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Breakfast in Vietnam with Paul Scott and Semicolons

A bishop then must be...apt to teach; I Timothy 3:2.

Sit next to a rattlesnake and it's apt to bite you, sit next to a bishop and he's apt to teach you something. This morning, 12 stories high in the Elios Hotel in Downtown Saigon, my wife and I picked Brother Scott's brain as he worked on his notes for an upcoming bible study. I won't go into everything we squeezed out of him about colons and semicolons in our King James Bible, he will post more on that in the near future. What I will do is speak about a delicious tidbit of truth that we gleaned in our pressing of him.

Why does the King James Bible sometimes extend a sentence with a semicolon instead of dividing it in two with a period, and starting afresh with the next clause as a sentence in its own right? One of the keys to that (and mind you, only one) is that the King James Bible was appointed to be read aloud in the churches. As much as it was written for the eye, more than any other bible, it was written for the ear. Look at Psalm 73:6 for an example; Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment.

If we read it aloud as it is written, we change which word we would emphasize as compared to reading it as two distinct sentences. In the following example, I have underlined the two words that a skilled reader would emphasize when reading this passage aloud to a congregation. Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment. Now look how the same reader would emphasize the reading if it was divided into two distinct sentences. Therefore pride compasseth them about as a chain. Now, reading the next sentence in its own right apart from the first sentence the emphasis changes. Violence covereth them as a garment.

The preceding verse (Psalm 73:5) will also change subtly if we divide it into separate sentences. One distinctive use of the semicolon is to make it act as a coupling between two clauses to insure that the reader retains the emphasis of the first clause when reading the second. In an age when illiteracy was rampant, such guidance conveyed the meaning even to those who never saw the punctuation. The same happens when children listen to the word of God read aloud.

Yesterday morning, Brother Scott and I ate breakfast with an earnest young Vietnamese believer who is a subscriber to this blog. The King James Bible is almost non-existent in Vietnam. The Vietnamese Bible is a Jerome Text and when an English Bible is used, it almost always an NIV. Our young friend who speaks English as a second language tolerably well but with some discomfort, testified to us that when reading the King James Bible, the meanings of passages were much clearer than when reading the NIV. As a college student he appreciates the exactness of King James English.

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