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.)

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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14 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.

    • Hi Rob, I agree that this is a brilliant insight… I wish I had been the one to make it 🙂 The above article was actually written by our Professor of Jewish History, Dr. Shaya Gruber — he’s a very bright guy!

    • Thank you both for your very generous comments! I’m only the messenger here; the brilliant insight is Gilliard’s.

      • He was crucified by Jewish (Judean) leadership. True, this was not a majority vote but marked as the whole race of Jewish people agreed. There are many things that Trump is doing that a majority of the American people do not agree with. He speaks and act as the leader of the nation. They crucified Christ, it was not the majority but an act of G_d. Nothing happens without His approval to work out the end. There is an end ladies and Gentlemen!

        • James, thanks for commenting. It’s worth noting that crucifixion was a Roman (not Jewish) form of execution, and that only the Romans could have carried out this execution. The Jewish leadership explicitly had no such authority, even according to what many consider the most “anti-Jewish” Gospel version (John 18:31). Certainly, there were machinations that involved some of the Jewish leadership, but — as you actually point out — that is very different from the whole Jewish nation!! Incidentally, even the Catholic Church now officially says it is wrong to blame “the Jews” for the death of Jesus.
          Did you read the linked article at:
          https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/jews-reject-jesus-2/

        • More to the point, James, there are many things President Trump is doing that the majority of Americans DO agree with. But the vocal minority, supported by the left-wing media have made many too frightened to speak out in support of Trump.
          I wonder if this is also what happened on that crucifixion day.

          I predict that Donald Trump will be re-elected for a second term.

  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.

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