How Was Biblical Punctuation Decided?

Punctuation assists the reader in understanding the Word of God. As is the case with any translation, we won’t understand the passage 100% the way someone who spoke the original language did. Nevertheless, God speaks to us through translation.

Hope Bolinger
Hand holding a question mark card

The original languages in which the Bible was written didn’t contain any punctuation. And yet, when translators convert a biblical text from Ancient Hebrew or Greek to English, they face the dilemma of how to insert punctuation properly into Scripture.

After all, the following sentences could be read very differently:

  • I’m going to work today.
  • I’m going to work today!
  • I’m going to work today?
  • I’m going to work, today.

The first sentence contains a declarative statement. The second indicates the speaker is either very excited or emphatic about going to their job. In our third instance, the speaker seems confused about whether they’d go to work, and in the final sentence, we have an added pause before today. This could indicate that they’re emphatic about going to their job or they want to focus on the “today” aspect of the phrase.

So, how do translators decide on punctuation, do we find punctuation differing across different translations, and how can we trust Scripture if we have a diversity of punctuation across translations?

Let’s dive into these questions!

How Do Translators Decide on Punctuation?

In original manuscripts, not only do we run into a lack of punctuation, but a lack of spaces between words. The article linked mentions writers did this to conserve papyrus space, and that later translations of the Bible implemented spaces and accents to make it easier for liturgical readings.

Translators use the latter.

But even so, we still don’t have certain punctuation marks. How do translators deal with this?

First, it often comes back to basic grammar. Based on how a writer phrased a passage in the original Hebrew or Greek can indicate how to punctuate a passage.

From the article linked above, we have the example from Galatians 3:1, which roughly translates as “who you has bewitched.” Translators can see this and understand Paul is asking a question, and change the punctuation and translation to, “Who has bewitched you?”

We do run into problems, however, with the fact that the original Hebrew written language didn’t even contain vowels. Due to the work of Masoretic scholars in the Middle Ages, we had vowels, accents, and other nuanced indicants marked in the text. From those, translators can deduce how to properly punctuate a passage.

But as one can guess, this means that different translators might have different ideas on how and where to insert punctuation.

How Different Is Punctuation Across Translations?

Punctuation makes a big difference in certain passages, so how much do we see it differ across translations?

In short, it depends on the translation. Most are operating off of the painstaking work of the Masorites. Even though the Masorites did make errors, they did an exceptional job.

It’s difficult to say just how much translations differ from the original text, as the original text did not contain spaces (in the case of the Greek), punctuation (including quotation marks), and vowels (in the case of the Hebrew).

We do know different translators have taken different approaches when determining how to punctuate based on the context of the passage.

Overall, we can say across the board on English translations, most of them share striking similarities, as they pull from the same source material, later Greek manuscripts that had nuances, accents, and spaces added.

How Can We Trust the Bible?

Are we reading the wrong translation? Does our Bible have a comma in a verse where it shouldn’t?

We should keep in mind that the English punctuation in our Bibles is inserted to help assist us in our reading. Imagine if you had a biblical text with no punctuation and no spacing. It would make Scripture harder to read.

As mentioned in this article, punctuation assists the reader in understanding the Word of God. As is the case with any translation, we won’t understand the passage 100% the way someone who spoke the original language did. Nevertheless, God speaks to us through translation.

We also can’t disregard the painstaking work of translators in the past. Masorites spent over a millennium translating Scripture.

Even today, with modern translations, people will spend hours in committee meetings debating if they should change a word in Scripture to best reflect the original contextual meaning of the word. Check out this article on the hours spent on changing the word slave to bondservant in the ESV translation of Scripture.

Translators take their job very seriously. We should peruse different translations to discern the differences in punctuation. We should never take something at face value but use discernment.

Nevertheless, we should also know that the modern translations we do have now compared with the thousands of Greek manuscripts of antiquity, we know that passages have not been significantly altered and that translators are austere when it comes to translating the Bible from one language to another.

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Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 600 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, Blaze, (Illuminate YA) Den (releasing July 2020), Dear Hero (releasing September 2020), and Dear Henchman (releasing 2021)  Find out more about her at her website.


Originally published July 10, 2020.