Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts, Part I

Recognizing that readers of this blog represent various levels of competence in reading Ancient Greek and levels of familiarity with Hellenistic Greek texts, I am posting an email I wrote to a user of Greek-Language.com back in 2005 in response to the question, “Did Ancient Greek use punctuation?” If you already know the answer to that question, just skip this post! (Or better yet, comment!)

On Mon, August 29, 2005 I wrote:

Dear __________:

Thank you for your letter. Your question is an interesting and important one, and we have considerable evidence with which to answer it.

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.

While this clearly creates some challenges for Bible translation, those challenge are seldom very large. As a simple test, try reading the English text in the following line:

WHATDOESTHISSAY

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.

When there is more than one possible way of dividing the words in a sentence or paragraph, or when there is more than one possible set of punctuation, we must look for clues as to what the author intended in order to correctly determine which is the correct division and what punctuation the author would have used if it had been available.

Of course there is an element of subjectivity in this process, but many scholars have dedicated the better part of their lives to reading the Biblical documents in the original languages and have come to have a good sense of the style and preferences of each author. As we develop this skill, it becomes easier to see what the author would most likely have intended in each of the few places where a sentence could be divided more than one way.

If you do not read Ancient Greek and Hebrew, it is important to compare various translations to see what the options for punctuation might be. Then you should ask yourself which punctuation results in something that the author would most likely have said. This may not always provide you with the correct answer, but it will be a valuable learning experience.

Thank you again for your letter. I wish you well in your studies.

Micheal W. Palmer
Greek Language and Linguistics Gateway
http://greek-language.com

 

Since the writing of this post on December 27, 2010, two other discussions of the lack of punctuation in Ancient Greek have been posted. You can find them by following the links below:

A third topic tangentially related to this one is available here:

 

17 thoughts on “Punctuation in Ancient Greek Texts, Part I”

  1. I thank you for this enlightening description of ancient greek and hebrew writings. I thought you might like to know in the first paragraph after WHATDOESTHISSAY you used the word “form” and I believe you intended to say “from”.

    1. I would like to publicly thank Gary McGill for pointing out a typographical error in this post. I greatly appreciate diligent readers who bring such things to my attention. It makes the blog better for everyone.

      I have corrected the mistake. If any of you see more, please don’t be shy about pointing them out! If you don’t want to do that in a public comment, you can always click on the “Questions” link at the top of the page and post your correction privately.

  2. I thank you for your information on Greek punctuation.
    I am having a Bible discussion over Jesus words found at Luke 23:43 where Jesus says to the evildoer “Truly I tell you today you will be with me in paradise.” The comma placed on either side of the word today changes the entire teaching.

    Concerning Jesus words at John 3:13 where he states “No man has ascended into heaven, but he that desended from heaven, the son of man.” We know Jesus spent three days in hell and did not ascend to heaven until 40 days later.
    The evildoer could not have ascended to heaven prior to Jesus. NO ONE HAD.

    Wow! So much responsibility in translating Greek to English in God’s Word, where JUST ONE comma can change an entire doctrine.

  3. I don’t know Greek. I have a question about Biblical Greek, which often strikes me as ugly in literal translation. I was just reading Colossians in English and wondered whether most of the “and”‘s in it ought to be translated by periods. In other words: is the Greek word kai actually mean NEW SENTENCE?

    3:13 Forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have aquarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.
    3:14 And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.
    3:15 And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also yeare called in one body; and be ye thankful.

  4. From what I’ve seen from P66 they are mostly high-dots with some lower-dots (similar amount to that of P75, but I have only lookd at the first couple of chapters but not very thoroughly). I haven’t noticed any mid-dots.

    Happy New Year to you also
    Joe

    1. Okay….

      Now that we’ve had some time for discussion, I think I could have been more careful in the way I composed that original email back in 2005. Here are some ways that I would revise it if I were writing today:

      Strikethrough indicates words or phrase I would delete.
      Bold indicates words I would add.

      The ancient earliest Greeks texts did not have any equivalent to our modern device of punctuation. Sentence punctuation was invented became common several centuries after the time of Christ. Most of the oldest copies of both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament are written with no punctuation, though a few manuscripts from the second and third centuries CE do contain early attempts to develop punctuation.

      In addition, the ancient Greeks used no spaces between words or paragraphs. Most 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.

