The Importance of the Punctuation of John 1:3-4

χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν (4) ἐν αὐτῳ ζωή ἦν καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων

John 1:3b-4

There is some text critical debate over whether ὃ γέγονεν belongs with the preceding or the following sentence (verse 4). In translation, the two options are:

  1. … and apart from him not one thing came about which has come about. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
  2. … and apart from him not one thing came about. That which has come about in him was life, and the life was the light of men.

This is a difference of punctuation. It is worth noting that punctuation is almost certainly not a feature of the original text, but is part of the history of reception and interpretation of the text. This means that unlike variations in word choice, order, and spelling, neither reading of this text is definitive. Βoth represent later interpretations of an originally unpunctuated text. Therefore, regardless of which option is text-critically stronger, we are essentially free to choose the reading that makes the most sense grammatically, literarily, and theologically.

Text-critical arguments

The most important critical edition of the Greek New Testament is the Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graecum (which is now in its 28th edition). The editors of the Nestle-Aland 27th edition (1993), or NA27, broke from tradition and from prior editions by choosing to include the punctuation of option (2) (i.e., joining “that which has come into existence” with verse 4) in the body of the text. In other words, the editors decided that option (2) was most likely the earlier of the two punctuation options. Reading (1) is the traditional reading, and it is endorsed by most earlier editors of the Greek New Testament (Tischendorf, Westcott/Hort (in the margin), Merk, and Bover, as well as, again, all prior editions of NA). I do not own a NA28 (2012), but I suspect they have retained the decision of NA27. Following NA27, other recent editions of the Greek New Testament also favor option (2) (UBS4, UBS5, and the SBL edition of the Greek NT).

According to the data in the Nestle-Aland apparatus, the textual support for (2) is as follows: a correcting hand on 𝔓75 (originally a 3rd century text; the original hand they regard as uncertain), Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (5th century), Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis (5th century), Codex Regius (8th century), a supplemental reading (filling in a lacuna in the original) of Codex Washingtonianus (originally 4th or 5th century; date of supplement not given), and manuscript 050 (9th century). This appears to be the reading in most ancient translations, including Latin, as well as among many important Church fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen, for example).

The support for reading (1) is as follows: a correcting hand on Codex Sinaiticus (4th century; original uncertain), Codex Koridethi (9th century), Codex Athous Laurae (8th or 9th century), the third hand on manuscript 050. This is the majority reading (which means merely that it was the reading that became ascendant as the variety of readings narrowed in Medieval times, and therefore the largest number of extant manuscripts support it). A few ancient translations also follow this reading.

Among our most important witnesses, the reading is unclear. These witnesses includes the original hand of Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus (5th century), Codex Vaticanus (4th century), codex Sangallensis (9th century), 𝔓66, and the original hand on 𝔓75 . Again, the earliest version of this text almost certainly would not have used punctuation.

This is not an exhaustive list of the sources mentioned in the critical apparatus but rather of what appear to me to be the most important Greek textual witnesses. Based on this evidence, one can reasonably come to different conclusions. While NA27 comes down on the side of reading (2), I still feel that reading (1) is at least as strong, text-critically. In any case, it is clear that the final decision cannot be based exclusively on pure text-critical concerns. We must therefore examine both readings closely for their grammar and for their meaning and determine whether one of these readings fits better within the context.

Grammar and Syntax

It seems to me that any grammatical argument would hinge on the perfect tense of the last word of verse 3, γέγονεν – “has come into being” or “exists”.

Different Verb Tenses

I feel there is a disjunction between the perfect tense ὃ γέγονεν of verse 3 and the imperfect tense ἦν in ἐν αὐτῳ ζωή ἦν of verse 4. Assuming punctuation (2), literally, this text reads “that which has come into being/that which exists in him was life”. The temporal point of view of the perfect tense γέγονεν is more present than past, while that of the imperfect ἦν is most certainly the past. In other words, if ὃ γέγονεν went with verse 4, I would have expected the beginning of verse 4 to read ἐν αὐτῳ ζωή ἐστιν (ἐστιν is the present tense of ἦν) and the sense of the whole to be “that which exists in him is life”. The imperfect ἦν in verse 4, on the other hand, would go better with an aorist ἐγένετο at the end of verse 3 (which is also the form of the verb we see elsewhere in John 1, so far, including earlier in verse 3). Again, assuming punctuation (2), this would produce the following sense in John 1:3b-4a: “apart from him not one thing came into being. That which came into being in him was life.”

