Bible References, Citations, and Translations
By Torey Teer
Have you ever had a Writing Expert, professor, or grader critique you for your improper format of Bible citations? Has anyone ever criticized you for not indicating which Bible translation you are quoting from? Well, you are not alone. Knowing how to incorporate the Bible into your papers can be tricky! When do you say “1 Cor 13” or “1 Corinthians 13” or “First Corinthians 13”? Where, how, and how often do you need to indicate what English translation you are using? What do you do when you want the reader to compare the passage you are quoting to other related passages?
Take heart, for in this brief post, I will guide you through all the tips and tricks concerning how to use and cite the Bible in your papers! First, we will look at how to mention Bible passages in a sentence. Second, we will look at how to cite Bible passages in parenthetical notes. Third, we will look at how to indicate what Bible translation you are quoting from. And best of all, there will be lots and lots of properly formatted examples!
How to Mention Bible Passages in a Sentence
Let’s take a look at all the different ways you can incorporate Bible passages into your sentence. The most important rule in the sentence is that you have to write out the entire Bible book; you cannot use Bible abbreviations. Some examples are as follows:
In 1 Corinthians 12–14, Paul discusses how spiritual gifts should properly function in the corporate gathering of the church.
Notice, the “en-dash” (–) is used between chapters (whereas, the short dash [-] is used elsewhere between verses within the same chapter).
Isaiah 53 is a passage that describes the plight of the Suffering Servant.
Now, if the first word of the sentence happens to be the name of a numbered Bible book (e.g., 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Thessalonians, and 1–2 Timothy), you have to write out the number:
Second Samuel 7 outlines the Davidic Covenant.
First Timothy 3:1-13 details the qualifications for elders and deacons.
Notice, in all of the above examples, there is no need to indicate a Bible translation because there is no actual Bible content quoted.
How to Cite Bible Passages in Parenthetical Notes
Now, here is where things get really interesting: parenthetical Bible citations. If done correctly, the parenthetical note is an excellent tool to concisely convey a wealth of information. The simplest form is a straightforward citation of quoted material:
The author of the epistle identifies himself as “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (Jas 1:1).
Here, the sentence flows naturally into the quote so no punctuation is needed to introduce the quoted material.
Paul exhorts Timothy, saying, “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).
Here, the quote is preceded by an introductory statement (“saying”), so you include a comma before the quote.
Paul then lists several exhortations for Timothy to follow: “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).
Here, there is a complete sentence (i.e., an independent clause) before the quoted material, so you include a colon before the quote.
Now, in all of the above examples, the Bible citation goes after the final quotation mark but before the period. For a list of the correct Bible abbreviations, see Southern Seminary Manual of Style “4.9 Abbreviations,” pp. 42-45 (5.0 edition).
Let’s move on to some more complicated examples. In certain instances, you may want to cite multiple passages in relation to a particular topic that you are discussing or a particular point that you are making. Here is an example:
I believe that one day yet future Christ will physically return in glory as judge and king and will bodily resurrect all humankind—the righteous will inherit eternal life and the wicked will inherit eternal condemnation (Dan 12:2; Matt 25:34, 46; John 5:28-29; Acts 1:11, 24:15; 2 Tim 4:1; 2 Thess 1:7-9; Rev 20:13, 15; 21:6-8).
A couple items worth noting here: (1) only abbreviations are to be used, (2) the references must be listed in canonical order (i.e., the order that the books appear in most English translations), (3) multiple verses cited in the same Bible chapter are separated by a comma (e.g., Matt 25:34, 46), (4) multiple verses cited in different chapters of the same Bible book are separated by a semicolon with no repetition of the book’s name (e.g., Rev 20:13, 15; 21:6-8).
Now, maybe you want to quote a passage—or refer to one or more passages—but then direct the reader’s attention to related—though distinct—passages. Here are some examples:
In fact, death has reigned—as a ruling power over the world—ever since the sin of Adam (Rom 5:12-18; cf. Gen 2:17; 1 Cor 15:21a, 22a).
Here, “Rom 5:12-18” is the specific text that supports my proposition, but I want the reader to compare (“cf.” is an abbreviation of the Latin confer, which means “compare”) “Rom 5:12-18” with “Gen 2:17; 1 Cor 15:21a, 22a.” In essence, I am indicating that the first citation directly supports my point and that the citations following “cf.” indirectly support my point.
