Eddie and Sue Arthur

Who Said John 3:16?

Most people get the idea that translation involves more than just changing a word in one language for another word that means the same thing in a different languages. You just don’t get exact equivalence of meaning between languages in this way. You have to translate in order to convey meaning, not just to line up words against each other.

However, there is another complication that translators have to deal with; punctuation. In English, the placement of commas, quotation marks and the like carries a lot of meaning.

You have to get punctuation right in English if you are to convey the correct meaning. The problem is that the Greek and Hebrew Bibles don’t use punctuation, which is a relatively modern invention.


This means, that among other things, Bible translators have to work out how to punctuate the text they are working on. For the most part, this is straightforward, but there are some interesting problems.

For example, take a look at John Chapter 3. In verse 9, Nicodemus asks Jesus a question and Jesus starts to respond in verse 10. In terms of punctuation, this means that you have to open the quote marks, for Jesus speech in verse 10, but where do you close them? There is nothing in the text which tells us when Jesus stops speaking.

The NLT (which I have linked to) closes Jesus quote at verse 21. However, if you read the text carefully, verses 16 and 17 could very easily be a comment by the Author (John) on Jesus words. John does throw in theological observations in the text of his Gospel (see for example 2:21) and this section could easily be one of those.

There is absolutely nothing in the original text that tells us with any degree of certainty when Jesus stopped speaking and when/if John’s editorial voice started. All translations into English have to make a choice on this issue. Our punctuation system means that you can’t simply ignore it and let the reader decide.

There are some tricky issues in translating John 3, which I looked at briefly a while ago. However, one of the biggest problems with John 3:16 is working out who said it in the first place.

A couple of further reflections; firsly, I know that I am one of the worst punctuators in the business, you don’t need to remind me of that. Secondly, I’m sure I blogged on this years ago, but I can’t find the post. So, if this feels like déja vu, it probably is. 

This post is more than a year old. It is quite possible that any links to other websites, pictures or media content will no longer be valid. Things change on the web and it is impossible for us to keep up to date with everything.

One Comment on “Who Said John 3:16?

  1. If you like examples of how punctuation makes a difference, then you will love this from a comment to a Guardian article in 2014: two letters, differing only in punctuation:

    Dear John:
    I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind,
    thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and
    inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no
    feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can forever be happy – will you
    let me be yours?


    Dear John:
    I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind,
    thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and
    inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have
    no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can forever be happy. Will
    you let me be?


  2. Pingback: punctuation in translation | The Fine Print

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