      While this clearly creates some challenges for Bible translation, those challenge are seldom very large. As a simple test, try reading the English text in the following line:

      WHATDOESTHISSAY

      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 form 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.

      When there is more than one possible way of dividing the words in a sentence or paragraph, or when there is more than one possible set of punctuation, we must look for clues as to what the author intended in order to correctly determine which is the correct division and what punctuation the author would have used if it had been available.

      Of course there is an element of subjectivity in this process, but many scholars have dedicated the better part of their lives to reading the Biblical documents in the original languages and have come to have a good sense of the style and preferences of each author. As we develop this skill, it becomes easier to see what the author would most likely have intended in each of the few places where a sentence could be divided more than one way.

      If you do not read Ancient Greek and Hebrew, it is important to compare various translations to see what the options for punctuation might be. Then you should ask yourself which punctuation results in something that the author would most likely have said. This may not always provide you with the correct answer, but it will be a valuable learning experience.

      Thank you again for your letter. I wish you well in your studies.

      Micheal W. Palmer
      Greek Language and Linguistics Gateway

  5. Thank you very much, Joe, for going to the trouble to do the comparison with P66. Do you know if it has any mid-hight dots? I am only aware of high dots at the end of sentences and double points at the end of sections. Like P75, though, it’s fairly clear that this is one of the early attempts to introduce punctuation. Notice that the dots in these early manuscripts do not match later Greek punctuation where the sentence-final dot is low, and the raised dot is used more like a colon or semicolon.

    My own interest in this issue is not so much text critical as it is an interest in the development of the language. I wish you well in your studies. Have a wonderful New Year!

  6. Hi Michael
    I have looked at P75 (P. Bodmer XIV-XV) a third century mss and noticed a number of high dot punctuation marks. As far as I can tell they seem to correspond to our full stop. There are also some middle dots (possibly equivalent to our comma) and low dots (possibly equivalent to our semi-colon)? Though these are on a lesser scale than the high dots. How does one account for these if punctuations were not the norm?
    Kindest regards,
    Joe

    1. Thanks for your comment, Joe.

      Can you give a little more specific information? Where in the text of P75 (P. Bodmer XIV-XV) did you find these dots? I have looked at a good portion of the manuscript and have not been able to find them.

      If you can tell me exactly where you’ve seen them, I’ll be glad to comment on what they’re doing there. So far, it looks to me just like other manuscripts of its period—no punctuation. I’ll be glad to reconsider, though, if you can tell me where to find the dots.

      By the way… there are some decent images of this manuscript online in the form of a slideshow at http://multiply.com/slideshow/chrles:photos:53/1. You can increase the size of the images by clicking “settings”.

      1. Thanks for your reply Micheal

        I’ll use Lk 24 as an example starting at folio 42v Line 10. Here is a summary of the notes I took after viewing the photographs of Martin and Kasser’s edition. I also checked these with the University of Munster’s INTF.

        High-dot (stigme teleia, “final dot”) corresponds to our full-stop. Signifies complete thought. Found at Lk 24:1 (Line 12), 3 (L 15), 4 (2 times; L 16, 18), 5 (L 20), 6 (L 22), 10 (L 32), 12 (2 times; L 37, 38), 13 (L 41), 14 (L 43), 15 (F 43r; L 3), 16 (L 4), 17 (2 times? One may be a middle-dot? L 6, 7), 18 (L 8), 19 (3 times; L 11, 13, 14), 20 (L 17), 21 (L 19, may be a middle-dot?), 23 (L 26, may be a middle-dot?), 24 (L 28), 25 (2 times; L 29, 31), 26 (L 33), 27 (L 37), 28 (L 39), 29 (2 times?; L 40, 42?), 30 (3 times; L 44, 45), 31 (F 43v; L 3), 32 (L 6), 33 (L 7, may be a middle-dot?), 35 (2 times; L 12), 37 (L 15, may be a middle-dot), 38 (L 18), 39 (2 times; L 19, 21), 40 (L 23), 41 (2 times; L 24, 25), 42 (L 27), 43 (L 28), 45 (L 34), 46 (L 36), 47 (L 39, 40), 48 (L 40), 49 (L 41), 50 (L 45) & 51 (F 44r; L 3).

        Low dot (hypostigme, “underdot”) corresponding to our semicolon. Signifies thought not yet complete. Found at 24:15 (F 43r, L 2), 19 (L 12), 28 (L 38), 36 (F 43v; L 12), 46 (L 35) & 52 (F 44r, L 4).

