Good, Theif

There was a time when it must have been incredibly difficult to understand anything you read because there was absolutely no punctuation in existence and nobody used capital letters either so that all the words just followed one after the other and the only way you could understand them was to put in the effort to try and figure out just what the writer was trying to say so you could make some sense out of that long string of letters in front of you. See what I mean?

Without punctuation, writing is…well…pointless.
That’s right; punctuation is a fairly new invention. Well, that’s not entirely so. The oldest known document to contain some kind of punctuation is the Mesha Stele, from the 9th century BCE. It had dots between the words and horizontal strokes between sections to help the reader make some sense of it. The ancient Greeks did use a kind of punctuation that consisted of dots placed either on the line, mid-line, or raised, to indicate pauses for actors in plays.

Romans had similar forms of punctuation as the Greeks, which I’m sure they seized when they conquered them (we have come for your colons). Punctuation prior to the development of printing was light and haphazard. William Caxton (1474), the first printer of books in English, used three punctuation marks: the stroke (/) for marking word groups, the colon (:) for marking distinct syntactic pauses, and the period (.) for marking the ends of sentences and brief pauses. For example:

The thyrde temptation that the deuyl maketh to theym that deye. is by Impacyence: that is ayenste charyte/ For by charyte ben holden to loue god abouve alle thynges.

And the way we would write it today:

The third temptation that the Devil makes to them that die is by Impatience; that is against charity. For by charity be holden to love God above all things.

Early seventeenth century writers appeared to use colons, semicolons, and commas interchangeably. Their use depended upon pauses for breath rather than the syntactic structure of the sentence. Writers of the late seventeenth century tried to establish precise rules for the use of the comma, semicolon and colon, on the principles that a semicolon indicated a pause twice as long as that for a comma, and a colon indicated a pause twice as long as for a semicolon.

Some grammarians rebelled at such artificial rules. The rules governing our punctuation marks have evolved over a long period of time. Moreover, of course, punctuation rules are different in different languages. Spanish has some very useful punctuation marks that we don’t use in English. The upside down question mark and exclamation allow you to know what kind of sentence you’re going to read before you read it. Now that’s a good idea.

And on this fine Sunday (or whenever you’re reading this) you may be sitting there and thinking that this is all very interesting and all, but who the hell cares? Well, a lot of people care, actually. You see, the Bible was written without one whit (I just love alliteration) of punctuation. All those chapters and verses and little dots and squiggly lines came hundreds of years later. In fact, there was no attempt to punctuate the book until 900 CE. That’s nearly a thousand years after Jesus was here and waaaaaaay after those Old Testament books were written. Without punctuation certain turns of phrase can be somewhat ambiguous. I’m sure you are all familiar with the famous book the title of which describes the problem perfectly: Eats Shoots and Leaves. Put in some commas and you get “eats, shoots, and leaves.” This describes an upset restaurant patron. Whereas “eats shoots and leaves” describes a panda.

We have just passed over that portion of Luke that describes the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. I did not write about that portion because it is, I assume, the portion most humans and some of the smarter animals living in the western world know fairly well. Just watch “Jesus Christ Superstar”. And now we come to a very interesting little piece from the twenty-third chapter, which describe those last hours of Jesus’ life up on the cross. As you probably recall, according to the story, Jesus is hung up on a cross between two thieves. This is why I find the cross such an unusual symbol for Christianity. I should think that last thing Jesus ever wants to see again is a cross. Anyway, Jesus is hanging up there and people are saying rude things to him. And then, even one of the thieves hanging next to him starts to rag on him.

“Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.’ The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, ‘Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied to him, ‘Amen (which just means, so be it), I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”

Now as I said, the original text has no commas, no periods, no quotation marks, nothing but words. And this little piece of writing has led to huge arguments in the Christian community. And it all has to do with the placement on one little comma. Look at this sentence:

Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

Written this way, it indicates that on that very day, the thief (popularly known as “the good thief”) is going to find himself in heaven along with Jesus (after he dies, of course, which must have been quite comforting while he had eight inch nails in his wrists and feet). However, notice what happens when we move the comma:

Amen, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.

Did you see? I moved the comma over one word to the right. Now the sentence means that the thief will be with him in Paradise…eventually. Jesus is telling him today, but he won’t be going to heaven for a long, long time.

There is one contingent of Christians who believe that as soon as you die, you get to be with God and Jesus in Heaven. Your body stays here until the day of judgment, but you spirit is with God. There is another faction of Christianity that believes that you stay with your body in the ground, more or less asleep, until that last trumpet sounds and all the dead are raised up out of their graves. And I don’t know where that is supposed to leave all those cremated folks and people buried at sea, or eaten by tigers or something.

Don’t we argue about stupid things? I guess we would prefer to think that our loved ones are in Heaven than rotting away in the earth waiting for the end of the world, but the bottom line is that there is nothing we can do about it either way. Moreover, it just doesn’t matter. Jesus repeatedly tells us not to worry about the end of the world. He wants us to acknowledge that there is an end coming, but he teaches us that it is how we live that really matters. I mean, what does it really matter?

It has always seemed to me that the biggest fault traditional Christianity has is this adherence to dogma because you are promised some kind of reward in heaven. You seek God because you believe in God, not because S/He’s going to give you something nice. And if you do believe there is a God and your heart does long for some kind of communion with that God, you’re not seeking that communion for a nice reward. You don’t love someone because they give you nice stuff. You might stay with them because of that, and give them better than average sex because of that, but you don’t love people for that reason. You love people for who they are. And if you do love God, you love God because God is God, and really the only game in town.

But you don’t love God because S/He’s going to send you to some kind of nice housing development with golden streets and good restaurants. You love God because that spirit of creation, the eternal power of the universe, the energy that flows in and among all things, the glory of love, is the only thing that gives your life meaning.

And as I always say, you don’t need to believe what the people who run the churches tell you. You don’t have to believe everything in those holy books is fact, is history. You don’t have to listen to, or even like the people who thump their bibles and spend so much of their time judging and condemning people. You don’t have to follow any special set of rules. It doesn’t matter with whom you choose to share your bed. The message is in those holy books, a message of hope, love, and acceptance. That is the essence of Christ’s teachings. You are a child of God, or whatever you want to call God. And God loves you. And if you sit really still, and you’re really quiet, you can feel that love. It’s everywhere. And if you find that love, then today, you WILL be in Paradise.