Quote the Bible…Carefully

By Steve Laube


In talking with readers it is interesting to ask whether they bother to look up a Bible citation or question whether a Bible verse has been quoted correctly. Very few actually verify quotations or citations. But maybe they should. The Word of God is powerful and should not be taken for granted. There are many readers who admit to skipping over Bible verses when quoted in full. The thought is that they are already familiar with those words and that they want to get into what the author is saying. Ironic isn’t it?

In the editing process one of the jobs of the copy-editor is to verify the accuracy of quotations and citations. And not just Bible verses. I once had a magazine editor ask me to prove that a quotation I cited was verbatim and not paraphrased. It took me a full day at the library to find that book again, make of copy of the quotation, and send it to that editor. (A tip for your research…write down the source, including the page number, otherwise you may never find it again! Some are using their smart phones to take a picture of the page and file the photo in Evernote.)

Verify the Translation

When quoting the Bible make sure you know which translation you are using for which quotations, especially if you go from one to the other. Bible translations are copyrighted material (with the notable exception of The King James Version) and should be properly cited. That is why you see something like this on the copyright page of a book:

Unless otherwise noted Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

You can see above that in this example the ESV (English Standard Version) is the primary version quoted and anything else that has (NIV) after the quotation is from the New International Version.

Permissions vary from translation to translation. Make sure you look up their restrictions before using one in your book. For example the ESV allows for the use of 1,000 verses without permission as long as those verses are not a complete book of the Bible or the entire text of the book you are creating. But the NIV allows for only 500 verses.

Years ago I was editing a manuscript and about half way through the book the tone began to change in the writing. I was unsure why until I looked up a few of the Bible verses quoted. The first half of the book the author was using the New International Version. The second half he was using the Good News Translation. They are very different in style. But the author did not tell the reader about the switch. When asked, the author admitted that he had gone to a cabin to write the last half of the book and the only Bible he had with him was the Good News Translation so that is what he used.

Verify the Citation

Many times a writer will simply cite a particular verse like John 3:16 or group a number of verses in a list. Usually this means that the verses cited are support material for a particular point. It is important that you proof read your citations to make sure they are correct. If you don’t there can be unintended results. In a newsletter from a missionary friend of ours, Tom Blanchard, he told the following story:

After posting one lesson on the Prophets, which I had proof-read several times, I received an email from a confused student, who questioned my assertion that “This is one of the most encouraging and magnificent verses in all of the Old Testament.” I had meant to reference ”Isaiah 25:8” (He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces…). But I typed “Isaiah 28:8.” I could understand his confusion when I looked it up (For all tables are full of filthy vomit, with no space left.)

Oh dear. I suppose that’s a remarkable verse, too, but it wasn’t what I had in mind. Quick, quick, post a correction and publicly admit my mistake! It’s so good for the soul.

Very funny! The moral of the story is to be careful otherwise you will become the topic of Psalm 44:13.

24 Responses to Quote the Bible…Carefully

  1. Timothy Fish June 11, 2012 at 3:36 am #

    I find that I put far greater importance on a verse I quote in my own work than I do when I see another author quote a verse. And I do find that I tend to skip over some of the longer verses they quote. I assume my readers do the same. The thing is, every Bible verse exists in the context in which it was written. When we pull it out and drop it into another work, the new work gives it context. The question the reader is trying to answer is why the author thought it important to put that verse there. If the comments around the verse don’t support the verse well enough, then the verse it out of place in the work and we would be better off ignoring the verse in the new work.

    • Steve Laube June 11, 2012 at 10:32 am #

      Well said.

  2. Diana Harkness June 11, 2012 at 4:42 am #

    If I suspect even a glimmer of inaccuracy I always check out original sources. I began doing this with fiction when I read the Thoene’s WWII historical fiction series, and have always done this with non-fiction. It’s a lot of work, but worth it for the sake of accurate knowledge. When I write I use the same care. I frequently mix translations for better understanding, but make sure I cite each. I am always dubious about my citation form and I’m grateful a copy-editor will be checking that for me.

    When I read non-fiction (such as the N.T. Wright work I am reading now), I appreciate it when the entire Bible passage is included in the body of the text, especially if the author is moving through several books, and especially if I am reading only to supplement my own knowledge of the subject, rather than learning it for the first time. If the author is presenting a new idea, and using a verse to support it, I will not accept their verse pulled out of context (literary or historical) until I have researched it for myself. Note: N.T. Wright does a great job with context.

    • Steve Laube June 11, 2012 at 10:33 am #

      A theologian like N.T. Wright has to be extra careful. The precision of language in theology can make or break an argument.

  3. Richard Mabry June 11, 2012 at 6:34 am #

    Good points, Steve. Of course, since I retired from medicine to try my hand at writing, I’ve noticed another Bible verse coming to the forefront in my thoughts–Ecclesiastes 12:12.

  4. Debbie Hannah Skinner June 11, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    Steve- Thanks for the reminder to be careful about checking Bible verse sources. Tom Blanchard’s experience made me laugh as I remembered the time I wrote a wrong verse on a painting.

    I meant to write Hebrews 6:10 (The verse reads “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name, in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints.”)

    BUT I was in a hurry at the frame shop and didn’t double check the reference, so I wrote instead Hebrews 6:12 (“so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.)

    The painting was for my husband’s office at the church. Would people think I was calling him a sluggard? We got a lot of laughs out of it, but it truly is serious business.

