisions of scholars “on-faith.” Readers are indeed as you point out, obligated to think through EVERY aspect of the text. That includes–punctuations, word divisions, and even breathing marks! I find my students are too interested in rushing to “the” meaning of the text before they have explored the range of possible meanings of the text.

    If I were Pastor Peter, I would be thrilled that my sermon caused you to think more deeply about the text. The fact that you saw something through my preaching that I may have never intended–well I’d just say you have given me more proof that the Holy Spirit works through us to accomplish far more than we could ever imagine.

    I look forward to reading more of your insights

    Wray Bryant

  2. What punctuation marks would you put in 1 Cor 14:34-36? Does the notation support the notion that 34-35 are quoted from a letter that was written to Paul, and 36 is his response to that quote?

  3. Unfortunately, there’s not a clear way for us to know if Paul was quoting something the Corinthians wrote to him here. He could have made that clear by including a direct reference to their letter, but he didn’t. Of course, it would not be necessary for him to make that clear, since the first readers would have known if it was something they wrote.

    The problem is that WE can’t know that. There is noting in the text that would prevent it from being read this way, but we can’t say for sure that it should be based solely on the text itself.

  4. Craig

    Thank you for these articles. I was reading John 4:22-23 (ESV) and noticed that if 22b was part of the sentence that led to 23 it would have an entirely different reading, somewhat akin to:

    22a “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know.”
    22b-23 “For the salvation of the Jews is but coming at an hour, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”

    My Greek is basically non existent…but would this be what you had in mind about challenging the punctuation? It certainly changes not only the meaning, but also the translation rather significantly.

    Many thanks,
    Craig.

    1. It’s good to hear from you, Craig. I’m sorry it has taken me a few days to respond.

      The reading you suggest is a great example of why you should not attempt challenging the punctuation if you do not read Ancient Greek. Your phrase “salvation of the Jews” is not a possible meaning of the underlying Greek text. There are plenty of places where the phrase “from the Jews” (what the ESV has for this phrase) could just as well mean “of the Jews,” but not here. The phrase that could be translated either way would be τῶν Ἰουδαίων, but here we have ἐκ τῶν Ἰουδαίων. It is a prepositional phrase giving the origin of salvation. The little preposition ἐκ suggests that τῶν Ἰουδαίων states the origin or source of ἡ σωτηρία (translated here as “salvation”), not its object as “salvation of the Jews” would suggest.

      When I wrote this post about challenging the punctuation, I meant that biblical scholars who do read Ancient Greek have a responsibility to reflect on the punctuation and challenge it when different punctuation would lead to a clearer understanding of the text. I was not suggesting that it is possible or reasonable to do so without a solid ability to read the Greek text.

      Thank you for raising this issue.

  5. Joshua

    This is an excellent article! I have a questions concerning punctuation, and I was hoping you could provide some insight. John 1:9-10 says:

    Ἦν (was) τὸ (the) φῶς (light) τὸ (the) ἀληθινὸν (true), ὃ (which) φωτίζει (enlightens) πάντα (every) ἄνθρωπον (man) ἐρχόμενον (coming) εἰς (into) τὸν (the) κόσμον (world) ἐν (in) τῷ (the) κόσμῳ (world) ἦν (was) καὶ (and) ὁ (the) κόσμος (world) δι’ (because of) αὐτοῦ (him) ἐγένετο (emerges) καὶ (and) ὁ (the) κόσμος (world) αὐτὸν (he) οὐκ (not) ἔγνω (knows)

    Could this say:

    Was the light the true, which enlightens every man coming into the world, [and] in the world was, and the world because of him emerges, and the world he not know

    I guess what I’m asking is, even though καὶ is not present, is it acceptable to inset a comma with the understanding that the comma means “and”; like we do with lists in English? For example:

    “I need to wash the dishes, [and] mow the lawn, and take out the trash”

    Would the Ancient Greeks understand a sentence like this?

    Thank you my friend and God bless you.

    1. Your comment raises two issues. One has to do with your proposed translation, and the other with the explicit question you ask about the possibility of seeing this as a list where “and” would be appropriate in English.

      Your translation is not a possible rendering of what the Greek text is saying. It appears that you have tried to translate each individual word into English, then just accepted that as a translation of the passage. Doing that leads to serious misrepresentations of what the Greek author meant. That’s because Greek and English have radically different grammatical structures. The order of the words, and sometimes the number of words in English have to be different from the order in Greek or the number of words in Greek to maintain the same meaning.

      Let’s take a simple example. You render the opening phrase Ἦν τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινὸν, as “The light the true” but this is not what it means. There are two instances of τὸ in Greek, and it is true that τὸ is usually translated at “the” in English, but there cannot be two instances of “the” in English even though there are two in Greek. There are two in Greek because the adjective ἀληθινὸν appears after the noun φῶς, and when an adjective follows the noun it modifies, it must have its own article (τὸ) if the noun has one, but this does not mean that there should be two articles in English. English grammar does not work that way.

      Similarly, you have started your translation with “Was” (apparently because the Greek text starts with Ἦν, and whatever tool you were using said that Ἦν means “Was.” This is problematic, though, because starting a sentence with “Was” in English suggests that the sentence is a question.

      • Was your mother home when you got there?
      • Was it last Tuesday that you visited your sister?