The problem is not merely the change in tense from one verb to another within a single sentence, per se. That kind of thing happens all the time. The problem for me is the change of tense in these two particular verbs in this particular setting and the strange meaning it produces. A similar change in tense happens if we connect ὃ γέγονεν with verse 3, but the change in tense in that case sounds more natural to my ear – “Apart from him not one thing came into being that has come into being.” The change in tense functions to bring past events into the present and explain the present. In punctuation (2), on the other hand, I can see no good reason for the author to use the perfect tense γέγονεν and shift the time-frame to the present for just an instant before returning to the past. It would be sloppy at best, confused at worst.

Latin obscures this distinction between the perfect and the aorist tenses in vv. 3-4, because Latin has only a perfect tense, which in some ways encompasses both the Greek perfect and aorists tenses. It is most immediately like the aorist tense in its (usually) perfective aspect and in its morphology. But it can communicate the “present reality resulting from a past event” sense of the Greek perfect tense, and morphologically it sometimes shows reduplication in its stem reminiscent of the Greek perfect tense (e.g., curro, “I run”, becomes cucurrī, “I ran”). The result is that in Latin the first verb uses a perfect tense of fio, the second uses the imperfect tense of sum, and the phrase becomes quod factum est in ipso vita erat – “that which came about in him was life”. In Latin there is no clear sense of temporal disjunction between the verbs.

Regardless, the conclusion is that I have trouble grammatically connecting ὃ γέγονεν in verse 3 with ἐν αὐτῳ ζωή ἦν in verse 4. The change in tense between the verbs and, secondarily, the gender of the relative pronoun (see below) make it difficult for me to read them together. That being said, according to the NA27 critical apparatus, it would appear that neither Irenaeus, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, nor Ptolemy seem to have had any problem reading it this way in Greek, and they were Greek speakers. I would need to track down these texts to see in greater detail how John 1:3-4 were received in them.

The Relative Pronoun ὃ and the Sense of the Sentence

It might be argued that “that which came into being” misunderstands the function of the relative pronoun ὃ and translates it too strongly, treating ζωή “life” as the comment for the topic ὃ “that which”, which seems to refer to something previously discussed. Rather, we might could translate the whole phrase “What has come into being in him was life”, which would be another way of saying “It is life that came into being in him”. In this case, “life” is functionally the topic of the sentence in an emphatic structure rather than the comment. The distinction is subtle.

If that were the case, we might have expected the relative pronoun to be feminine (ἥ) to match the gender of ζωή, rather than the neuter (ὃ). Admittedly, however, there are plenty of examples of inconsistency in the gender of relative pronouns in Greek literature. In particular, we often see the neuter singular used in places where we might technically expect a masculine or feminine. In other words, the neuter seems to act as a kind of default gender for relative pronouns in complex sentence structures.

In any case, it just does not make a lot of sense for this sentence to say “It was life that has come into being in him”, since the focus of the first several verses of John is cosmological – we are talking about all creation, not just one important part of it.

ἐν αὐτῳ (in him) ≠ δι’ αὐτοῦ (through him)

A third issue is the meaning of ἐν αὐτῳ. When one reads ὃ γέγονεν as the beginning of the following sentence, it seems assumed that ἐν αὐτῳ (“in him”) is to be read instrumentally and essentially synonymously with δι’ αὐτοῦ (“through him”), the instrumental phrase we see elsewhere in John 1 (both before and after verse 4). In other words, ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῳ is taken to mean “that which has come into being through him” and is in no way different than if it had said ὃ γέγονεν δι’ αὐτοῦ. Considering the economy of language elsewhere in John 1 (and, indeed, throughout the Gospel of John), however, one has to question this assumption. Throughout John 1, the instrumental sense is communicated by means of a δια + genitive prepositional phrase. If we take ὃ γέγονεν to be the end of the preceding sentence (verse 3), then ἐν αὐτῳ ζωή ἦν in verse 4 clearly is more locative than instrumental – “located in him was life”. While ἐν + dative certainly can have an instrumental meaning, I cannot find another example in John 1 of the preposition ἐν used this way. There are examples, on the other hand, of a locative sense (vv. 10 and 14). Even in vv. 31 and 33, ἐν is arguably not a means but a location, the substance in which (not by which) one is dipping others (“the one sending me to baptize in water said to me … that is the one baptizing in the holy spirit”). So in addition to the change in tense from verse 3 to verse 4 and the neuter gender of the relative pronoun, the prepositional phrase ἐν αὐτῳ does not fit naturally with ὃ γέγονεν when compared to the usage of prepositional phrases in the surrounding text.

