The Gospels: The Comma of Luke 23:43

Did Jesus Christ tell the thief on the cross that they would be together in Paradise that very day, or did he say on that day, that they would be together in Paradise? It has been argued that the Greek text is ambiguous on this point, and that the position of the comma (before or after the word “today”) determines the sense of Christ’s statement.

Of course, no one will doubt that commas were introduced into the manuscripts centuries after the authors of the New Testament books had died and that such commas are therefore not authoritative. And there is the question of context. No one can dispute the fact that Jesus and the criminal were dying on the cross, and that their death would be followed by a burial and, in Jesus’ case, by a resurrection from the dead three days later.

It has been argued that, since the context does not allow the conclusion that anyone entered Paradise on that day, and since the position of the comma lacks authority, the punctuation “Today you shall be with me in paradise” would leave the reader with a discrepancy between what had been promised and what actually happened. On the other hand, the alternative punctuation (“Truly I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise”) has been endorsed as free from such problems since it is not stated when they would be in Paradise.

The presupposition behind the two possibilities is in the claim that the Greek text is ambiguous without the comma. Thus, one is obligated to go deeper into the matter to ascertain if that presupposition is legitimate.

Is the Greek text ambiguous?

The first point to note is that Jesus was communicating with the thief verbally. In any language, people converse without commas, semicolons, question marks or exclamation marks. In fact, writers employ such devices only because they believe that the spoken message is clearer and want to approximate it. It is not true, therefore, that what Jesus said was ambiguous. The introduction of the commas into the manuscripts (centuries later) is irrelevant.

One may be tempted to object by saying that it is the position of the written comma that reveals what Christ really said. This is precisely what is not true of the passage in question. The author of the Gospel was not present at the crucifixion to hear Christ’s comment personally. Christ’s comment was recorded from the oral tradition of the disciples. This leads us to the second point: that the oral tradition had preserved this comment in a particular form, with the spoken emphasis already built into it.

Commas have no syntactical value in New Testament Greek. If commas are later introduced by an editor, they would serve only to make the text easier to read — not to clarify the meaning. Commas, in any edition of the Greek New Testament, are intended only as a help to the reader, not as a means of safeguarding the correct understanding of a passage.

In view of the above details, the presupposition that the text of Luke 23:43 is ambiguous without the comma is not legitimate.

The self-explanatory verse

Luke 23:43 is self-explanatory, first, because of its context, and second, because of its syntactical structure.

First, the context includes the continuous tense elege (was saying) with reference to the comment of each thief. Neither simply “said” (made a one-time statement of) what he had in mind. The first man (v. 39) was engaging in continuous derision, while the other was approaching Christ (not once, but over a period of time) in sincere supplication (v. 42). The latter’s plea was not a fleeting thought that had crossed his mind. It was a sincere and persistent request, obviously requiring all the energy he could muster in the circumstances.

One criminal’s attitude and comments produced blasphemy, culminating in the thought “If you are the Christ, save yourself and us,” while the other’s produced a rebuke of the first man’s wrong attitude and a penitent submission summed up in the thought, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

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The scene is dramatic, to say the least. It is not easy for a dying man to believe that he can be saved by the helpless individual being crucified next to him. The depth of his conviction becomes more real to us when we bring to mind that others had failed to believe in Jesus, even while he was energetically performing miracles in their midst! The thief’s repentant request shows that he had already accepted Jesus Christ as the Messiah, even in a crucified state.

Second, the malefactor did not say, “when you come into your kingdom.” He said, “when you come in (Greek en) your kingdom.” On the surface, it appears to be a minor difference, but the meaning of this statement is “when you come with glory and power” — which he will do when he returns. The correct reading was missed by the King James translators, but the revisers noted it (see RSV — “when you come in your kingly power”).

