There is a seemingly unassuming verse in the Bible that creates all kinds of problems for a number of Christian faith traditions. The text is Luke 23:43. The setting is the crucifixion scene where Jesus is flanked on either side by so-called thieves, who are also being crucified. One thief remains unrepentant, while the other has had a change of heart and recognizes Jesus’s righteousness. He asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus sets up his kingdom. According to the King James version, Jesus responds, “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” The problem is with the placement of the comma in that verse, and a great deal has been written about it.
I have always had a great deal of affection for the King James Version of the Bible. It is the version I grew up with, and for the longest time I simply thought that was how the Bible was written, with “thees” and “thous.” Moreover, it has great poetic qualities. It is the version of the Bible that I got for my 8th birthday and that I still have. Even so, I do have two other versions of the New Testament, The New Testament in Modern English, by J.B. Phillips, and the New English Bible. The Phillips (no relation) translation reads, “I tell you truly, this very day you will be with me in paradise.” And the New English Bible reads, “I tell you this: today you shall be with me in Paradise.” Thus both agree with the King James Version, the New English Bible substituting a more emphatic colon in place of the comma. Other versions and translations that I have consulted generally agree with the King James also. It seems clear that most scholars have concluded that the meaning of the verse is that Jesus assured the thief that they would be together in paradise that same day.
Some faith traditions teach the idea that no one goes to heaven directly after death. Either there is a mandatory intermediate stage, e.g., purgatory, or, as Seventh-day Adventists believe, the individual remains in the grave until Christ’s second coming at some later date. In addition, there is the problem that, never mind the thief, Jesus didn’t go directly to heaven either. Instead, he remained in the tomb until the following Sunday morning. So how could he assure the thief that they would both be in paradise that very day?
What to do? What to do? The solution for many of these faiths has been to move the comma, so that the verse reads, “Verily I say unto thee to day, Shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Awkward, I know. Or they might reword the verse slightly to read, “Verily, I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in paradise.”
Having said all this, it should be pointed out that commas didn’t even come into use until the end of the 15th century. They simply weren’t around at the time the gospel was written in Greek. Moreover, Jesus was communicating orally, not in writing, and we simply don’t use punctuation in oral speech. (Except for the comic/pianist Victor Borge, who had a routine where he assigned a different sound to each punctuation mark. It was funny when I heard it the first time when I was in grade school, but it got old fast.) Commas initially came into use to indicate a place for the reader to pause (and perhaps to catch their breath). Eventually, they came to play a role in clarifying meaning, as in the verse in question. (A fun book to read along these lines is Eats Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss, which deals with the history of punctuation and which includes a discussion of Luke 23:43.)
I majored in English literature in college, and one of the courses required for an English major at Andrews University, the SDA college I attended, was entitled, “The Bible as Literature.” There’s no way that the course should have been required for majors, but the class itself wasn’t a terrible idea: There are a number of portions of the Bible that have literary merit, including Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon, among others. But the thing I most recall about the class was a remark that the professor made one day in class that really had little to do with the Bible’s literary qualities. He reported that a committee of SDA Biblical scholars had recently reviewed the proper interpretation/translation of the gospels and had paid special attention to Luke 23:43. He literally beamed as he informed us that the committee had concluded that the verse should be interpreted with the comma following rather than preceding the word “today.” Really.
Why am I dwelling on the kerfuffle over this verse? After all, I don’t believe either the thief or Jesus ever made it to paradise, either that day or any other day. I am pointing out this little controversy because it nicely illustrates what happens when so-called scholarship is driven by a need to support a particular point of view rather than being driven simply by a open-minded analysis of the available evidence. If there are passages of the Bible that seem to be in contradiction, a person intent on supporting a particular religious perspective is required either to ignore the contradiction or to rationalize the difference. For example, the great discrepancy between the blood-and-thunder, vindictive Old Testament God and the Pauline God of love and forgiveness of the New Testament is rationalized by saying that Christ’s life, death, and sacrifice transformed man’s view of God. We all have biases, of course, but the goal is to recognize those biases and to make every effort to ensure that we do not let them dominate our view on things.
This account also points out, I believe, the problems with treating the Bible as inerrant authority. When a passage appears inconsistent with one’s point of view, if the Bible is the authority, then one has to scramble to make sense of things. That just doesn’t happen if the Bible is treated like any other writing.
This concern applies not just to Biblical scholarship but also to investigations in other areas, such as evolutionary science, geology, and paleontology. If scientific facts are inconsistent with scripture, then either the scripture must only be metaphorical, as in the creation story--not so bad--or the scientific facts have to be ignored, distorted, or twisted to fit one’s views--much worse.
© 2013 John M. Phillips