    My big mistakes were 1- getting in a hurry and 2- not checking the details.

    Thanks including the info about Bible copyrights. That’s always been a bit confusing to me. Can you suggest a resource that goes into this subject in greater depth? Thanks!

    • Steve Laube June 11, 2012 at 10:33 am #

      Too funny! At least you have a story to tell everyone.

  5. Ruth Douthitt June 11, 2012 at 7:32 am #

    This is a great reminder! I have cited the Bible before using APA formatting for non-fiction writing.

    When I begin a historical fiction piece, I will have an acknowledgment page for my sources. It is important to get into the habit of citing sources.

  6. Jeanne June 11, 2012 at 7:48 am #

    Steve, this was very helpful. As an author, I don’t want to cast doubt on the validity of my writing by misquoting a verse or citing the wrong verse. I appreciate your thoughts and insights to help me to do this well. BTW, your story from Tom Blanchard at the end made me laugh. I guess it shows the value in proofreading whatever we read before we send it out. :)

  7. Jennifer Dyer June 11, 2012 at 8:03 am #

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZBw2-WJN5U
    This is a hilarious incident that happened to comedian Tim Hawkins when he accidentally gave the wrong Bible verse to people at an autograph signing…
    :-)
    Thanks for the reminder to be careful!

    • Steve Laube June 11, 2012 at 10:34 am #

      Tim Hawkins is one of our family’s favorite comedian. We own all of his DVDs. I laughed until I cried when I first heard Tim tell this story.

    • Jeanne June 11, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

      Hilarious! I should have previewed this before I let my male children watch. :) We all laughed, they weren’t quite sure what they were laughing about. :)

    • JennyM June 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

      That was the first thing I thought of as I read this post!!

      • Chris P. June 11, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

        I thought of this too! My family has tickets to see him this summer – we can’t wait!

    • Katie Larink June 13, 2012 at 3:35 pm #

      You beat me to posting this! Tim Hawkins is my favorite comedian and I immediately thought about that clip while reading this article. :)

  8. Michelle Lim June 11, 2012 at 8:56 am #

    Great reminder! We often do take the words for granted, but we really shouldn’t. The Word gives such a powerful truth, that we share in Christian fiction to touch readers. We should never forget where the truth comes from and that we are just the messengers.

  9. Patrick E. Craig June 11, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Good advice Steve. There are some handy online bibles that you can actually cut and paste the scripture you are quoting so you know that you are accurate. The Blue Letter Bible (www.blueletterbible.com) for instance offers most of the major translations. I actually use the King James version for my quotes because 1. I love the language and 2. there are no copyright problems 3. It fits well in Amish fiction :)

  10. Janet Ann Collins June 11, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    LOL about that misquote!

  11. Meghan Carver June 11, 2012 at 9:06 am #

    I have noticed those permissions on the copyright page before, but I only thought it was to inform the reader of the translation. I had no idea permission was actually needed. I mean, the Bible is…well, the Bible. I didn’t think there was an actual owner. Thanks for the information! I’m filing it away for future reference.

    • Steve Laube June 11, 2012 at 10:43 am #

      Yes, the Bible is the Bible. But it was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. Thus is must be translated. The King James Version was last revised in 1769 and thus is in the public domain. All the modern translations were produced by various Bible societies or publishers at great expense (many times more than a million dollars to complete).

      Thus the publishers and Bible societies copyright their work to protect the integrity of their specific translation. Therefore the organization that paid for the translation does indeed “own” that translation.

      There are some exceptions. The NET Bible (http://bible.org/) has no limitations to its use (http://bible.org/article/trademark-and-copyright-information).

  12. JennyM June 11, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    Another point is that when one is quoting a Bible verse in a language other than English, it is still important to make sure that verse used is the verse intended. Or that it’s a verse at all. I used Navajo in my MS. I asked for an received a direct translation from a Navajo woman at Indian Bible College in Flagstaff, AZ. I doubt many editors are going to be able to read Navajo, once I have my MS in the pre-publishing phase, so I have to make sure my work is 100% accurate.

  13. Rudy U Martinka October 1, 2013 at 5:56 am #

    Steve,

    Quoting the Bible incorrectly leads to another problem issue. Interpretation is a greater challenge which I encountered when writing my novel. As a Lily Among Thorns by Rudy U Martinka.

    The novel contains many proverbs and ancient wise sayings in relation to today. The main problem I encountered is deciphering the various interpretations biblical scholars and lay people that may change or alter the original intent or meaning in the Bible.

  14. BarbaraB April 5, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    I just found out that the King James version is copyrighted in the United Kingdom by Cambridge University Press. (Long story about how that happened, available on a Google search of Wikipedia and other sources.) Source says “Cambridge University Press permits the reproduction of at most 500 verses for ‘liturgical and non-commercial educational use’ if their prescribed acknowledgement is included, the quoted verses do not exceed 25% of the publication quoting them and do not include a complete Bible book.” This would mean that you could not publish a commercial book with King James quotes in the U.K. without getting into a copyright dispute.

  15. Micaela August 26, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

    Thank you for this post–I’ve often wondered about this!

    Further question: does the ‘using a certain number of verses without permission’ include verses for which you just give the reference, or do they have to be spelled out to count?

    And what if you use the same verse/reference multiple times throughout the book–do those count as separate verses that each apply to the XXX-number of verses you can use without permission from a publisher?

    Sorry if you already explained these in your post and I misunderstood.

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