The Latin Vulgate rendering, “in regnum tuum” (to your kingdom) and the King James, “into thy kingdom,” give the impression that the reference is to Christ’s return to heaven after the resurrection — hence the common misunderstanding. No such meaning is entailed in the Greek text. The reading of the Latin Vulgate and that of the King James Version exceed the limits of the Greek text on this point. The malefactor’s request was that he might be remembered, not on that day, but at the time when Christ would return in the power and glory of his kingdom.

Christ’s reply

Christ’s reply begins with the word “amen” (verily). Whenever this construction is chosen in the New Testament, it indicates that something emphatic is to follow.

For example, in Matthew 5:18, Christ said: “Amen I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no way pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” This construction enables Jesus to move to the diametrically opposite position. His audience had thought that he was doing away with the law. According to their thought, Christ’s new statement would be false. For that reason, he began with the assuring tone of “amen” (verily). Christ’s intent was to surprise his audience — just as we might do today by saying something like, “You may find this difficult to believe, but it is true, nevertheless.”

Thus the word “amen” (verily) at the beginning of the first phrase (Verily I say unto you) announces that a surprising truth is about to be revealed, while the word “today,” at the start of the next phrase (today you will be…), is the unexpected, complementary emphasis — the truth Christ had promised. In effect, Christ was saying, “It is not at all a case of my remembering you or that you need to wait for some future time! You will be with me, as of today.

The reading “Verily I say unto you today” not only contains a redundancy (“I say” is in the present tense already — making “today” redundant), it destroys the natural force of these words.

The question of Paradise

Did Christ and the thief go to Paradise on that day? In order to answer the question, we need to be reminded that some Jews believed in the resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6, 8). If a Pharisee were asked how the dead are raised (the very question that arose later in Corinth, cf. 1 Cor. 15:35), he would have said that, when righteous people die, they go to a special place where they await their resurrection. This place is called by various names. One name is “Paradise.” Another is “the Bosom of Abraham.”

Jewish tradition acknowledged all the elements used in Christ’s parable. The poor man was carried by the angels to the Bosom of Abraham (cf. Luke 16:22 and Ketubot 104a). The Bosom of Abraham is mentioned in the writings of the intertestamental period (4 Maccabees 13:17) and in Qiddusin 72b. Most important, Abraham is “designated as he who receives…the penitent into Paradise” (Alfred Edersheim, Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, II, p. 280; see also `Erubin 19a).

In Christ’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man, it was Lazarus who found himself in the special place (the Bosom of Abraham). To say that a dead person was in that place was the same as saying that he was righteous, because only the righteous went to Paradise to wait with Abraham.

Of course, there is nothing in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to indicate more than the fact that Jesus was using the language of the Jews to convey a thought to them — that, contrary to their expectations, it was the poor man that was righteous. One does not necessarily subscribe to a belief simply by using the language of the day. Otherwise we would not be able to make even the most common references — for example, to the days of the week (Sun-day, Moon-day, Mars-day, etc.). Similarly, the terms “lunatic,” “Aphrodisiac,” “enthusiast,” etc., all contain claims educated people do not subscribe to; even so, they are freely used by all. Jesus also made use of the language of his day.

One should also keep in mind that this use of “Paradise” does not define all its appearances in the Bible. The same term is used for the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15 and 3:23, LXX), for the plains of Jordan (Gen. 13:10, LXX), for the third heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4), and for God’s kingdom (Rev. 2:7).

In the case of the thief on the cross, Jesus recognized the man’s repentant attitude and his firm conviction that Jesus, although dying on the cross, was the prophesied Messiah. He heard the malefactor’s plea for remembrance at the time when he, even as a companion in death, would return in power and glory as a King, and told the man that his request was as good as done. Obviously, the malefactor believed that he could be resurrected if Christ would only remember him. Therefore, Christ assured him of the surprising truth that, even on that very day, he would be counted among the righteous in Paradise, awaiting the resurrection with them.

Did Christ and the malefactor, then, go to Paradise on that day? We must say that, in light of the popular notion and the context explained above, they did, even though they were in the grave. The language is picturesque. It is beautiful. Above all, it conveys the best possible news that the repentant criminal could have hoped to hear.


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