Can punctuation be anti-Jewish? At least one scholar thinks so. Frank Gilliard has argued that a single comma gave generations of Christians a very wrong impression of the Jewish people, tragically leading to much antisemitism throughout history. In 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15, most English translations have something along the lines of “…the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out” (NASB). That sounds like an extremely strong anti-Jewish statement. But what if there should be no comma after the word “Jews”?

Ancient texts were almost always written without punctuation. Any commas, periods, question marks, and the like represent later additions by editors and translators. The choice of punctuation can make a big difference for the meaning of a sentence. If someone writes, “We must oppose the judges who take bribes,” this sounds like a good and principled stand in favor of justice and against a minority of corrupt judges. But if someone else writes, “We must oppose the judges, who take bribes,” the use of the comma implies that all the judges are corrupt and must be resisted. (In grammatical terms this is known as the difference between a restrictive and a nonrestrictive clause.)

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In addition to what Gilliard called “the antisemitic comma,” many translations of 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15 have another problem, too. The context strongly suggests that “Judeans” would be a more appropriate translation than “Jews.” The NKJV does make this adjustment, but still paints the whole group with the same broad brush: “…the Judeans, who killed both the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us.” David Matson has proposed to fix both problems at once in the following way: “…the Judeans who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets.” The Messianic Writings version uses a different kind of comma to try to show that the text is speaking only of some people in Judea: “…the Judeans, those who killed both the Lord Yeshua and the prophets, and drove us out.” Perhaps the clearest way to express this would be: “…those [particular] Judeans who killed…”

According to the Gospels, most Jews – and most Judeans – strongly supported Jesus/Yeshua of Nazareth, while a tiny minority wanted him killed. Losing sight of this fact, later editors and translators often produced texts that made readers think instead that the entire Jewish people had murdered this “powerful prophet” (Luke 24:19). The claim that “the Jews killed Christ” then fed into anti-Jewish hatred and violence across the globe for many centuries. In this day and age, many traditional translations and theologies are slowly being corrected, and perhaps even the “antisemitic comma” will soon be a thing of the past!

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36 COMMENTS

  1. What a brilliant insight into what such a subtle thing as a comma can do to create a major difficulty. Thank you Dr. Schaser.

  2. This comma problem also pops up in the New Testament – translated of course from Greek rather than Hebrew.
    For example, in Ephesians 4; 11& 12: KJV 11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ:
    In verse 12, the comma after “saints” should not be there. Many modern translations appear to have sorted this one, but many people still only read KJV.

    • Thanks for the comment, Ashley. I haven’t looked specifically at this verse, but for sure there are multiple such places where commas and other seemingly miniscule choices can have big effects!

  3. My understanding has always been that only some Jews etc.
    Also I was taught that on the cross: Our Lord Jesus said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”.
    I am sure that whoever they were they were forgiven. If our Lord forgave then who are we to hold a grudge.
    We cannot be anti-Semitic ever. Our Lord was Jewish. The world hates the Jewish people because
    They hate the one true G-d.

  4. Sangat mendasar sebuah koma bisa menunjukan sebagian atau keseluruhan, sebuah didikan yang sangat baik bahwa memang perlu mengerti injil lebih dalam, hanya sebagian besar yahudi yang turut membunuh Tuhan sebagian kecilnya malah mengakui Ia mesias, terima kasih prof.

  5. While I understand the rationale my question would be what prophets that group of Judeans had killed? I think the comma explanation would only make sense if that group had killed both Christ and other prophets. I think by incorporating the prophets as well there is a more historical emphasis in that statement.

    A better argument would be Psalm 2 which has the leaders of all the nations reviling against the Lord’s anointed.

    • It’s a good question, Chris. This statement sounds related to a saying that may have been current in the first century, i.e., the idea that prophets meet their death in Jerusalem (the capital of Judea). Historically speaking, this was not true for every single prophet, of course; but the saying makes a point. Its implication seems to be that ruling authorities don’t like prophets who challenge them — which fits in very well with the portrayal in the Gospels (as well as with most human history everywhere in the world). See Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:33-34; compare Matt. 14:3-5; Mark 6:14-29.

