Q: If it is true that in the original Greek there “was no punctuation”, and different translations place the commas in different places, then that changes the understanding of the meaning of what is being said here. Holman, CEV and others place the comma in a way that implies that Jesus had already risen, before the first day of the week:

“Early on the first day of the week, after He had risen, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, …  (HCSB).

“Very early on the first day of the week, after Jesus had risen to life, he …  (CEV).

This means he was already risen on the first day of the week, Sunday, which means he rose on the seventh day of the week, being Saturday before sunset. (The Jewish people observed the Sabbath from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.) Plus Mary Magdalene with others were headed to the tomb “very early on the first day”, Sunday, ready to work (which was forbidden on God’s holy day of rest). So my question is, would it not be better for the translators to leave out the punctuation if there is no absolute way to know where the commas belong, so as to not confuse everyone?

There are two questions here:

  1. first about whether “early on the first day” belongs to “having been raised” or to “he appeared”;
  2. second about whether “early” can mean the evening before.

1. Although HCSB and CEV (above) do move “having risen” forward into the sentence, which in English does allow that reading, the Greek is structured as per the following from the ESV.

Mark 16:9 Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. (ESV)

Greek doesn’t have commas, but does have rules about word order. An adverb “at dawn” “first” should normally follow the verb it relates to, so the Greek text should normally read:

“Having risen at dawn of Sunday, he appeared first to Maria Magdalene”

In order to achieve the reading “he appeared first at dawn of Sunday to Maria Magdalene” or “he appeared first to Maria Magdalene at dawn of Sunday” the phrase “at dawn of Sunday” would normally have to be repositioned after “he appeared”.

So no, it’s best that the translators do leave the commas in, if they’ve translated correctly. There are examples of course where the commas are in but in the wrong place — the famous example being Luke 23:43 where the adverb “today” should by normal rules (as above) belong to “I say”, not to “be in paradise”, but in the case of that verse the traditional reading, even if widely known to be incorrect, is too popular to correct. Generally,however, commas in most versions are in the correct places, and should be included in the English as a legitimate part of the translation.

2. The meaning of the word “early” (πρωΐ ) in Jewish contexts is debated, as to whether it means 03:00-06:00AM or 06:00-09:00  in different contexts. In Mark 1 it is before dawn:

Mark 1:35 “early (πρωΐ ) while it was still dark”

But in the context of Mark 13 it appears to mean, after cock-crow, and cocks crow before the sun, hence dawn:

Mark 13:35 “whether he comes at midnight, at cock-crow, or early-morning (πρωΐ)”

But “early the previous evening, the start of the Jewish day” is not a possible reading.

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  • Jim Day

    Hi Steven,
    I agree the translators do their best to give us the meaning of the text and without it, reading the scripture would be more difficult. I have 2 questions regarding Luke 23:43 and the comma before the word “today”.

    1. All the 8 translations I check were consistent and put the comma before the word “today”. Are there any translations that put the comma after the word “today”?

    2. Are there any other passages in the Bible that have the grammatical construction of “I say today,” or something similar.

  • Steven

    Hi Jim
    The earliest translation (probably 2ndC) that reads the equivalent of a comma after today is the Curetonian Syriac “today that”. Also one of the earliest Greek manuscripts of Luke with punctuation, Codex B (Vaticanus), has a pause mark after “today”.

    Today, among mainstream scholarly versions there is one French translation that recognises that ambiguity by placing a comma before and after ‘today’ : “Je te le dis, aujourd’hui, tu seras avec moi dans le paradis.” (Traduction œcuménique de la Bible TOB 1976) This was conducted by the Dominicans so would be more ‘left wing’ than English versions which tend to be commissioned by US Protestants. Apart from that it would be a brave publisher that tried to do this for the English-speaking Christian market. It would doom a version.

    Yes there are several other examples of “I [speech verb] today” in the Septuagint: Gen. 25:33; 22:14; Deut 30:6 etc. But in Luke 23:43, rather than just being a semitism or emphatic, the time adverb ‘today’ in 23:43 replies to the ‘when’ in 23:42. So “remember (i.e. raise) me when you come” is replied by “I tell you today (i.e. no need to remember), you will be”, and likewise “be in paradise” in 43 is a reply to “in your kingdom” in 42. Paradise being a ref to Gen.2:8 in the Septuagint where “garden” is “paradise”, Rev.2:7, etc.

  • Jim Day

    Thank you for your quick reply.
    I thoroughly agree with your thrust on punctuation but Luke 23:43 was not a good example to show as a misplaced comma.
    I checked 20 translations into English and found that they all had the comma before “today”, no commas at all or something in meaning consistent with the rest.
    There is no Translation into English that had the comma after “today” so with the general principles of Textual Criticism I feel we must accept that the translators got it right.

  • Steven

    Hi Jim
    The thing is, the point of giving that example was exactly what you say – that all mainstream English versions do have the comma before “today” – and if they didn’t it wouldn’t be an example of where the attribution of an adverb, or adverbial phrase per Mark 16:9, to a verb may be questioned. (btw – If you want to continue on the subject of Luke 23:43, I believe there’s a separate answer on that somewhere.)

    But as far as Mark 16:9 normal word order indicates that the adverb “early” should be attributed to the past participle, “having risen”, “having risen early on the first day of the week”.

  • Luke Buckler

    Hi Steve.
    The answer to Luke 23:43 is here: http://bibleq.info/answer/490/

    Hi Jim.
    (1.) In that answer there is a ref. from Rotherham’s translation that has the punctuation after “today”, and (2.) there are a couple of examples of other “I say today,” passages (also note the quote at the end from Bullinger).

    With the mini advert over, I’ll echo Steve’s words: I suggest further discussion of Luke 23:43 is done over at http://bibleq.info/answer/490/