Take Extra Care with Scripture Citations

Quoting Shakespeare is one thing. It’s easy enough to open a copy of Hamlet to get a citation right.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.—William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. The Harvard Classics 1909–14. Act V, Scene I. Via http://www.bartleby.com/46/2/51.html.

But when you are quoting from Scripture, you must take extra care. I do a lot of work in the Christian submarket, and the number of errors I see in Scripture quotations is appalling. I don’t know whether editors working in other religious fields run into similar issues. I suppose they do, because humans tend to be more alike than we are different. So I’m going to give this advice based on my work in the Christian submarket. If your nonfiction book involves using the scriptures of other faiths, consult an authority on the subject to see how these guidelines compare to those of quoting from Muslim, Hindu, or other religious sources.

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You may quote from any Bible translation you like, usually up to five hundred verses as long as you don’t reprint an entire Biblical book in your book. (Each publisher has its own guidelines.) I recommend that you choose one primary translation and stick to it for most, if not all, of your Bible quotations. On your copyright page, you will put something like this:

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Then every time you quote a verse or passage, all you have to put is the chapter and verse citation. You only have to specify the translation if it’s not from your primary one. For example, “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (Proverbs 21:5 NIV). Note that in running text, the period falls after the citation. A block quotation would be treated differently:

Then the prophet Shemaiah came to Rehoboam and to the leaders of Judah who had assembled in Jerusalem for fear of Shishak, and he said to them, “This is what the Lᴏʀᴅ says, ‘You have abandoned me; therefore, I now abandon you to Shishak.’” (2 Chronicles 12:5 NIV)

In the block quotation, the period falls before the citation. Quotation marks are not used in block quotations unless needed to set off the part that’s spoken aloud. Furthermore, notice how the quotation within the dialogue is handled, with single quotation marks. The numeral at the start of the book name is an Arabic numeral, not Roman.

The copyright notice for these last two examples would look like this:

Scriptures marked NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version, NIV Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

An important consideration when you are using the New International Version is that there are two editions in circulation: the 1984 edition and the 2011 edition. Unfortunately, the publisher has given us no other way to distinguish between them except the publication date. So if you choose to cite from one or the other, all you have to do is indicate that on the copyright page. The copyright notice for the 1984 edition is as follows:

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. NIV Copyright 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

I frequently encounter authors who want to quote from both editions, usually because they occasionally find the wording preferable in one edition over the other. In that case, you can treat the edition you use more often with a plain citation (NIV) and the other with a dated one (NIV84), or if you use both of them in equal amounts, date both of them (NIV11 and NIV84).

If you have said “All Scripture quotations” are from a given translation, make sure they really are. I don’t want to see any “cup runneth over” when you said you were using the NIV.

If it’s important to get a quotation from Shakespeare right, it’s doubly important to get your Scripture quotations right. Bible verse memorization is a wonderful thing, but please do not rely on your memory alone for Scripture quotations. I have seen far too many writers who quote a Bible verse with the first half from one translation and the second half from another. Or they stick that “runneth” in where it doesn’t belong. Look it up in either a print edition or on a Bible study website like Bible Gateway. Not only must you get the wording exactly right, your quotations must be correct down to the punctuation and capitalization.

When I’m editing a book that contains Bible quotations, I look up every single verse quoted and verify that the quotation matches the original, that the citation is correct, and that the version cited is correct. I have found errors at every single point, with errors as small as a comma when the original had a semicolon and as large as the wrong book name being written (such as Proverbs written when Psalms was quoted).

What’s the big deal? Well, if you give a reader a Bible verse and they look it up to read it in context and find you’ve made an error, they’re going to wonder what else in your book you got wrong. So it’s worth taking the time to get it right.


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  1. Kristen,
    Speaking of Scripture errors: Although I haven’t yet edited a book with Scripture in it, I recently proofread about a dozen articles for a magazine that our local newspaper produces twice a year (I wrote two articles as well, but someone else proofread them). We have one writer who used lots of Scripture in two church-related articles. I had my hands full just making sure the quotations made sense to the articles, and I never got around to checking the references. I did catch her calling Miriam “the sister of Abraham,” though, and I fixed that. Eek.

    Next time I need to insist that this particular writer’s stuff get to me way early, since it always takes longer to proofread her than the other six writers put together.


    1. Yes, sometimes I feel like I should charge extra for manuscripts with a lot of Scripture references. They can be really time-consuming to double-check.

  2. […] all caps instead.* So if you’re copying and pasting from such a site (perfectly OK as long as you properly cite the translation), I recommend learning how to change it to small caps in your word processor of choice. This will […]

  3. […] In a book written for the general market, the only place you’re likely to need single quotation marks is within a quotation. You may remember this Bible excerpt from the article on Scripture quotations: […]

  4. This post was really helpful. I am editing a book with tons of scripture references. Thanks for sharing! I like your style! I googled “quoting scripture in nonfiction” and found you.

    1. Glad to be of service. Thank you!

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