Luke 11:2 Codex Sinaiticus
By Spencer D Gear PhD
It’s not unusual to meet people in the Christian church who don’t understand one of the fundamentals of New Testament Greek. Whether the early Greek manuscripts used uncials (capital letters) or cursives (running writing), there were no marked sentences like English with punctuation marks.
I made this statement on a Christian forum, ‘NT Greek uses no sentences as we understand in English’. This is not stated as well as it should have been. I should have said: There are no punctuation marks like we have for English sentences and words are run together with no space between them. So, there are no clearly marked sentences as in English.
Somebody came back to me with this objection:
Who told you this? It’s wrong. NT Greek most certainly does use sentence structures that are understandable in English.
What are the facts about Greek manuscripts?
My reply included the following details. The facts are that there are no punctuation marks in Greek manuscripts and words are joined together. Sentence structure is based on Greek grammar and syntax. How do I know? I’m a teacher of NT Greek and have studied the Greek language quite intensely.
Matthew 6:4-32 (Codex Sinaiticus) (Courtesy Wikipedia)
This website on ‘Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts, Part 1‘ by Micheal Palmer, stated it simply and clearly:
The ancient Greeks did not have any equivalent to our modern device of punctuation. Sentence punctuation was invented several centuries after the time of Christ. The oldest copies of both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament are written with no punctuation.
In addition, the ancient Greeks used no spaces between words or paragraphs. Texts were a continuous string of letters, with an occasional blank line inserted to mark the end of a major section, though even this was not always done.
They also had no equivalent to our lower case letters. Texts were written in all capitals [uncials, or all running writing known as cursive].
While this clearly creates some challenges for Bible translation, those challenge[s] are seldom very large. As a simple test, try reading the English text in the following line:
With very little difficulty you can probably tell where the spaces should be and what kind of punctuation belongs at the end. You can tell this because you are a native speaker of the language in which the text is written, so you can easily recognize the words as well as the implication of the word order. Native speakers of Ancient Greek, in the same way, could recognize where one word ended and another began even though the spaces were not written. They could also distinguish a question from a direct statement without the need of punctuation.
Here’s the real problem: You and I are NOT native speakers of Ancient Greek.
While I read Ancient Greek quite well, I did not grow up speaking it. All modern scholars, including those who grew up speaking Modern Greek, are in this same situation.
Micheal has added two further articles by way of explanation of punctuation in the Greek language:
- Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts, Part II
- Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts, Part III (Quotations)
The first of these additional articles contains a copy of a portion of Codex Sinaiticus:
Philippians 2:1-2, Codex Sinaiticus
(Courtesy Micheal Palmer)
As a Greek teacher and student, I am blessed by Michael Palmer and other scholars who have gone the extra mile to provide us free online material with simple explanations of what could be complicated for the laity to understand.
Another assessment of the punctuation of the The Greek New Testament states:
It is important for the reader to keep in mind the lateness of some of the editorial devices. The earliest uncial manuscripts were even without breaks between the words. Breathings, accents, and punctuation marks-which often greatly influence the translation-are later editorial additions and should be treated as such.
We know this is so as a copy of Codex Vaticanus of the Gospels demonstrates:
Luke 17:34-18:8 (Codex Vaticanus 354)
(Courtesy Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Vaticanus_354)
We know that punctuation was brought in over time in bits and pieces but not in the early days of Greek manuscripts. One of the great Greek grammarians of the 20th century, Dr. A. T. Robertson, in his massive, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (1934) explained the nature of Greek sentences:
The oldest inscriptions and papyri show few signs of punctuation between sentences or clauses in a sentence, though punctuation by points does appear on some of the ancient inscriptions. In the Artemisia papyrus the double point [:] occasionally ends the sentence. It was Aristophanes of Byzantium (260 B.C.) who is credited with inventing a more regular system of sentence punctuation which was further developed by the Alexandrian grammarians. As a rule all the sentences, like the words, ran into one another in an unbroken line (scriptura continua), but finally three stops were provided for the sentence by the use of the full point (Robertson 1934:242, emphasis added).
Gospel of Matthew 8:1-10 in Vaticanus 354
In spite of the objection from the person ignorant of these basics on an Internet Christian forum, the facts remain that in the early Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, it was a general rule that all of the words and sentences ran into each other in an unbroken line. There were no spaces between words, so this meant that it was rare to indicate the end of a sentence. Occasionally there was a clue of the end of a paragraph with a spare line or some other mark.
It’s a shame that people don’t become informed about the writing of the early New Testament koine Greek language before expressing their ignorance on an Internet Christian forum.
Robertson, A T 1934. A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman Press.
 OzSpen#12, ‘The reason you cant lose your salvation is?’ ChristianForums.net, available at: http://christianforums.net/Fellowship/index.php?threads/the-reason-you-cant-lose-your-salvation-is.54780/ (Accessed 29 July 2014).
 Ibid., chessman#13.
 Ibid., OzSpen#22.
 Micheal (correct spelling) originally wrote this on 27 December, 2010.
Copyright © 2015 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 20 November 2015.