The Meanings of the Two Readings

The meaning of the traditional reading (1) is rather clear, consisting of two distinct ideas. First, not one thing which has been made was made without the Logos. All that exists was made through and for the Logos. Second, in the Logos was life and light.

By changing the puncuation in reading (2), the meaning the two verses is not as clear. It could appear to say that what has been made in him (reading ἐν αὐτῳ as synonymous with δι’ αὐτοῦ) was life. In other words, life and the light of men are identical with creation, which has been created in the Logos. Even though that is the most straightforward understanding of reading (2), this interpretation seems highly unlikely, given (among other things) Jesus’ statement in John 8:12 “I am the light of the world” and again in John 14:6 “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Understanding John 1:4 to mean that life and light were the things made through the Logos rather than in the Logos himself seems to go quite strongly against the grain.

On the other hand, it is possible to read punctuation variant (2) in this way: ὃ γέγονεν, “what has been made”, does not refer to all things that have been made but only to ζωή “life”. In other words, we would read it like this: “Life is what has been made in him” or “Life is one thing that has been made in him.” While this may be marginally better than the first understanding of reading (2), it still identifies “life” and therefore “the light of men” as something distinct from the Logos (i.e., what has been made in him) rather than a property of the Logos himself. It is for this reason, above all, that I cannot accept the punctuation of reading (2), regardless of its text-critical strength.

I do not, however, even agree with the editors of NA27 that reading (2) is text-critically superior. It is true that there are many witnesses to the punctuation of reading (2) of great antiquity, but the most ancient of witnesses to this passage do not have punctuation at all. There is a good reason that reading (1) (which also has witnesses of great antiquity) became ascendant over time. It is quite clearly the superior reading literarily and theologically, being the only reading of the two that is consistent with themes found throughout the Gospel of John.

Reception in Modern Translations

Among the major English language translations, few choose the punctuation endorsed by NA27. Perhaps predictably, the Common English Bible is one of the few. The CEB translators often seem enamored with translational eccentricity. Occasionally it produces a superior reading, but more often than not it produces a stunningly wrong-headed reading (as in the CEB’s rendering of Genesis 15:6 – “Abram trusted the LORD, and the LORD recognized Abram’s high moral character”; see my post “The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Common English Bible” for a more in-depth review of the CEB). The CEB’s translation, “What came into being through the Word was life,” makes two decisions that I have already identified as errors – (1) neglecting the difference in tense between γέγονεν (perfect tense) and ἐγένετο (aorist), and (2) interpreting ἐν αὐτῳ as synonymous with δι’ αὐτοῦ.

The RSV, which occasionally chooses idiosyncratic renderings, went with the traditional punctuation of John 1:3-4, but its mainline successor, the NRSV, chose the punctuation later favored by NA27: “What has come into being in him was life”. The NRSV’s rendering is superior to the CEB’s, at least, in recognizing the different tenses and prepositional phrases used in John 1:3-4. In the end, however, I fail to understand how the NRSV’s translation makes literary or theological sense. Notably, the NRSV’s conservative younger sister, the ESV, chose not to adopt the NA27’s punctuation decision.

Somewhat surprisingly, the New Living Translation also chooses the punctuation favored by NA27. The NLT manages to avoid the literary and theological strangeness inherent in the punctuation via what is, in my opinion, tortured translation of everything around it. The NLT renders ὃ γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῳ ζωή ἦν as “The Word gave life to everything that was created”, except this translation cannot stand, because it is manifestly false that everything that was created is alive. What “life” means in John 1:4 is debated, but it seems pretty clear that it is not merely physical animation. It refers to a spiritual, transcendent and divine life, the sort of life we would say was lost on the day that the first humans sinned. Moreover, immediately after making ζωή the animatedness of all created things in the first half of verse 4, the NLT then interprets the next instance of ζωή as “his life”, that is, the life of the Logos (Jesus’ physical life? the life energy resident in the Logos?). While the NLT’s dynamic equivalence approach often renders the sense of the passage with both fidelity and clarity, here it fails on both counts.

Conclusion

While NA27 has concluded that joining the last two words of John 1:3 with verse 4 is text-critically superior, this decision is debatable at least and highly questionable at most. Even text-critically, the decision is strange, given the relative equality of both text-critical options and given the fact that the text originally had no punctuation (meaning this is not primarily a text-critical issue). Grammatically, syntactically, literarily, and theologically, the traditional punctuation, which places the period at the end of verse 3, is far superior, and most English translations rightly choose this reading.

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