The Difference a Comma Makes

Ryan Glomsrud
Friday, December 17th 2010
Jan/Feb 2011

There’s an old joke about a panda that walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. “Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes toward the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. “I’m a panda,” he says at the door. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black and white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.” (1)

Admittedly it’s not a very funny joke, but then what grammar joke ever is. The point is that punctuation does matter, for wildlife manuals and for Bible reading. In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we have an interesting interpretive question that arises over the placement of a colon. Mark 1:2-4 is translated and punctuated as follows in the English Standard Version:

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,'”

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness
and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for
the forgiveness of sins.

Nestled in verse 3 the English translation gives the impression that the voice crying’namely, John the Baptist’is crying in the wilderness, proclaiming his message and announcing the way of the Lord. This is an entirely plausible rendering of the original Greek, for in verse 4 we learn that John did in fact appear, “baptizing in the wilderness.” However, John the Baptist is actually quoting Isaiah 40:3, which places the colon differently in the English translation and has some relevance for how we understand Mark 1:13. Taking careful note of the placement of the colon, Isaiah 40:3 reads,

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Notice the difference? In Isaiah, the voice is crying, just as in Mark, although we don’t know precisely where the voice is crying. Because of the colon placement, we learn from Isaiah that it is the preparation of the way of the Lord that will happen in the wilderness; it is in the wilderness that the paths and desert highway will be made straight.

So which is it? Is it John the Baptist who is crying in the wilderness, or is John the Baptist crying: “Make straight the paths of the Lord in the wilderness”? We know because of Mark 1:4 that John was in fact in the wilderness, but because of Isaiah 40:3 there is good reason to think that John’s message was that Jesus would prepare the way and make straight paths in the wilderness. We later learn that this prophecy from Isaiah and bold announcement from John comes true in Mark 1:12-13 when “the Spirit immediately drove him [Jesus] out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.”

What does it mean to make paths straight? Where Israel had disobeyed, struggled, doubted, and wandered in the desert for forty years, now Jesus the Messiah makes straight their crooked paths through victory over Satan and in his wilderness temptation.

1 [ Back ] The panda anecdote was taken from the British best-seller by Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Gotham Books, 2003).
Friday, December 17th 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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