I don’t think I have ever been in a Greek class — either as a student or a teacher — in which punctuation was discussed as a tool for translation. We look at case and tenses and the meanings of words, but not how punctuation can help convey the meaning of the passage.
This is not a good thing. Because Greek uses endings (for the most part) to convey the relationships among words, Greek can insert words and even phrases between two related words (or phrases). English, on the other hand, uses word order and proximity to indicate relationships. In the sentence, “The black cat chased the little mouse,” we know the cat is black and the mouse is little because “black” is close to “cat” and “little” is close to “mouse.” But this does not work in Greek.
Consider Romans 3:25 (TNIV). “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith.” Why the dash? Word for word the Greek reads, “whom he presented God a sacrifice of atonement through faith in his blood.” What do the two prepositional phrases modify? Are we to have faith in his blood as the King James translates?
To make matters more complicated, the meanings of the prepositions are not clear, and the TNIV translators do what all translators do from time to time, and that is to make an exegetical judgment to help clarify the meaning of the prepositions.
What they are saying is that Christ’s sacrifice of atonement was accomplished through his shed blood on the cross. They are also saying that this sacrifice of atonement is appropriated by the individual through faith (not works). In other words, both “through faith” and “in his blood” go back to “sacrifice of atonement.” “In his blood” is not the object of “faith.“ (See Moo’s excellent commentary on this point; Moo himself is on the TNIV translation committee).
But how do you indicate this in the translation? You may agree or disagree with their translation philosophy and exegetical decision, but that’s not the point. Given their philosophy and exegesis, how do you translate the verse such that it does not say “faith in his blood”?
Punctuation to the rescue! The dash before “to be received by faith” shows us that the translators do not believe “to be received by faith” follows logically from “through the shedding of his blood” but rather goes back to “sacrifice of atonement.” In other words, Paul is saying that Christ’s death on the cross is the basis of the atonement, and the atonement is applied to believers through their faith in his work on the cross.
The ESV does the same thing but uses a comma: “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
Why don’t we see more dashes in translations? English grammar and style use dashes to introduce decidedly different thoughts and in general the use of dashes is frowned upon. But dashes are an effective tool for translators.
As you read your Bibles, watch punctuation carefully. Most translations use them sparingly, and there normally is a good reason for including punctuation. This week why don’t you try to find exegetically significant examples of the use of commas, semi-colons, dashes, and paragraphs. Next week I will show some examples of quotation marks. There is a great example of this in Romans 3 in the TNIV (which appears to be more willing to use extra punctuation than most translations). See you then.