And Jesus said to him, “Truly I say to you, Today you will be with Me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43 J. Green translation
Today – When do we get to heaven? While the question certainly isn’t on the top shelf from a biblical point of view, evangelical Christianity seems to suggest that the answer to this question is of great importance. The long-held tradition that we arrive at the pearly gates the very instant our physical bodies cease functioning in this world is a sacred cow for most believers. Therefore, when we notice that first century Jewish thinking considers death as a long sleep before Judgment Day, we point to a verse like this one and claim that our loved ones aren’t sleeping in the grave. They are already with the Lord awaiting our arrival or His return.
But what happens if we move the comma?
Neither Greek nor Hebrew have punctuation. Added commas help English readers, but where to put the comma is the decision of the translator, not a reflection of the text. What happens to our sacred cow belief if the comma is moved like this: “Truly I say to you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” Ah, yes, things change, don’t they?
What justification do we have for suggesting that the comma might be in the wrong place? After all, when Yeshua speaks an opening line like “Truly I say to you,” the comma usually follows immediately. To justify moving it we need to look at both the Greek text and the likely Hebrew equivalent.
In the Greek text, the literal translation reads, “Amen I say to you today with me you will be in Paradise.” In Greek the non-existent comma could be added in either position. The statement to the crucified man makes just as much contextual sense either way. In Hebrew, things are slightly different. In the Hebrew Delitzsch Gospels, the text reads “and speaking Yeshua to him Amen say I to you the day will be with me in Gan-Eden.” You’ll notice that the word for today includes the definite article (ha-yom), rendered “this day.” The amen is the signal that something very significant follows. But there is still no compelling reason to conclude that Yeshua didn’t say, “I say to you this day,” rather than “I say to you, this day.” In other words, the only reason to add the comma between “you” and “this day” is a prior theological belief that Paradise is the immediate consequence of death. But that prior theological belief isn’t in the text and it doesn’t seem to be a part of the first century Jewish understanding of heaven. If we read the verse in its first century Jewish context, we can rightly conclude that Yeshua would have intended that the man would sleep until the day of Judgment, just like all other men.
There is just one more thing. The Hebrew ha-yom could also be rendered “that day.” If this is the correct translation, then Yeshua assures him that on that day, he will enter Gan-Eden. He will not be cut off. And this, of course, fits the Jewish context.
What can we conclude? It’s simple. Commas do not make doctrines. We must be far more careful to read the text in its own context rather than adding ours. Does this make you wonder how many of your theological beliefs depend on punctuation?
Topical Index: comma, punctuation, today, ha-yom, heaven, Luke 23:43