The Significance of a Comma: An Analysis of Luke 23:43
Jesus’ promise to the “good” thief on the cross—“‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (NRSV)—is often taken as major proof of the immortality of the soul; that is, the belief that the spirit or soul of the faithful dead has conscious existence in heaven before the resurrection. Yet not all are convinced Jesus really told the penitent criminal they would be together in Paradise that very day.
The whole problem hangs on a single comma, most likely absent from Luke’s original manuscript. With the comma placed before “today” (sēmeron), as most translations do, the adverb would refer to the following verb (“to be”), and the text would have the traditional meaning: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”1 But if placed after “today,” then the adverb would modify the preceding verb (“to tell”), and Jesus’ words would have an entirely different connotation: “Truly I tell you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Though sometimes considered pleonastic and senseless,2 the alternative reading could be possible, especially if all the evidence—textual, linguistic, and scriptural—is accounted for.
What does the evidence teach us about the proper meaning of that text?
In the early Christian centuries, New Testament (NT) manuscripts were written without separation between words and sentences; little or no punctuation was used to indicate how the text should be read. The comma, for example, was introduced as late as the ninth century; before that, short pauses were sometimes indicated by means of a point on the line ( . ), while full stops were indicated by a high point ( ˙ ). Though no NT autograph has survived, most likely originally Luke 23:43 had no punctuation of any kind, as Papyrus Bodmer XIV-XV (or simply P75) seems to demonstrate. Written at the beginning of the third century, P75 is our oldest copy of Luke and it has no point either before or after sēmeron in our passage, though some punctuation can be found here and there.
Punctuation marks, therefore, are not an integral part of the canonical text. In fact, they reveal only how the text was read and understood by those who copied it. So, when Luke 23:43 was punctuated, the comma was placed before sēmeron not for grammatical reasons, but for the theological conviction prevailing at the time that the final reward of the faithful who die comes immediately after death. Sometimes the scribes also rephrased the text in order to make its meaning supposedly clearer. This is how the word that (hoti) became part of Jesus’ statement. “That” was not in the original but was added before the adverb (“Truly I tell you that today . . .”) under the assumption that this is what Jesus meant; this addition appears in a number of medieval Greek manuscripts as well as in several ancient and modern translations.
We find it interesting, however, that the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, “one of the most valuable of all the manuscripts of the Greek Bible”3and a close relative of P75 textually speaking,4 has a point on the line right after, not before, the adverb sēmeron. Because the manuscript also has some sparse accidental dots or inkblots, this could well be the case of the point in our passage; but the fact that the point is right on the line and equidistant from the two adjacent words greatly reduces the chances of an accident. Yet we find it difficult to know whether this point goes back to the original scribe or was added at a later time, which seems more probable.5 At any rate, Codex Vaticanus has a point after sēmeron, and the manuscript shows no attempt to have it removed or corrected by any of its readers.
Notwithstanding, even if this evidence is inconclusive, there is no question that important segments in the Christian church read the adverb “today” with the preceding verb (“to tell”). Another example is the Greek minuscule manuscript 339, from the thirteenth century, that not only has a point after sēmeron but also has left enough space before the next word so as to make the thesis of an accident virtually impossible. In addition, there are several other medieval punctuated manuscripts that simply leave this passage as it is, without any punctuation mark,6 though the rule was to place a point or comma before the adverb. The alternative reading (“Truly I tell you today . . .”) is also found in the Curetonian Syriac, one of the earliest translations of the NT whose text goes back to the second century. Among the church writers, this reading was also attested by Ephraem the Syrian, of the fourth century,7 as well as Cassian and Hesychius, of the fifth century. Though Cassian and Hesychius themselves preferred to link “today” with the verb “to be,” they explicitly refer to those who used to read the adverb with the verb “to tell” as heretics.8 At last, the alternative reading is also found in two independent apocryphal works, probably from the fourth century, if not earlier—the Acts of Pilate and Christ’s Descent Into Hell. These works, known in three slightly different versions, both in Greek and Latin were united about the fifth century and, from the thirteenth century onwards, have sometimes been called the Gospel of Nicodemus.9
None of this evidence establishes Luke’s original punctuation or demonstrates that the alternative reading was predominant in ancient and medieval Christianity; it was not.10 But together they do show that the attempt to link the adverb “today” with the preceding verb did have notable supporters in Christian history, thus allowing the possibility that this was, in fact, what Luke meant.
