Truthfully Speaking

I Timothy 2:1-7 – The 18th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, September 18, 2016

“I was appointed to be a preacher and apostle of this testimony—I’m telling the truth and I’m not lying! I’m a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.” (I Timothy 2:7)

punctuation.2Imagine two people engaged in a conversation, with one pausing and then—with a raised voice—continuing with:

“Truthfully speaking,” he said.

Or: “To be frank with you,” she said.

Or maybe: “In all honesty,” he said.

Whenever those phrases are expressed, I inwardly cringe. Does this mean the speaker was deceitful until they added Truthfully and To be frank and Honestly?

Subtext defines most communication. How do you know a person means what they say? What lurks “between the lines?” When another claims to be truthful, are they emphasizing vulnerable openness or disguising real feelings?

1 Timothy 2:7 (CEB) declared: I was appointed to be a preacher and apostle of this testimony—I’m telling the truth and I’m not lying! I’m a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

For me a little red flag rose in the em dash1 after “testimony.” Why did Timothy’s author add that confession about “telling the truth?” Did the writer’s first century readers view him as a teller of tall tales? Or was the writer unknown to the readers and the phrase was added as a plea for trust?

John 4:1-3 (NRSV) reads: Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John”—although it was not Jesus himself but his disciples who baptized—he left Judea and started back to Galilee.

I used these verses as the basis for a long ago paper in seminary on baptism. The phrase between the dashes seemed extraordinary when I first plunged into the study of scripture. And now, years later, I remain curious: according to John, did Jesus ever baptize anyone? Or was it only his disciples who led folks down into the Jordan for a holy dunk?

According to the rules of grammar*, a parenthesis (“()”) is used to set off “supplementary, or illustrative matter.” The dash (“—”) will “mark a sudden break in thought,” or “set off a parenthetical element that is very abrupt.” On one hand, the use of a parenthesis, dash, or asterisk helps to better communicate our ideas. On the other hand, punctuation hints at the subtext, the thoughts rumbling between the lines. However, in the earliest known versions of New Testament manuscripts, punctuation was minimal. This is how 1 Timothy 2:7 might’ve looked (if you pretend Greek and English are similar):


All capitalized. Letters squished like commuters on a New York subway. No punctuation.

punctuary.1How do you make sense of it? Punctuation is spice, helping to flavor each sentence, paragraph, and document. Punctuation helps the speaker breathe and the reader pause. Punctuation emphasizes a word or maybe a number2 (or inserts a supportive thought). Punctuation is the rudder on the boat, the flaps on the plane, the brakes on the car.

And the Bible, in its original form, had none of it.

Truthfully speaking, does the absence of scriptural punctuation matter in our day-to-day faith3? To be frank with you (although I’m really Larry and not Frank), I believe it does. In all honesty, the modern presence of punctuation in the Bible helps me treat the ancient, squished-together words with greater respect and some caution. Over the years, as a teacher and preacher and believer, one of the catchphrases I’ve borrowed from others is: I don’t take the Bible literally, but I take it seriously.

After all, how can I take the Bible literally? If only because of punctuation, translating ancient Greek to modern English is problematic. God never aimed a divine digit at a piece of papyrus or a computer screen and proclaimed, “Place the period there. Conclude that section with a question mark. Insert parentheses around the four words at the end of the paragraph. And don’t forget to create the paragraph break that I suggested ordered.”

Nope. God’s not a grammarian. Humans chose (and continue to choose) the exclamation point! Or why not a question mark? Some predictably conclude a sentence with a period. Others might leave the very same sentence incomplete with the openness of an ellipsis . . .

But I take the Bible seriously. If only using the solitary example of the first letter of Timothy, I know it’s important to emphasize my role as a person of faith. But I’m only human. My life is punctuated with mistakes, biases, and judgments. And yet, like the author of Timothy, I strive to tell the truth. And always—and oh how much this is a foolish cliché and a faithful goal—my daily actions will reveal more about my faith than any of my well punctuated words . . .




[Punctuation images from here.]

*Quotes are from my ancient 1967 Harbrace College Handbook. (Which has been on or near my desk since I was a college freshman.)

1For a definition of the em dash, check out the online punctuation guide . . . here.

2This second footnote is meaningless, except for having three total footnotes and highlighting them as another aspect of punctuation.

3If you want to see a fun modern use of punctuation (and context), how about this State Farm commercial? A clever idea, it demonstrates how the same words can mean such different things.

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  1. I have a dear friend whose understanding, according to her church, is to take only a literal interpretation of the bible. Whatever it says and only what it says, all God’s children must do/be/believe. We go round and round and not being a scholar, I don’t have the proper retort on the tip of my tongue. I am going to use your most learned prose at our next meeting. Thanks so much!

    1. I suspect the Bible as literal vs. non-literal “argument” has been around since the first words were scrawled on papyrus. For more insight, try reading Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus.” Even if someone disagrees with Ehrman’s thoughtful (but readable) critique of taking-the-Bible-literally, he has some insights that may prompt more dialog and less debate. I wish you well with your friend!

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