Sunday 4 April 2010

Jesus, Bulgarian Revolutionaries and the Life and Death Nature of Commas

Commas can destroy or save cities and raise (or lower) the dead. According to Luke's Gospel, the following bit of banter occurred amongst the crucified 1,977 years ago.

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.
And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.


Verily I say unto thee today, Thou shalt be with me in paradise

The difference is rather important. You see, there are two basic Christian ways of looking at eternal life. 1) You die and your soul pops up to Heaven 2) You die. You're put in the ground. You lie there until Jesus comes again and then your body is resurrected at the last day.

That comma, is the difference. Is Jesus saying today that etc etc, or is Jesus saying that Today etc etc?

Unfortunately the Greek of the time didn't have punctuation as we would understand it and so the entire question of the nature of eternal life is lost to us, because of a lack of commas.

134 years ago this April, the Bulgarians rose up against Ottoman rule. The rebellion was put down with horrid violence. In Bulgaria's second city of Plovdiv 15,000 civilians were massacred. An order was sent by the Ottoman high command to be even nastier to the citizens of Pazardzhik. The order read "Burn the town, not spare it", which would have left 25,000 people dead, or at least homeless. However, a sympathetic clerk who understood the tactical importance of commas changed the command to "Burn the town not, spare it." and thousands of lives were therefore saved from peremptory combustion.

All of which goes to show that a well placed comma can kill, save, or explain the mystery of eternal life.

Would have been burned

P.S. Sir John Harington, top poet and inventor of the first flushing lavatory (which he wrote a poem about), sent a present to James VI of Scotland, just before he became James I of England quoting that passage from Luke: "Remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom."


  1. Two of the very best - and most entertaining - examples of the importance of punctuation. You're very good.

  2. It reminds me of that old one.

    A woman, without her man, is nothing.
    A woman: without her, man is nothing.

  3. Perhaps we underestimate Jesus. He did, after all, have the comma touch.

  4. If we're not careful, commas and all other punctuation (not to mention capital letters) will be eschewed by the hoi polloi and all writing will become drivelling least on some blog pages...present company excepted.

  5. As I see it, neither of these stories have anything to do with commas. The lack of commas in Ancient Greek isn't the issue. The issue is, is that English translation accurate or not?

    And that order to burn the town would not have even been written in English, so the presence or absence of a comma would not have the same effect.

  6. "Let me call you Sweetheart."

    "Let me call you, Sweetheart?"

  7. Just discovered your blog thanks to Joel's How to Write Badly Well.
    Great post!