Death is also a power under the control of Satan (Heb 2:14), who is the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:2), the “god of this world” (2 Cor 4:4; cf. John 14:30), and the “deceiver of the whole world” (Rev 12:9).
Here, I have multiple citations, each one supporting its own point. In the note “(2 Cor 4:4; cf. John 14:30),” “2 Cor 4:4” is the specific passage that the quote “god of this world” comes from, but “cf. John 14:30” tells the reader to “see also” John 14:30 because similar language is found in that verse as well. Also, notice how this example incorporates quoted material throughout.
One final scenario worth mentioning is how to cite or refer to a specific passage while also directing the reader’s attention to a parallel passage. Such a situation is unique to certain related books of the Bible: for example, Kings // Chronicles, and Matthew // Mark // Luke.
After King Amon was put to death by his servants, Josiah became king over Judah (2 Kgs 21:23-24 // 2 Chron 22:24-25).
Here, both passages accurately support the content that precedes the parenthetical note.
Jesus drives the money-changers out of the temple, saying, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers” (Matt 21:13 // Mark 11:17).
Here, the quote comes from Matthew 21:13, but it is also found in Mark 11:17, though the wording is slightly different.
How to Indicate a Bible Translation
You will notice that none of the above examples that include quoted Bible material actually indicate which English translation is being used. I have intentionally withheld such proper formatting for the present moment—so as to eliminate any confusion. Let’s pretend that what follows is the beginning of any given paper (that is to say: let’s pretend that what follows is the first instance of a Bible quotation in a paper).
When you are writing your paper, you must indicate which English translation you are using for quoted material only. If you are like me, you have a go-to translation that you use for almost all Bible quotations. I typically use the ESV for all of my Bible quotations, and I only switch to another translation if I want to discuss a translation issue. If you stick to just one English translation, then there is really only one rule to follow: indicate the translation for the first quoted passage only. Here is one example given in two modes:
In John 1:29, for example, Jesus is described as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (ESV).
John the Baptist, upon seeing Jesus, proclaims him as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 ESV).
The next sentence in that same paper reads as follows:
Later, in 3:16-17, John records that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, . . . in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Notice that there is no repeated reference to a Bible translation; there is no need since I am using the same one. Notice also that I do not include “John” before “3:16-17”; I am referring to the same Bible book so there is no need to repeat that information.
Now, if you switch between multiple translations throughout your paper, you need to indicate which translation you are using each time you switch to a different one. Note: you do not repeat the translation if you are using the same translation for the present quotation as you did for the last quotation; you only indicate the switch. Take a look at the following extended examples:
First Bible quotation: John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1 ESV).
Second quotation of same translation: A few verses later, John goes on to say, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). —> or just: “…and truth” (verse 14).
Switch to a different translation: John 3:16, probably the most quoted verse in the Bible, says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (NIV).
Switch back to the first translation: Later, Jesus encourages his disciples, saying, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18 ESV).
Here’s a more simplified set of examples:
1st instance: “[Bible quote]” (1 Tim 1:1 ESV).
2nd: “. . .” (2 Tim 2:2).
3rd: “. . .” (2 Tim 4:2).
4th: “. . .” (Titus 3:5 NASB).
5th: “. . .” (1 Cor 13:7 NIV).
6th: “. . .” (2 Cor 5:21).
7th: “. . .” (1 Pet 3:15 KJV).
8th: “. . .” (Jas 1:2 ESV).
And so on
Correct use of Bible references, citations, and translations is essential to academic writing. It demonstrates clarity, consistency, and—most importantly—fidelity to the Scriptures (especially with regard to actual quotations of Bible content). In this brief post, we reviewed how to appropriately mention Bible books within a sentence, how to correctly cite Bible passages within parenthetical notes, and how to properly indicate what English translation you are using for quoted Bible material. At this point, you have probably learned way more than you ever wanted to about Bible references; but, your professors, graders, and reviewers will greatly appreciate it! You can thank me later.
Now, if you are still craving more of that sweet Bible citation goodness, there is an appendix! In it, you will find examples of complex situations. Happy writing!
- Notice, in all of the above examples, there are footnotes included at the end of various sentences. These are reserved for reference to or discussion of non-biblical source material only (e.g., commentators, theologians, historians).
- When you would have two parenthetical notes back to back, you combine the two into one and separate them with a semi-colon.
 NOTE: "e.g., ... " means "for example, ... " and "i.e., ... " means "that is, ... "
 Student example. Used with permission.