Luke 23:43 poses an interesting problem to translators. Ancient Greek (and Aramaic) did not use commas, or full stops, or any punctuation. Readers had to insert pauses and stops themselves by understanding the context.
However, sometimes a single comma can change the meaning of a text. So it is with Luke 23:43. Why?
One of the criminals that was hung next to Jesus asked Jesus to remember him when he got into his Kingdom. Then Jesus replied (literally, from a Greek source text):
‘Amen, soi ego semeron met emou ese en to paradeiso’
Amen, to/you I/say today with me you will be in the paradise
Now, was Jesus saying (as most Bibles put it), ‘I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise’, or was he saying (as many believe), ‘‘I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise’?
Do you see the difference? If we move the comma, what Jesus was saying changes. In the first way, Jesus is saying that the man will be in paradise later today. In the second way, Jesus is just telling him about it today, but the paradise could be some future time.
The same ambiguity is present in the Ancient Greek.
The difference is important since some understand ‘paradise’ to mean heaven. Therefore this is a proof-text for those who believe that good people immediately go to heaven when they die. They feel that Jesus was confirming that the criminal was rewarded with a resurrection to heaven on that very day. The correct translation, therefore, can have serious implications.
So how can we know where to put the comma? There are no parallel accounts, only Luke records this. However, Jesus is talking about things talked about elsewhere in the Bible:
- His Kingdom
- The resurrection
Let’s look at other verses to answer this question: was it possible for the man to be resurrected to paradise under the Kingdom, back then in 33 CE?
1) Was Jesus in his Kingdom on that day?
No. Jesus was not resurrected until two days later, and did not ascend into heaven until 40 days later. In John 20:17, after he was resurrected, Jesus said: ‘I haven’t ascended to the Father yet’. So Jesus himself says that he was not in his Kingdom on the day he died. He was dead.
2) What is ‘paradise?’ And did it exist on that day?
Jesus chose to use the word paradise, a word that does not mean heaven. It means a garden or park, a place that is here on earth. Indeed, paradise (Greek: paraiso) is the same word that was used to describe the Paradise of Delights in the land of Edem (Garden of Eden) in the Greek Septuagint (the popular ‘Bible’ of Jesus’ day).
Obviously the Paradise-like garden in Genesis was long-gone by 33 CE, and there was no paraiso in 33 CE. If Jesus had meant ‘heaven’ he could have said ‘heaven’.
Even if, for arguments sake, paraiso somehow meant ‘heaven,’ Jesus could not be with the man there, since had not been resurrected and ascended yet.
3) Did the resurrection start on that day?
No. Jesus communicated in Revelation that the resurrections will not happen until ‘the Lord’s Day’ (Revelation 1:10 and 20:4-6). The resurrection did not begin in 33 CE.
Therefore, Jesus could not have been telling the criminal that he was going to join Jesus on that same day. As according to other words of Jesus himself, he was not in his Kingdom on that day, Jesus chose the word ‘paradise’ instead of ‘heaven’ (there was no earthly paradise on that day), and Jesus reported in Revelation that the resurrection had not begun yet.
Therefore, it seems like putting the comma before ‘today,’ to say, ‘today you will be with me paradise’ means that the Bible contradicts itself, or that this text is corrupt.
So should we fix the problem by putting a comma after ‘today,’ so it reads, ‘I’m telling you today, you will be with me in paradise?’
Perhaps, but perhaps not. The problem with doing this, is that Jesus often said, ‘I tell you,’ or ‘Truly I tell you,’ but he is nowhere else recorded as saying, ‘Truly I tell you today.’
However, there is a second explanation that solves all of these problems.
The criminal’s point-of-view
From the perspective of the criminal, he would indeed be in paradise in just a few hours. After all, Jesus described death as being like sleep. As a criminal, the man would likely be part of the ‘unrighteous’ that are resurrected. As it says at Acts 24:15: ‘there’s going to be a resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous.’
So upon resurrection, to him, it will be like Jesus only spoken to him a little bit earlier that same day. From his perspective, he will be in paradise today.
So what are we to do in our translation?
Well, it seems that we are dancing on the line between Bible translation and Bible interpretation. It’s really not appropriate for translation choices to be influenced by interpretation. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but we must try to avoid it as much as we can! We are trying to produce a Bible translation, not a Bible interpretation. That should be left up to the readers.
The rules of English grammar demand a comma somewhere in this sentence. So, let’s break the rules and leave out a comma completely. The reader can interpret it how they wish and put the comma wherever they like.
Our Bible uses older manuscripts than most Bibles do. Check us out!