Guidelines for Quoting Bible Material: Part 1

Because I worked in Christian publishing for many years, I have learned a thing or two about copyediting and proofreading quotations of Scripture.

Authors have a tendency — no matter how careful they are — to inadvertently misquote the words of a verse, miss punctuation, or (often) give the wrong reference.

That’s where careful copyediting and proofreading comes in. (This post will focus on the technical details; it goes without saying that you as copy editor will want to make sure that your author is quoting the verse in context and correctly handling the word of truth, as noted in 2 Timothy 2:15.)

Some authors decide that they will quote just from one version of Scripture throughout their self-help book or devotional; others want to use a variety of versions. All versions read differently, and these authors may want to change up and quote different versions just because of the way it renders a passage. If you’re an author, please always tell your editor what version of the Bible you’re quoting.

If your author has quoted from only one version throughout the manuscript, there is no need to give the Bible version after all of the references. The line on the copyright page stating that “All Scripture quotations are taken from …” is sufficient. However, if the author at one point decided to quote from another version—even just one verse—at that verse reference the author will need to note the version, and then you as copy editor need to make sure that the correct copyright clause for that Bible version has been added to the copyright page.

Some publishers follow the Bible quoting and sourcing guidelines in the Chicago Manual of Style, others follow The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style.  In addition, all Christian publishers have their own style guides for how to abbreviate Bible book names (Deut., or Deu., or Dt.), how to write references (hyphen, comma or en-dash between verse spans), and the capitalizations of various scriptural words (temple or Temple; rapture or Rapture). Some publishers use the lowercase letters a or b to indicate in the reference that the author is using the first or second part of a verse (Psalm 139:14a); others don’t do that. If you are editing for a particular publisher, ask for their style guide. If not, make your decisions at this point and note them on your style sheet so that you’ll be consistent.

Over the years, I’ve gathered up a list of items important to remember when quoting from or otherwise using Scripture in writing. Following are the first five of ten key rules for quoting and sourcing Scripture (the other five will be in the next blog post).

(1) Know what version(s) you’re using—and quote it correctly.

“Be careful, for writing books is endless” (Ecclesiastes 12:12, NLT).

“Of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12, NIV).

“There’s no end to the publishing of books” (Ecclesiastes 12:12 MSG).

Follow the various style guides or the style guide from the publisher for the details; barring that, be consistent. Use your style sheet to make note of how you write the references (1:3, 4 or 1:3-4 or 1:3–4) and whether you’re writing Bible book names out in full or abbreviating them (and how you abbreviate them). The moral of the story is, be consistent.

By far the most important key to quoting Scripture is to quote it accurately. I can’t stress enough: Read the verses carefully, word by word. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen typos in quoted verses … well, I’d have a lot of nickels. And if the author has copied verses from Bible Gateway or some other electronic Bible, still double check it. Do a comparison read, a phrase at a time—read aloud and read the punctuation as well. If you’re working with an electronic Bible, minimize both screens so that you can see the document and see the electronic page at the same time. That makes it much easier than trying to flip back and forth between screens.

(2) Be sure that “Lord” or “God” is small caps where appropriate.

Throughout the Old Testament (and in the New Testament when it’s quoting the Old), the word Lord will be rendered as LORD, with the “ORD” as small caps and, in a few cases, GOD is that way as well. (Note that my WordPress program isn’t allowing me to make those small caps, but take a look in your Old Testament and you’ll see what I mean.) When you see Lord in small caps, you’re seeing the translators using this special formatting to show that the word is the Hebrew word for the name of God, YHWH or Yahweh, as opposed to other names of God (Elohim or Adonai, for example). It is important that when you quote Bible verses that have small caps, you include those small caps.

If you’re not seeing a verse quoted with the small caps and it should be, you can quickly create small capitals by highlighting the “ord” (make sure that you start with the letters in lower case) and then pressing Control + Shift + K. You can also highlight the three letters, navigate to the Home ribbon and Font tab with the dropdown to open up the Font menu, and then click on the box for “Small caps.” Mac users, do Command + Shift + K.

(3) Don’t worry about italics.

Some Old Testament texts italicize words that have been added for readability in English but are not technically in their source texts. You may not see these on the electronic Bibles, but if you’re copying from your Bible, you may see various words italicized. Unless the words are italicized for other purposes (for example, in the New Testament where Jesus speaking in Aramaic), then don’t worry about copying the italics. Most publisher style guides specify not to do that.

For example, Genesis 1:10 in the King James Version reads, “And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.” Notice the italics on “land” and “it was.” When you copy this verse into your manuscript, you don’t need to italicize those words. (However, note that you do need to maintain the capital letters beginning Earth and Seas.)

However, if you’re quoting Jesus as here in Matthew 27:46 in the New International Version (2011): “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?‘ (which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’),” then preserve the italics because this verse is following the rule of putting foreign language words in italics.

(4) Use quotation marks accurately.

Generally, when you’re going to quote a verse, you will put it in quotation marks, as here, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). However, if you’re quoting a passage with more than five lines, generally you’ll put that in a block, so then you will not use open and close quotes (this line-count rule applies to quoting any kind of block text—not only Scripture). For example:

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. (Romans 5:3–6 NLT)

If you’re running a quoted Scripture verse into your text that has a quote within it, you will need to change the double quotes to single quotes, such as, “Jesus told him, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’” (John 14:6 NLT). Notice that since I had to enclose the quote in quotation marks to quote it here in this paragraph, I needed to change the original double quotation marks around Jesus’ words to single quotation marks. Also, if you need to capitalize a letter at the beginning or lower case a letter because you’re folding the quote into a sentence you wrote, do so.

The exception is when you do a block (as above). Since there are no open or close quotes around a block of text, any internal quotation marks will remain as in the original.

(5) Don’t include verse numbers.

When you’re quoting more than one verse, either running into your text or in a block quote, you don’t need to include the verse numbers at each verse. These verse numbers may carry over from electronic Bible software if you copy a block of material, so be sure to remove them.

“Versification” refers to those Bibles where each verse starts in a new paragraph; that is, the verses are not run together to create paragraphs. When you’re copying from such Bibles, you do not need to keep the verses separate. That is simply a stylistic decision made by the Bible publisher. For your purposes when quoting, run the material together into one paragraph.

The same rule applies to quoting poetry in Scripture. You can preserve the poetic lines or type the poetry into paragraph form. Also note that when presenting poetry together into paragraph lines, you may need to lowercase some letters. The text may have capital letters at the beginning of each new line or verse, but when run together, these would be incorrect. Fix the capitalization to match sentence case.

I know! There’s a lot to keep track of!

So that gets us started! We need to be very careful as we work with material that quotes Scripture. Watch for rules 6-10 in an upcoming post.