In her best-selling book about punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynn Truss made a striking point concerning the way punctuation can change a sentence (New York: Gotham Books, 2004, p. 74). She cites Luke 23:43 as an example. The King James Version renders the verse, “And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.” Thus Jesus promised the repentant “thief on the cross” that they would be together in paradise that day.
As Truss points out, however, the preferred Roman Catholic rendering of the verse is “Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in paradise.” Notice the subtle change by moving the comma. While the KJV gives the understanding that Jesus and the thief would be together in paradise that very day, the sense of the Catholic rendering is that while Jesus and the thief would be together in paradise at some point, the time is unspecified.
Why does this comma make any difference? The reason the placement of the comma matters is the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, defined as a place intermediate between heaven and earth, where the dead who have not done sufficient penance in life may endure suffering for a certain period of time to satisfy the demands of justice left from life. Under current teaching about purgatory, the righteous on earth can pray, burn candles, and do works of penance to help those in purgatory make that last step from temporary suffering to heaven.
The choice of where to put the comma in Luke 23:43 is one that the translators have made, since the original autographs of the Greek do not contain commas. (Biblical Hebrew does not even have vowels!) Wherever we place the comma, however, there is no mention in the Bible of purgatory. Two false doctrines—original sin and salvation through meritorious works, made the idea of purgatory necessary. Let us be sure that we do not read into the text those things which are not there!