In Greek, there is no specific rule concerning the position of the adverb, whether before or after the verb.11 Thus, from the grammatical standpoint we find it impossible to determine if sēmeron in Luke 23:43 modifies the preceding verb (“to tell”) or the following one (“to be”). Luke, however, has a definite tendency of using this adverb with the preceding verb. This happens in 14 of the 20 occurrences of sēmeron in Luke and Acts (Luke 2:11; 5:26; 12:28; 13:32, 33; 22:34, 61; Acts 19:40; 20:26; 22:3; 24:21; 26:2, 29; 27:33).12 Of the five uses of the adverb with the following verb, one is a quotation from Psalm 2:7 (Acts 13:33), and, in three cases, sēmeron is preceded by a conjunction (Luke 4:21; 19:5, 9),13 which makes such a construction inevitable. That is, there is only one example in Luke’s writings in which sēmeron was freely placed before the verb (Acts 4:9). The attempt to read the adverb in Luke 23:43 in connection to the preceding verb, therefore, is not only fully acceptable in terms of grammar but is also in complete agreement with Luke’s literary style.
A recurrent argument suggests that such a reading cannot be correct for it would make Jesus’s statement pleonastic or even “grammatically senseless.”14 This might be true as far as English and other modern languages are concerned, but the NT was written in Greek—not plain Greek, but sometimes a Greek stuffed with Semitic idioms. Luke’s Greek fit into this category, especially in the Gospel, despite the fact that he himself was not a Jew (see Col. 4:10–14). And it has long been demonstrated that the use of “today” with a preceding verb to introduce or close a statement is nothing but a Semitic idiom intended to intensify the significance and solemnity of the statement that either will follow or has just been made.15
In fact, this idiom is rather common in Scripture, especially in Deuteronomy, where there are more than 40 examples of expressions such as, “I teach you today” (4:1), “I set before you today” (11:26), “I give you today” (28:13), “I command you today” (6:6; 7:11; 12:32), “I testify against you today” (8:19), and “I declare you today” (30:18; cf., 4:26; 30:19; 32:46; Acts 20:26; 26:2).16 In the case of Luke, this and other biblical idioms would have come to him through the influence of the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament extensively used by the early Christians. We find it worth mentioning that “ninety percent of Luke’s vocabulary is found” in the Septuagint.17
To help establish the meaning of Jesus’ statement on the cross, we acknowledge the importance of considering the overall biblical teaching concerning the time when the saved will receive their reward in Paradise. By “Paradise,” there should be no question that Jesus meant heaven (2 Cor. 12:2–4) or the eternal habitation of the redeemed in the New Jerusalem in which the tree of life and the throne of God will be found (Rev. 2:7; 22:1–5).18 In another passage, Jesus refers to the many dwelling places in God’s house and to the time when He will come again to take His own to Himself (John 14:1–3). Only then will He invite His followers to inherit the kingdom prepared for them since the beginning of the world (Matt. 25:31–34). This event will be a glorious moment of reunion in which the final and complete celebration of deliverance from sin will take place (Luke 22:14–18).
Paul teaches that the believers who die will come forth from their graves at Jesus’ second coming (1 Cor. 15:20–23), and then the gift of immortality will be bestowed on them (vv. 51–55). He never tries to comfort the living by saying that the deceased are already with Jesus in heaven. On the contrary, he attempts to bring peace to their hearts by reminding them of the resurrection (1 Thess. 4:13– 18; cf. 2 Cor. 1:8–10; Phil. 3:8–11),19 and that only when Jesus comes again both the resurrected righteous and righteous living will be caught up together to meet Him in the air, and so they will be with Him forever (see 1 Thess. 4:17).
Besides, according to Paul, Jesus’ resurrection, not His death, gives the righteous any hope for life after death (1 Cor. 15:16–20; Rom. 10:9). How, then, does one make sense of the idea that Jesus had promised the thief that they would be together in Paradise that same day, especially because the Bible also clearly teaches that the day He died, Christ went into the grave (Luke 23:50–54; Acts 2:31, 32; 13:29–31)? To argue that only Christ’s body went into the grave while His spirit ascended to heaven20 is to ignore the fact that, early on the resurrection morning, He told Mary not to hold on to Him because He had not yet gone to the Father (John 20:17).
It does not seem appropriate, therefore, to conclude that Jesus promised the penitent thief that they would be together in Paradise the day they died. If the comma is placed before the adverb “today,” it becomes virtually impossible to reconcile the passage with what the Bible—and Jesus Himself—teaches concerning the time when the faithful dead get their final reward in heaven (cf. Luke 14:13, 14; 20:34–38; John 5:28, 29; 6:39, 40, 53–58). There is not a single instance in which the Bible writers try to comfort the believers by saying that the dead in Christ have already been taken to heaven. Comfort in the face of death is always related to the resurrection, not to the idea that at death the spirit or the soul is liberated from the body to be in God’s presence (cf. John 11:21–27; Rev. 20:6).
