Monday, March 13, 2006

Every Jot and Tittle

If you've ever browsed around in various translations of the Gospel of St. John, you may have noticed that there is some difference of opinion as to how best to punctuate verses 3 and 4 of the first chapter. In the King James Version, for example, the two verses read
(3) All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (4) In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
This punctuation was maintained in the Revised Standard Version, which reads
(3) all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (4) In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
In the Revised New Testament of the New American Bible, however, the verses are punctuated this way:
(3) All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be (4) through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.
If you look into this matter further you will find that the majority of translations made before the 1980s favor the punctuation adopted by the King James Version and retained in the Revised Standard Version, but that there is a growing preference for the punctuation adopted in the New American Bible. What difference, exactly, could any of this possibly make?

Punctuation as such was not something that was in widespread use in antiquity. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find it much in evidence anywhere in the 1st century, when the Gospel texts were first being committed to writing. In fact, putting spaces between words was not exactly a common practice, let alone putting in little marks to indicate new sentences or breaks in thought. The text of these two verses on most manuscripts would have looked vaguely like this (I'm attempting to imitate the look of uncials here--it's only an approximation):
If it's hard to imagine reading a text like that for very long you needn't worry: not many folks in those days could read anyway. These manuscripts weren't for the idle middle classes lounging around after an eight hour day down at the office. The market for these texts was primarily a scholarly one (the word "scholar" is derived from the Greek word skholê, which means "leisure time"). The scholarly set was familiar enough with the writing conventions of the day to be able to read such texts with (relative) ease. I suppose we could get used to it, too, if we had nothing else to compare it with. To see some samples of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, check out the website for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.

In the case of John 1.3-4 the problem of breaking up the text into sense units is an interesting one. We have evidence that St. Jerome punctuated these two verses differently at different stages of his career. In his commentary on Habbakuk, dating from around 391-392, he cites the verses in the form employed in the New American Bible. But in many of his works dating from the period 401-416, including his Homily on the Gospel of John (401-410), he cites these verses in the form employed by the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version. So within a period of about 10 years, it seems, St. Jerome changed his mind about the best way to read these verses. What may have prompted the change?

The Macedonians were given their name from the fact that it was thought that they were followers of Macedonius, Bishop of Constantinople from around 342 until he was deposed in 360 by the Arian Council of Constantinople. Although the association with Macedonius is doubtful, the Macedonian heresy, for better or for worse, was attributed by St. Jerome to him. The fundamental feature of this heresy is the denial of the divinity of the Holy Spirit (hence the Macedonians are also known as the Pneumatomakhoi). In his Homily on the Gospel of John St. Jerome notes that there are many who read these verses "badly" (male legunt), and he goes on to explain their error this way. The heretics appeal to the punctuation that we find nowadays in the New American Bible, and that St. Jerome himself had used in his commentary on Habbakuk. Since it is the Holy Spirit that gives life through Christ, the heretics argued, we must read the Gospel as telling us that the Holy Spirit is a creature of the Word, since the Gospel itself tells us that "what came-into-existence through him was life, and that life was the light of men." In other words, the Gospel itself clearly tells us that the life that was the light of men, i.e., the Holy Spirit, was one of the things that came-into-existence through the Word. So St. Jerome, in his Homily on the Gospel of John, recommended reading the verses differently--in particular, he recommended the punctuation that we find in the King James Version--in order to avoid the possibility of reading the Gospel in the Macedonian, Pneumatikomakhoi way. Subsequent Fathers relied on St. Jerome's recommendation, changing the punctuation of the verses so that they say rather explicitly that only those things that came-into-existence (i.e., not the Holy Spirit) came into existence through the Word. Period. New Sentence. "In Him was life," etc.

It is worth pointing out, I think, that the older reading, the punctuation adopted by St. Jerome in his Commentary on Habbakuk, is preferable to the later, anti-Macedonian reading. First, the anti-Macedonian reading is extremely ad hoc, and has the Gospel telling us something rather banal, namely, that the things that came into existence came into existence through the thing that brought them into existence. That's like saying that all paintings are painted by painters. It's true, but trivially so. Second, it has the Gospel informing us that there was life in the Word, and that life was the light of men. Taken with the previous verse, this is just a restatement of the same thought: the Word is what brings things into existence and, in the case of living things, causes them to be living things. None of this is very interesting, but of course trivial truths are certainly truths, so we cannot accuse St. Jerome of perverting the meaning of the Gospel for purely polemical purposes.

However, the older punctuation tells us something quite extraordinary and remarkable. It tells us about something specific that came about through the agency of the Word, namely, the renewal of that eternal life that was lost by men at the Beginning. It is worth pointing out that this was the reading favored by St. Jerome when he was translating the Scriptures into the version that we now know as the Vulgate. This means, in my opinion, that it is arguably a more authentic reading of the tradition, since it was not influenced by a polemical purpose, namely, the combatting of a semi-arian heresy.

Little differences can add up to big ones, and the ways in which we read our texts are not always matters of easy and unambiguous decisions. In the present case the placement of a single comma can make an enormous difference. Imagine having to sort things out without any punctuation marks at all!


Steven said...

I would like to offer a different perspective on the apparent ambiguity presented by this difficulty in translation. Perhaps this is merely the perspective of one who upon composing a poem with one intent wandered back to discover that there was imbedded there another that at the time of composition was completely transparent; however, I think it is important to consider the possibility that both meanings that you draw out from this verse are plausible and perhaps even complimentary understandings of the Divine Author's intent.

Part of the great meaning of the Bible is wrapped up in the multiplicity of meanings available because of these punctuation differences. Another example occurring early in the Gospel of Mark get punctuated differently with great resonance:

"A voice cries out in the wilderness,
prepare ye the way for the Lord."


"A voice cries out: In the wilderness, prepare ye the way for the Lord."

What happens in this dyad is that one form refers specifically to John the Baptist, the second form refer technically to how to form oneself to receive God. Thus prophecy and instruction are combined through the multiple readings of the verse. If I am to believe in the inspiration of the scriptures, I must look at these sorts of things as not "either or" propounded on this or that theory of why they came into being, but rather both/and and see how the two meanings support, reinforce, or nuance one another.

I believe one of the great Rabbis whose comments are recorded in the Talmud said that each verse of Holy Scripture had 69 different meanings, many of which may seem in contradiction, but all of which are true. This is how I tend to read scripture, and it is why I like to have multiple translations to hand.

I thank you for pointing this particularly example out. It is not one that I have spent time with and reflected upon so I must admit, I've missed the nuances you are trying to point out. Or I interpret the two sentences somewhat differently than might be spelled out here. Either way, it's obvious I have something to learn here.

But I would encourage you to consider the complementarity of the readings rather than to prefer a reading for this reason or that. After all, if there is ambiguity in the original (and it does seem to stem from that original) one may safely assume that the ambiguity is deliberate, intentional on the part of the Divine Author if not on the part of the human author, and meaningful.



Danny Garland Jr. said...

This doesn't have anything to do with the post, but I was wondering if you could recommend some books on Metaphysics and Philosophy of the Human Person for me. I have started Aquinas' Summa.