      But the Greek text is not asking a question. Ἦν is a third-person singular verb form that does not simply mean “was.” It can be translated as “he was,” “she was,” or “it was” depending on the grammatical context. It can also serve as the first part of a periphrastic construction (a construction with a finite verb and a participle working together to produce a particular meaning). There is a participle later in this verse that can serve as the second part of such a periphrastic construction (ἐρχόμενον). Together Ἦν and ἐρχόμενον can be translated as “was coming” and the subject of that combination is τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινὸν. That is “The true light was coming…”

      It is not possible to make decisions about punctuation unless you understand the Greek text correctly at this basic grammatical level. Trying to do so based on the English text, even if you look up the Greek words behind the English ones in your translation, can lead to serious misrepresentations of what the original authors were trying to say. I would strongly advise that you not speculate about possible variations in the punctuation until you read Greek well enough to recognize the usual patterns of Greek usage. If you want to see what the punctuation possibilities are and you do not read Greek well, compare several good English translations to see if they offer different punctuations. If they don’t, it is likely that the Greek text is clear about where the punctuation should go and what kind of punctuation it should be. If they do contain differences in terms of punctuation, look at which option makes better sense in the larger context.

      My posts in this thread have been directed toward readers who read Greek very well, encouraging them to think critically about the punctuation because they have the ability to understand the Greek phrasing and can, therefore, evaluate the decisions of the scholars who produced the translations we have and the critical Greek texts available to us. Without having a pretty solid grasp of Greek, though, it is not reasonable to try to do that. The producers of most of the translations on the market today were people who have or had a high level of competence in the language they were translating. The best thing to do if you don’t have that level of facility with the language, is to compare several translations to see the range of possibilities.

      Now to your explicit question: In English we regularly use commas to separate items in a list, when we could have just as well used “and” (as you suggest). This is not a normal pattern in Ancient Greek, though. For example, in Matthew 2:11 the wise men bring χρυσὸν καὶ λίβανον καὶ σμύρναν (gold, frankincense, and myrrh). Notice that there is a comma in English between “gold” and “frankincense”, but καὶ in Greek. That is, Greek speakers used καὶ much more than English speakers use “and”. While in English we take “and” as implied in a list without having to say it or write it, this was usually not the case in Greek. There are a few circumstances in which we do include “and” in the English translation when καὶ (or δέ) is not present in Greek, but this is not one of them.

      I hope you continue to explore the Greek text of the new testament, and I wish you well.

      1. Joshua

        Thank you so much for the quick reply! I knew this verse couldn’t begin with “was”, I just like to translate word for word until I get to my particular problem. It helps me look at things from different angles. I can either understand “was” as “the true light was coming”, or I can understand it as:

        “That (it) was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.”

        This is how the KJV translates it. But the KJV continues by saying:

        “He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.”

        I noticed that there was no pronoun before “was” in verse 10, and based on the ordering of the words, it appears to continue as:

        That (It) was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh (present) into the world, in the world was (past), and the world because of him (man) emerged.

        It seems as though when John says “It was the true light”, he is speaking in the past tense because it was a past event when John the Baptist testified. I think the KJV translators were under the same impression.

        I believe it’s odd that John would use a masculine pronoun to correlate with the light, since he had just used ὃ, a neuter pronoun, when he said “that which enlightens”. The only other nouns in verse 9 and 10 is ἄνθρωπον (mankind) and κόσμος (world, or maybe order). I have considered that John may be going back to the logos, or he may be talking about τὸν θεόν, which would be YHVH. There are just so many pronouns in John, and I’m trying to correlate each noun with an appropriate pronoun.

        I’m also aware that all the definite articles in Greek should not be translated, but I like to keep them just in case. For example, the KJV says:

        “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” John 1:14

        The KJV seems to jump through some hoops in order to make the text explicitly say that the logos is literally the “only begotton” of “the” Father. There are obviously no parentheses in the original Greek. Moreover, there is no definite article before Πατρός. I think Young’s literal translation is much closer:

        “And the Word became flesh, and did tabernacle among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of an only begotten of a father, full of grace and truth.”

        This makes the verse a simile rather than a literal truth. Because of this, I have understood this verse to say:

        And the reason became flesh, and tabernacled within us, and we beheld the glory of it, a glory as of an one and only of a father, full of grace and of truth.

        That is simple and it makes makes sense to me.

        I really appreciate your time. You are the only person that has responded to my questions. Thank you and God bless you brother.

  6. Michael

    I notice that different translations end the quotations in James 2:18 in different spots. Some after the whole verse, while others much sooner, including only “You have faith; I have deeds”. Is it possible that the quotation could end even sooner?

    If I read it:
    But someone will say, “You have faith.” I have deeds. Show me your faith without deeds and I’ll show you my faith by my deeds.

    It makes more sense to me, but I am not a Greek scholar yet, only a baby in my walk with Christ so far. Can you offer any insight, please?

    1. Determining where a quote ends in an ancient Greek text is very dependent upon the context. There is no purely linguistic reason why the quote couldn’t end where you suggest. It has been traditional to place the ending quotation mark after “I have deeds” but I see the contextual problem you are struggling with. What James writes in response to the quote seems to suggest the quote mentioned his (James’) faith, and he’s asserting that his faith is obvious because of his deeds. Placing the ending quotation mark where you suggest does not distract from that point. In fact, it makes the point clearer.

  7. […] put quotes around his phrase. Did they use quotation marks in first century writing? According to Micheal Palmer, an all-around language geek (Hellenistic Greek and English instructor – he lists a few […]

  8. […] ancient Greek, and how readers should sometimes question the decisions of modern editors.  See it here.  In Luke 26, the placement of the start of the quote seems […]

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