    • It’s important also to recognize the main sense of the verse in 1Thess. Shaul/Paul and his co-authors are saying that a subset of people in Thessaloniki have suffered at the hands of “countrymen” (συμφυλετῶν, i.e., people of the same tribe/region/polity/etc.), and that the same thing has also happened in Judea (some Judeans have been persecuted by other Judeans).

  6. I’ve been studying deeper now for about 12 years and I agree that punctuation causes alot of problems with how the text is understood. I tend to take verses now and remove punctuation and reread them. What a difference it makes with understanding the entire context of verses before and after.

  7. Christians do not hate the Jews nor blame them for the death of Jesus. The Messiah came to bring redemption to all, his death was for ordained from the beginning, the ‘Jews’ were just the instrument the Father used. Christians love all people, it’s what was commanded of them. And Christians are proud of the Jewish heritage they inherit and the words of inspiration in the ‘Jewish’ scriptures.

  8. I do believe that Tyndale and the King James translators were Godly men and trust their translation. The Lord Jesus was delivered up for envy. What were the religeous leaders envious of? Wasnt it because more people were following the Lord Jesus than looked up to them Mark 15v10? It is also stated that “No man takes His life but that He lays down His life for the sheep John 10v17-18. There is no place for anti semitism or any other race hate in Scripture. Thank you for your Post.

    • Thanks for the comment, Colin. No translation (or translator, including yours truly) is perfect. However, Tyndale was indeed very conscientious. If the KJV translators had adopted his entire version (instead of copying “only” 80% of it), very many of the anti-Jewish errors would have been avoided! The treatment of Tyndale and his translation is therefore a great travesty and tragedy of history.

  9. very interesting article. I have long known that it was the sanhedren, the priests of the Temple who wanted Jesus dead with the exception of one, who was a follower.

  10. Jews didn’t torture or kill Jesus. On the Roman occupiers could do things like that. Jesus was given a fair trial by the Sanhedrin and chose not to defend Himself,and was turned over to the Romans who convicted him as being “King of the Jews.” IN the Roman empire there was only the deified Emperor was supreme and no kings. Anyone claiming to have higher power than the Emperor was a rebel and traitor and could be crucified. In any case Jesus forgave his people who “know not what they do” from the cross. The Romans crucified thouands of Jews.

  11. In the O.T: I also think that the scripture should read “When the enemy comes in, like a flood the LORD will raise up a Standard”. IMO, This scripture is routinely mistranslated.

    • While there may be many instances of erroneous punctuation, in the case of Isaiah 59:19 the Hebrew syntax does not really allow the exact interpretation you suggest. (כי־יבוא כנהר צר lit., “for comes like a river narrow/adversary/distress”). Yet this verse is a good example of a Biblical Hebrew text that can be read in very diverse ways:
      KJV: When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD shall lift up a standard against him.
      JPS: For distress will come in like a flood, Which the breath of the LORD driveth.
      NJPS: For He shall come like a hemmed-in stream / Which the wind of the Lord drives on.

  12. Your teachings opens my eyes to so many truths & changed my perspective. Limited translations nearly led me astray. Using simple language & ancient Jewish traditions makes it easier for me to understand. I need to enroll with my wife. Shalom.

  13. This was not a majority vote but marked as the whole race of Jewish people…
    This reminds me also Exodus with the golden gulf and Aaron when he said ”These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” God cursed all of them not because everybody became idolatrous but because the rest did not do anything to stop them.

    • Thanks for the comment, Giorgos. Actually, the Golden Calf episode is described in almost opposite terms to the case of Yeshua/Jesus. In Exodus 32, it is “the people” (העם) who want a new god and ask the leadership (headed by Aaron) to make one. In the Gospels, by contrast, the people/multitudes overwhelmingly support the young rabbi Yeshua, but certain groups of leaders want to get rid of him. Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “marked as the whole race of Jewish people.”

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