I Put It Back Again

The Reading of the Bible by the Rabbis – a Souvenir of Morocco
Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ

In his book, Oscar Wilde: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship, the English writer Robert Harborough Sherard (December 3, 1861 – January 30, 1943) recounted one of Wilde’s many witticisms. Once, he wrote, Wilde reported a conversation he’d had with a host.

“He had told his host one evening that he had spent the day in hard literary work, and that, when asked what he had done, he had said, ‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma.’ ‘And in the afternoon?’ ‘In the afternoon–well, I put it back again.'”

Sherard, Oscar Wilde: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship, p. 72

Ah! The travails of writing poetry. In graduate school, I worked for two years teaching undergraduate courses in philosophical issues and critical thinking. I used Monroe Beardsley’s excellent book, Thinking Straight: A Guide for Readers & Writers, for the “critical thinking” classes. There are several comments about comma usage in the book. Beardsley’s primary emphasis was on using commas to eliminate ambiguity, the bane of written communication. He gave the following example: “He talked to the committeemen, who were at home.” The sentence, Beardsley noted, contains two statements: first, he talked to the committeemen; second, the men were at home. However, if you remove the comma, the meaning changes, for then, the clause “who were at home” tells to which committeemen he talked. Some, that is, might not have been at home, and with them, he didn’t speak.

Poets often use commas to indicate pauses in recitation, in addition to the ability to reduce confusion. There are other punctuation symbols also employed for the same purpose: dashes, ellipses, colons, semi-colons. The layout of the text, line (including the use of enjambment), and stanza breaks, can also mark places where a poet wants the reader to pause when reciting a poem.

Interestingly, the Bible, and here I want to address only the first five books, the Pentateuch or Torah, is problematic on punctuation issues. Why? Rabbi Stewart Weiss, director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana, Israel, summed it up succinctly in an article he wrote for The Jerusalem post in 2012. 

“The Torah, one notices almost immediately upon opening, is written without vowels. No punctuation; no periods, question marks or exclamation points. No telling where one sentence begins or ends; no paragraph breaks or page numbers.” [“To whom does the Torah belong?Jerusalem Post, May 23, 2012].

Rabbi Weiss went on to note that “while there are indeed Masoretic traditions as to how words should be written and pronounced, the text itself is clearly ambiguous and open to interpretation.”

To me, this is astounding! Who would have thought that the text containing what many believe to be God’s communication to humans would be delivered in any way but an exact, unambiguous format? One might expect this sort of thing from an ancient Greek oracle, maybe, but not—at least it seems to me—from a sacred book of instruction, a guide for humans by their creator about how to walk in this life.

There is a long history of Biblical interpretation, attempts to reduce the gray of ambiguity and replace it with the white light of clarity. One might even say that this was at least part of the Masoretic mission in the 7th to 10th centuries CE. There is a beautiful example of this kind of interpretative work recorded by Adam Nicolson in his book, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. Nicolson uses the first two verses of the Bible as rendered by the King James Bible translators to illustrate his point. But first, he quotes from Tyndale’s 1530’s translation: 

“In the beginnyng God created heauen and erth. The erth was voyde and emptye, and darcknesse was vpon the depe, & the spirite of God moued upon the water.” [Nicolson, p. 192]

Bear with me; you’ll soon get used to reading the old spellings. Nicolson next quotes the Geneva translation from the 1550s, in his words, “a far more sophisticated and professional job.” [Ibid, p. 193]

“In the beginning God created the heauen and the earth. And the earth was without form and void, and darknesse was upon the deep, and the Spirit of God moved upon the waters.” [Ibid]

A man named Lancelot Andrewes, Bishop of Winchester, led the team that translated this portion of the Bible. Nicolson attributes the changes in the KJB rendering of the two verses above mostly to Andrewes. Here’s how they read in the King James:

“In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth. And the earth was without forme, and voyd, and darkenesse was vpon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.” [Ibid]

As Nicolson notes, these are minor changes. But they do seem to work wonders. For example, the commas added in the first and second verses indicate pauses to be taken by the reader. The colon following “deepe” suggests a slightly longer delay before continuing. 

On the King James translation title page are the words “Appointed to be read in Churches.” This is important. The text was translated and punctuated to facilitate its reading in Church. In that sense, it is like poetry—meant to be recited aloud. For the translators, rhythm, alliteration, repetition are all necessary features enhancing the text’s recital. Consider, for example, the addition of the word “face” and its repetition in “the face of the deepe,” and “the face of the waters.” Take a moment to read it aloud, pausing as indicated. Now isn’t that beautiful? Magnificent really. By the way, Nicolson also points out that the use of “face” and “waters” is literally more faithful to the Hebrew.

But now, let’s suppose you have a King James Bible. Unless it’s a facsimile of the original, the version you have is probably the edited text of 1769, an effort to standardize the text, spelling, and punctuation. The words will be the same, but look at how the renderings differ:

Original 1611:

Standardized 1769:

I don’t know…there’s just something about that first one.

All the best,

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham is an American-Israeli writer. He lives in Beersheba, Israel, on the edge of the Negev Desert. He and his wife share their lives with a gentle blue-merle long-haired collie. Ben-Avraham earned an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics) from Temple University. His short story, “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) received “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition. Kelsay Books published his chapbook “God’s Memory” in 2021. חב"ד‎

One thought

  1. Just downloaded the Sefaria app to my smartphone the other week.

    THEIR English is: “When God began to create heaven and earth–the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water–God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” More issues appear here than punctuation. No wonder the Torah is said to have “seventy” faces. I forget where I read the suggestion that the most important point is that in this account, the universe began with divine speech, whatever that may be, rather than with violence.

    Many thanks for your essay. I look forward to every one. I don’t have your education, but I will try reading the Monroe Beardsley work you referred to.

    Liked by 1 person

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