Bible References, Citations, and Translations

By Torey J. S. Teer


Have you ever had a Writing Expert, professor, or grader comment on your improper format of Bible citations? Has your writing been critiqued for not indicating which Bible translation you are quoting from?

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:

·         “Isaiah 53 is a passage that describes the plight of the Suffering Servant.”

·         “In 1 Corinthians 12–14, Paul discusses how spiritual gifts should properly function in the corporate gathering of the church.”

o   Notice, the “en-dash” (–) is used between chapters (whereas, the short dash [-] is used elsewhere between verses within the same chapter).

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),[1] 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).”

o   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).”

o   Here, the quote is preceded by an introductory phrase or word (“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).”

o   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, 4.10, “Abbreviations,” pp. 21-23 (4.0.4 edition).

NOTE: Footnotes generally do NOT contain bible references. Instead, put the reference to a passage in a parenthetical.

Multiple Passages

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 things to note here:

(1) only abbreviations are to be used,

(2) the references must be listed in canonical order,

(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 book of the Bible 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).”

o   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).”

o   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.

Parallel Passages

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).”

o   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).”

o   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

First Usage

You will notice (hopefully) 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). Here is one example given in two forms:

·         “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).”

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.

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.” Further,…”

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.

Switching Between Translations

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). à 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).

Another sets of examples—this time simplified—is as follows:

·         1st instance: “[Bible quote]” (1 Tim 1:1 ESV).

·         2nd instance: “…” (2 Tim 2:2).

·         3rd instance: “…” (2 Tim 4:2).

·         4th instance: “…” (Titus 3:5 NASB).

·         5th instance: “…” (1 Cor 13:7 NIV).

·         6th instance: “…” (2 Cor 5:21). So, this one is from the NIV.

·         7th instance: “…” (1 Pet 3:15 KJV).

·         8th instance: “…” (Jas 1:2 ESV).

·         And so on



Proper 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 quoted material of Bible). 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; however, your professors, graders, and reviewers will greatly appreciate it!

Below, 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!


·         “At the point of rebirth, a definite moral change transpires within believers where they receive new spiritual life which enables them to resist sin (1 John 3:9). In Romans 6, Paul speaks of this initial step in sanctification as one that destroys sin’s hold over believers. Yet, definitive sanctification is not all-inclusive for believers are not entirely free from sin until death or judgment (Phil 3:12; 1 John 1:8, 10). Thus, sanctification is also progressive, as evidenced in 2 Corinthians 3:18, where Paul describes Christians as those who “are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (RSV).”[2]

·         “For example, the Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians, twice proclaims that Christ “died for all” (5:14-15 ESV). He also says to his beloved disciple Timothy that Christ “gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:5-6) and is the “Savior of all people, especially of those who believe” (4:10). Finally, the author of Hebrews states that Christ suffered death so that He would “taste death for everyone” (Heb 2:9).”25

·         “Fortunately, however, Scripture is replete with details on the destiny of these malefactors. Isaiah, looking toward God’s future glorification, says that God will “swallow up death forever” (25:8 ESV).21 Paul, in 1 Corinthians, draws on this passage in Isaiah—as well as Hosea 13:1422—to speak of believers’ victory over sin and death through Christ, saying, “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’” (1 Cor 15:54b-55). Jesus Himself speaks of his victory over the powers of darkness when he says, “Now is the judgment of the ruler of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31; cf. 16:9), and “I have overcome the world” (16:31).23 Concurrently, Paul says of Christ, “Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (2:15 NET). Finally, speaking eschatologically of Jesus, Paul says, “Then comes the end, when he delivers up the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:24-26 ESV; cf. Rev 20:13-14).”

o   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).

·         “One of the boundaries of an orthodox eschatology is the judgment of the righteous and the wicked (ultimate righteousness, eternal life, and glory for the righteous and ultimate punishment for the wicked; Dan 12:2–3; Matt 25:31–46; John 5:28–29; Acts 24:15; 2 Thess 1:5–10; Rev 20:12–13).”

o   When you would have two parenthetical notes back to back, you combine the two into one and separate them with a semi-colon.

·         Bonus note: Always capitalize “Scripture,” “Bible,” “God’s Word, and “the Word of God,” but do not capitalize “biblical,” “biblically,” “scriptural,” or “scripturally” (unless they begin a sentence).

[1]NOTE: “e.g.,…” means “for example, …” and “i.e., …” means “that is, …”

[2]Student example. Used with permission.