        Middle-dot (stigma mese, “middle-dot”) corresponds to our comma. Sign for breath. See above for Lk 24: 17, 21, 23, 33 & 37.

        These dots mark out sense-units. This seems to me the obvious conclusion after looking at their positioning. Sometimes these high-dots make the sense-units confusing. I noticed one such example in Lk 22:39 (F 40r, L 3, 4). Here the high-dot turns the disciples that leave the Passover meal with Jesus into two groups when it should be one.

        At least that is how the dots look like me. Otherwise I have no idea of their purpose.

        Any insights you can share will be greatly appreciated.

        Kindest regards,
        Joe

        1. Thank you for the references. I’ll take another look at the manuscript and respond soon.

          Update (late Thursday evening): I’ll have to get back to this tomorrow. Some unexpected demands on my time prevented me from looking at the text today.

        2. Unfortunately, I do not have a very good copy of P75. I’m relying on the images online, so I can’t see as well as you can, but I do see many of the points you mention. What follows are some reflections on what the significance of their presence in this early manuscript could mean.

          First, we should note how unusual the presence of these markings is for the period.

          Second, it is significant that P75 bears a close relationship to Codex Vaticanus (often called simply B). These two manuscripts are too similar for most text critics to see them as representing unrelated text traditions, yet B lacks punctuation.

          Third, P75 is clearly older than B.

          Fourth, while the two have amazingly close readings, there are enough minor differences to make it clear that the copyist who produced B did not copy from P75. It is more likely that the two are both copies of an earlier manuscript, each introducing minor differences.

          Fourth, it is unlikely that the common ancestor of these two manuscripts contained the dots we see in P75. It is more likely that P75 introduced them than that B eliminated them.

          Preliminary Conclusion:

          If we can rule out the possibility that the dots were added by a later hand, then P75 must represent a very early attempt to introduce rudimentary punctuation.

          The poor quality of the images I have at my disposal do not allow me to rule out that possibility, though. Perhaps you can help us here.

          1. Looking at the rudimentary punctuation in P75 many seem to mark out complete thought, though some seem to subdivide these thoughts into smaller units. This is also what the Introduction to Martin and Kasser’s edition seems to say (p. 16), I think. (Unfortunately for me it is in French, not my strongest point). Occasionally the subdivisions make the reading more confusing (Lk 22:39). What is interesting with this verse is that Martin and Kasser do not record the high-dot, neither do Comfort and Barrett. INTF record the high and the photograph copy I have clearly shows it so I accept INTF here. The passage in question reads here ηκολουθησαν δε αυτω· και οι μαθηται· This leads me to a translation question if you don’t mind me asking. The scribe may have made an error in the division of these sense-units. But can the last sense-unit be translated “and these are disciples.”? If so, the scribe may be trying to say that those who follow Jesus are his disciples. This would make much sense if P75 was transcribed for a monastic community like the Pachomian one.

            Back to the dots: The dots do not seem to have been added in later by another hand. There is enough space between letters to show that the dots were not squeezed in.

            It is hard to tell whether some dots are high or mid height. In relation to this, if I have understood Martin and Kasser here, they seem to think that when the manuscript was transcribed, the scribe attempted to carefully represent the different positions clearly as possible, but must have been unsure of the height (p. 16). This would insinuate that the exemplar of P75 also had these dots, therefore not the creation of P75. Someone who is more fluent in French than me should check this reference to see if it is correct.

            I tend to think that the scribe added these dots. I think that the dots reveal the emphasis of the scribe.

            I also did a small comparison between P66 and P75 at the beginning of John’s Gospel. P66 also include the dots, some of which are in the same position as P75, but not all. P75 is not the only papyrus manuscript with these types of punctuation marks. There are others.

            Emmanuel Tov does note the existence of such marks in the “Appendix” of Features of Early Greek Scripture. This can be viewed here http://pa-john.freehostia.com/AG/Tov-ScribalPractices.html#s02. I also found this http://www.tlg.uci.edu/~opoudjis/unicode/punctuation.html.

            That’s exhausted my thinking of the issue. If there is any info you can add at any point of time it will be greatly appreciated.

            regards,
            Joe

            p.s. I love your site. I’m getting much out of it.

What do you think? Leave a reply.