In her 2004 bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, UK author Lynne Truss laments the demise of good punctuation. Her title is based on a joke about a panda who eats in a restaurant, then shoots the patrons. As the panda heads towards the exit, a surviving waiter, surveying the carnage, asks the panda: “Why did you do it?”
The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.
“Well, I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”
The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”
All joking aside, the effect of a misplaced comma truly can be disastrous.
Take one small comma in 1 Thessalonians chapter 2. In verses 14-16 we read:
14 For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews, 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out. They displease God and are hostile to all men 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last.
A straight reading of our English translation of the Greek text indicates that the Jews, as an entire people, killed Christ. The comma placed at the end of verse 14 makes the accusation clear.
But the original Greek has no comma. The text reads: “the churches suffered from the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus.”
Why was the insertion of the comma disastrous? Because this text has been used over the centuries to support the belief that the Jewish people as a whole were responsible for the death of Christ. This has led to the popular terms, “Christ Killers,” in the English-speaking world, and “Peuple Déïcide” (God-killing People) in the French-speaking world.
Many Christian commentators have also regarded the reference as an indictment of the Jewish nation as a whole. So for example John Stott states, concerning Jesus’ death, that “the Jewish people as a whole shared in the blame”1 Well known theologian Leon Morris, in his commentary on the book of Thessalonians, states that the Jews as a nation “have heaped up their sins to the limit”2 and then refers to “the Jews” as the persecutors and the Palestinians as those persecuted, as if the church in Judea was made up of non-Jews!3
These commentators seem to overlook the fact that members of the churches in Judea were Jews (Judeans). Paul is congratulating the persecuted Gentile Christians in Thessalonica4 for imitating the persecuted Jewish Christians in Judea. By overlooking the fact that the persecuted in Judea were Jews, commentators heap the blame of Christ’s death on the Jewish people as a whole.
Such statements also overlook how it was ordinary Jewish people who prevented the religious leaders from arresting Jesus (e.g., Luke 19:47-48). Even the religious Jews in Jerusalem were divided in their perceptions of Jesus (John 9:16). And so, it is not, as Morris claims, the Jews as a nation who “have heaped up their sins to the limit,” but some of the nation who “killed the Lord Jesus and the Prophets.”
So who are the persecuting “Jews” of verse 14? Remove both the comma and the verse number at the end of verse 15 (neither of which are found in the original Greek text) and the sentence becomes a clear indictment against “the Jews who killed the Lord Jesus” (that is, a group of Jewish religious leaders and their followers) rather than the nation as a whole. Contemporary commentators are now beginning to point this out.
Still, the misplaced comma and unfortunate verse break have done their damage. Most notably, the charge of deicide leveled at the Jewish people has been exploited by those seeking to “exterminate” the Jewish people, including the Nazis.
The misinterpretation of Scripture also emphasizes special responsibility for the death of Christ rather than His divine mission. This diminishes the purpose of Jesus sacrifice, and the fact that it was first and foremost God’s love for sinful humans, both Jewish and Gentile, that led Jesus to the Cross.
Finally, the poor punctuation in this passage maintains the well-worn lie that all Jewish people resisted the gospel and rejected Jesus in His day which, in turn, may support the notion that this same rejection is uniformly present among Jewish people today.
A faulty perception of the Jewish people can create obstacles to preaching the gospel. Christians who view Jews as uniformly and unchangeably opposed to the gospel are not likely to reach out to share their faith with them. In reality, Jewish people have a wide range of differing opinions and attitudes on various issues including the gospel.
It is true that the religion of Judaism is opposed to Jesus, but that religion does not prevent all Jews from considering the gospel. The fruitfulness of our ministry amongst “atheist” Jews in the former Soviet Union and the growing openness amongst secular Israelis bears witness to that. But we are also seeing religious Jews who are beginning to question what they have been taught concerning Jesus.
There is a Jewish expression: “The Jews are just like everyone else, only more so.” To view Jewish people as any other should liberate Christians to preach the gospel to Jewish people, and to do so with confidence, knowing that “the gospel is the power of salvation to all who believe, to the Jew first…”5
Stephen Pacht leads our work in Geneva, Switzerland.
1 BST on Thessalonians by John Stott (p. 56, 2000 Edition).
2 NICNT on Thessalonians by Leon Morris (p. 83 Revised Edition, 1991).
3 Ibid. p. 82
4 1 Thessalonians 1:9
5 Romans 1:16