On the other hand, if we read “today” with the preceding verb, Jesus’ statement may indeed sound somewhat pleonastic in modern, Western languages, but this pleonasm becomes fully acceptable if understood as an idiomatic way to emphasize the significance of the announcement: “Truly, I tell you today . . .” Finally, there is also enough evidence that this way of understanding the passage is neither new nor illegitimate, as this shows exactly how important segments of the church understood it, even in a time when the belief on the immortality of the soul had already become predominant in Christianity. What the thief asked Jesus was to be remembered in His kingdom (Luke 23:42), and this is exactly what Jesus promised him, thus the dying man received peace and comfort. This is the great promise of the gospel—to be with Jesus forever (John 14:1–3; 1 Thess. 4:16, 17; Rev. 21:1–4).
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1 Unless otherwise noted, all emphasis has been added in Scripture quotations.
2 E.g., Anthony A. Hoekema, The Four Major Cults: Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormonism, Seventh-day Adventism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963), 353.
3 Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 67.
4 Careful textual analyses have convinced the great majority of NT scholars that, together with P75, Codex Vaticanus represents the form of the text that was in use in Alexandria before the end of the second century (ibid., 58, 59).
5 See Bruce M. Metzger, Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Palaeography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 74.
6 Examples are MSS 57 and 713, both from the twelfth century.
7 Ephraem quotes Luke 23:43 three times, each time omitting “today,” but he also says, “Our Lord shortened His distant liberalities and gave a near promise, ‘today’and not at the end.... Thus through a robber was paradise opened” (Moes., 244, 245). In another passage, he refers to the thief’s story by saying that his soul could not enter Paradise without the body because the righteous cannot, in fact, enter Paradise until the final resurrection (Hymn. Par. 8.11).
8 Cassian, Colat. 1.14; Hesychius, PG 93:1432, 1433.
9 The reading that connects “today” with “to tell” appears in the B-Greek version of Acts of Pilate (chap. 10), and in the Greek version of Christ’s Descent Into Hel (also chap. 10).
10 It is important to highlight, however, that all apostolic fathers and most Greek fathers up to the fourth century were conditionalists, that is, they did not believe in the immortality of the soul. For details, see Leroy Edwin Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1965), 1:758, 759.
11 “Word order in Greek and so in the NT is freer by far than in modern languages.” F. Blass and A. Debrunner, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans. and ed. Robert W. Funk (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), § 472.
12 In Luke 22:61, the position of sēmeron in relation to the verb must be settled on the basis of its unequivocal use in v. 34, and in Acts 27:33, the adverb must necessarily be read after an implicit “to be” (“Today is the fourteenth day”), as nearly all translations recognize.
13 The position of sēmeron in Luke 19:5 is explained by the fact that, contrary to hoti (4:21; 19:9), gar is postpositive, i.e., it normally takes the second position.
14 Robert A. Morey, Death and the Afterlife (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1984), 199–222, quoted in Erwin W. Lutzer, One Minute After You Die (Chicago: Moody, 1997), 51.
15 E. W. Bullinger, How to Enjoy the Bible, 4th ed. (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1916), 48. See also E. W. Bullinger, The Companion Bible (London: Oxford University Press, 1932), appendix 173.
16 To call this a “phantom idiom” just because none of the examples in Deuteronomy have the words “truly” (amēn) or “say” (legō), as Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman Jr. do (Sense and Nonsense About Heaven and Hell [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007], 58), is nothing but a tergiversation. What is idiomatic is the adverb “today” to enhance the solemnity of an announcement, not the other words.
17 Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 623.
18 In an attempt to reconcile the traditional interpretation of Luke 23:43 with the fact that Jesus does not ascend to heaven but only several days later, it has been argued that “Paradise” is not heaven but only the abode of the righteous as a separate compartment of hades, which would also have a compartment for the unrighteous (see Lutzer, One Minute After You Die, 138, 139). Some even suggest that since the resurrection and ascension of Christ, Paradise has been removed from hades to the third heaven mentioned in 2 Cor. 12:4 (H. A. Kent Jr., “Paradise,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984], 826, 827). To hold such claims, however, is to leave the realm of Scripture and to validate similar, traditional claims on the part of those who believe, e.g., in purgatory and limbo.
19 For a discussion on 2 Cor. 5:6–8 and Phil. 1:21–23, see Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny (Berrien Springs, MI: Biblical Perspectives, 1997), 178–186.
20 See Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Bible Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2011), 390.