The Curse of Capitals and the Theology of Punctuation

The Curse of Capitals and the Theology of Punctuation March 25, 2016

I have invented a new discipline, the Theology of Punctuation.

I am presently writing a book about the couple of centuries preceding Jesus’s time, and over the past year or two I have written quite a few blogs about issues relating to that topic. One of the persistent problems I have relates to capitals and upper case letters. That may sound trivial, but it actually gets to some quite critical issues of translation and interpretation.

When we use capitals, we are making a clear statement about the words that we so dignify. We are stressing that those words represent something special, perhaps THE example of its kind, rather than any generic example. In religion, we mean something totally different if we refer to Virgin rather than virgin, or if we refer to the Father and the Son, rather than the father and the son. To write of God is usually to refer to the one absolute and transcendent Creator (see, I capitalized that – did you notice?) while a god is a more commonplace thing. Often, our editorial decisions carry quite unintentional theological weight.

But here is the problem. Virtually all such decisions are arbitrary, and rely on editorial tradition. When we translate the New Testament, for instance, we have no capitals or upper case to guide us. Actually, let me be more precise here. Early Greek New Testament manuscripts are entirely in what we would call capitals or upper case.

Codex_Sinaiticus_Matthew_6,4-32(Image is in public domain)

Hence, there is no distinction between upper and lower case, and thus (in our sense) no word is dignified or distinguished by a capital.

When we read Peter’s confession of faith in Mark 8.29, he declares that “Su ei ho christos.” That can just as legitimately be translated in any of the following ways:

You are the Christ

You are the christ

You are the Messiah

You are the messiah

You are the Anointed

You are the anointed

You are the Anointed One

You are the anointed one.

You see what a difference capitals make? Not to mention the decision to translate a word in one particular form, rather than retaining its literal and original meaning.

Incidentally, my spellcheck tries to enforce theological correctness by insisting I capitalize Christ.

You can think of so many other examples, but one of the weightiest (and best known) is the phrase translated as son of man (ho huios tou anthropou). In some instances in the Bible, that phrase indicates a generic human status. In others, it does imply some kind of messianic being. In translation, we indicate the difference as best we understand it by capitals (Son of Man) and hope fervently that we are interpreting correctly. But as I say, the languages of the original texts offer not the slightest clue about capitalization.

In no particular order, I offer some other examples where our capitalization policy can make a vast difference in reading and interpreting a passage:

End of the Age, and end of the age.

Wisdom, and wisdom.

Devil, and devil.

Satan, and satan.

Lamb, and lamb.

Lord, and lord.

Scripture, and scripture.

Father and Son, and father and son.

World, and world.

The Holy One of God, and the holy one of God.

Son of God, and son of God.

But let me repeat that basic and oft-forgotten rule. The capitals in the scriptures we read today are put there by translators, and might or might not reflect the meaning or intention of the original writers. However objectively and intelligently they are doing their job, the theology we read into those capitals is the work of those translators.

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  • davidt

    This is interesting. The problem with the text it’s literally impossible to understand it as its written just due to morphology. You have reference how they see the world as the writers see the world to understand it. Interestingly even Jesus apostles in person alive didn’t understand him. It’s only in his death this text comes alive. The question becomes does modern theology even understand the topic? Empirical evidence says no.

  • “Moruti” Lutz

    but surely you are aware that this is an issue that has got to do with the nature of the English language, primarily. In German, where we have hard and fast rules on where to use capitals (and where not), there is no such discussion (any deviation will be counted as spelling error, nothing else). In English we do have positive rules (first word of a sentence, proper nouns, i.e. names, titles like Dr or “President X”), but apart from that, you can capitalize almost anything! Some people love using capitals in titles (of an article) or section headings (goes back to a time when poor secretaries using typewtiters with one single font somehow wanted to make clear: this is a heading). Others think, that job titles need to be in capitals (Nurse. Really?). I think, it is only on the background of this ambiguity, that a problem arises. And in religious use, the issue is that noone really seems to know, what capitalizing a noun (or even an associated adjective) is actually supposed to mean. Importance, reverence, transcendence? I suppose, one should simply try to avoid it as much as possible. Apart from the one thing of God/god I would just not use artificial capitalisation at all in theological texts (in liturgical texts maybe for “Allmighty” or other nouns (!) that refere to God).

  • bdlaacmm

    Also, no punctuation, no paragraphs, and perhaps most importantly of all.. no chapter and verse!

  • “Moruti” Lutz

    That is true, indeed. But then, those of us who read the bible in its original languages are few, and if you have learned Hebrew, Greek or Latin to a level to be able to actually study subtleties like different spellings, you would most probably be well aware of the whole issue, anyway.
    On the other hand, among all the millions who read the biblical text in an English translation, there will be many, who have never thought about whether or not it makes a difference, where you use capitals or not.
    In a German translation the issue does not arise, because there are clear rules, when to use capitals and when not, so even the average (maybe less enlightened) reader would not be exposed to ambiguities of that kind.

  • John Gills

    A parallel conundrum is found among those people who parse The First Folio, and especially its punctuation, seeking Shakespeare’s true thoughts and ignoring the fact that scholars have identified – at last count – three different type setters for the work, based on those type setters idiosynchratic use of punctuation.