A Note on the Punctuation in Philemon 5 (A.V. 1611)

In writing the preface to King James (1611) translation of the English Bible, Miles Smith observed that ‘it is better to make doubt of those things which are secret, than to strive about those things that are uncertain’. This preface, The Translators to the Reader, is not readily available in modern versions of the 1611 translation, but it is a useful guide to the translators’ project. That the translators used punctuation to create ambiguity in matters secret and uncertain seems sure.[1] But at Philemin 5 the translators - with a comma - took a precaution to lock in the meaning of a difficult passage. Verse 5 concludes a sentence begun in v.4:

4    I thanke my God, making mention alwayes in my prayers,
5    Hearing of thy loue, and faith, which thou hast toward the Lord Iesus,
     and toward all Saints:

In v.5 there is a superfluous comma after love. While this comma remains in the 1612 quarto and in the important revision of 1616 (Darlow and Moule 271), it has been removed from the magisterial versions of 1629 (DM 324) and 1638 (DM 403). Neither Dr Paris’s version of 1762 (DM 854) nor Dr Blayney’s of 1769 (DM 885) restored it.[2]

Dr F H A Scrivener studied the 1611 punctuation and in his Cambridge Paragraph Bible (1873) restored many pointings which were later omitted from subsequent Bibles.[3] But Scrivener did not restore the comma after love at Philemon 5. The 1611 comma, nonetheless, was there for a reason.

John Bois, one of the twelve members of the General Meeting, left this note about their discussion of Philemon 5:

      V.5 τὴν ἀγάπην καὶ τὴν πίστιν      etc. [love and faith]
     σχῆμα χιαστόν     [the diagonal figure, chiasmus]. see Casaub. Not in Matt. 12:22[4]

Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614) was a classicist and a professor at the University of Geneva. Here, in part, is his note:

Novi Testamenti libri omnes recens ninc editi, etc. Isaaci Casauboni in Novi Test. Libros notae (Geneva, E. Vignon, 1587).

Chiasmus est [i.e. Matt. 12:22], pro καὶ βλέπειν καὶ λαλεῖν Then Casaubon continues with a comment on Philemon 5:

Sic in epistola ad Philemonem 5 ἀκούων σου τὴν ἀγάπην, καὶ τὴν πίστιν, ἥν ἔχεις πρὸς τὸν κύριον Ἰησοῦν καὶ εἰς πάντας τοὺς ἁγίους

Casaubon has the comma after love

Why is noting this chiasmus important? Why would Casaubon - whose editing of texts and commentaries made him known throughout the world - identify such a point as this? Why would the 1611 translators call attention to it, using the comma after love in their translation?

Alfred Barry in Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible says that the verse has perplexed commentators, calling out various explanations:

  1. faith as simple fidelity (as in Romans 3:3; Gal. 5:22)
  2. another, making a distinction between the prepositions - the former (pros) signifying direction towards, and the latter (eis) actual contact with, its object.
  3. a third, calling the verse a chiasmus: ‘your faith in the Lord Jesus, and your love to all the saints’.[6] A model of the chiasmus would look like this: A. Hearing of thy loue, B. and faith, B. Which thou hast toward the Lord Iesus, A. and toward all Saints:

The point here is that the comma not only identifies the chiasmus, but it also establishes a reason for a specific interpretation. Henry Alford and C J Ellicott, both of whom were on the panel for the Revised Version (1885), took alternate ways of reading the passage. Of the three possibilities in Barry’s list, Alford notes that Ellicott’s choice was Barry’s second category: ‘the faith which has as its object the Lord Jesus Christ, but shows itself practically towards all the saints’.[7] Is, then, the chiasmus worth noting? The remarkable solution for the RV (1885) was to place the comma after love in the text, with this marginal note: ‘Or, thy love and faith.’

Punctuation in texts of the early modern period, some editors believe, must be modernized to avoid misunderstanding. But what if Renaissance pointing is a signal, perhaps a caution? There is no doubt that the AV (1611) translators used the comma after love as a signal, one so subtle that the revisers of the seventeenth-century versions missed it. Revisers of the eighteenth-century missed it. Even so careful a reader as Dr Scrivener missed it.[8] Most modern versions miss the signal as well:

New RSV: because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.
NJB: because I hear of the love and the faith which you have for the Lord Jesus and for All Godís holy people.
NIV: because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. [9]

Here, perhaps, is a theological concern which requires thought and discussion beyond the scope of this note. Even if, however, current versions give the same sense as Alford and the A.V. and Barry, what do they lose? Perhaps a literary force? J B Lightfoot gives a clue. He says that the chiasmus reveals the sequence of thoughts in which they occur to St Paul, without paying regard to symmetrical arrangement. [10] By following the flow of St Paul’s mind, the verse does achieve a literary end. Lightfoot explains: ‘The first and prominent thought is Philemon’s love. This suggests the mention of his faith, as the source from which it springs. This again requires a reference to the object of faith. And then at length comes the deferred sequel to the first thought - the range and comprehensiveness of his love. The transition from the object of faith to the object of love is more easy, because the love is represented as springing from the faith.’

A small point? Yes. But a long time ago Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity taught us that seventeenth-century punctuation often trusted to the reader’s intelligence to make grammatical shifts for many purposes. The King’s translators knew the weight of something so small as a comma to remove doubt from a matter which seemed uncertain.

S G Hornsby
LaGrange College


  1. My source for the KJV (1611) is the facsimile of the first impression published by George Rainbird (London, n.d.). Elsewhere I have identified places where punctuation creates ambiguity. ‘Punctuation in the 1611 Bible’, English Studies (Dec., 1963), 566-68; ‘Punctuation in the Authorized Version of the Bible’, The Bible Translator (Jan., 1973), 139-41; ‘Punctuation in Two Eighteenth-Century Versions of the English Bible’, The Library Chronicle [Univ. of PA] (Winter, 1978), 146-51.

  2. The significance of these revisions is documented by F H A Scrivener, The Authorized Edition of the English Bible: Its Subsequent Reprints and Modern Representatives (Cambridge, 1884).

  3. Scrivener, Authorized Edition, 81-92; the text of the Cambridge Paragraph Bible is found in Luther Weigle, The New Testament Octapla (New York, n.d.).

  4. Bois’s notes have been trans. and ed. by Ward Allen, Translating for King James: Notes Made by A Translator of King James’s Bible (Nashville, 1969). David Norton examines a newly discovered copy of of Bois’s notes in ‘John Bois’s Notes on the Revision of the King James Bible New Testament: A New Manuscript’, The Library (Dec., 1996), 328-46.

  5. Allen, 120.

  6. Alfred Barry’s notes to Philemon in Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, ed. C J Ellicott (rpt. Grand Rapids, 1959), VIII.

  7. Henry Alford, The Greek Testament, rev. Everett Harrison (Chicago, 1948). See also The Holy Bible [Revised Version] (Oxford, 1885).

  8. A fascinating detail is to be found in Scrivener’s The New Testament in Greek: According to the Text Followed in the Authorized Version with Variations Adopted in the Revised Version (Cambridge, rpt. 1949). At Philemon 5 we find in the Greek text a comma after love.

  9. Contemporary versions are from The Complete Parallel Bible (New York, 1993).

  10. J B Lightfoot, St Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians and to Philemon (Lynn, MA, rpt., 1982).