The Ins and Outs of Quoting the Bible

February 27, 2014 by Evan Braun


One of the most common issues unique to Christian authors is learning how to properly deal with quotations from the Bible. Just about every non-fiction Christian writer out there runs up against the scripture question, and a large number of fiction writers do, too. As an editor of Christian manuscripts, this is a learning curve each and every one of my clients must face.

We talk about “the Bible” as though there is only one, but the truth is that there are dozens of different Bibles translations, and no two are alike. There’s the King James Version, the New King James Version, the New International Version, the New Living Translation, the New American Standard Bible, the English Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the Good News Translation, the Holman Christian Standard, the Message… and those are just the first ten English translations that come to mind. There are a lot more. Not only that, but each translation has multiple versions of itself, different editions for different years.

Yes, the Bible is constantly in flux! It truly is a living document.

There’s no right or wrong version to use, as that decision is often a matter of theology and preference, but there is a right and wrong way to quote it. In today’s post, I’m going to take a few minutes to outline how to do it right.

A lot of people may be surprised to learn that the Bible is copyrighted, and therefore can only be used in adherence to certain rules—that is, with the exception of the King James Version and the American Standard Version, which are both old enough that they fall into the public domain (meaning they can be used without any legal limitations whatsoever).

Most other versions fall under copyrights owned by big publishers like Thomas Nelson, the Lockman Foundation, and Tyndale House, to name a few. The rules vary from version to version, but the rules are always clearly expressed on the publishers’ websites. If you make the decision to publish your work through Word Alive Press, editors such as myself will graciously help you through the process, but it’s still a good idea to have some general concept of the rules.

For example, you’re not allowed to quote a book of the Bible in full, not even the really short ones like 2 and 3 John, Philemon, and Jude. Another important rule is that your Bible quotes are not allowed to exceed twenty-five percent of your book’s total length—and this is the one that trips people up the most. Be wary of just how much scripture you use. Apply it judiciously; instead of quoting an entire chapter to make a single point, consider quoting just the two or three most relevant verses. There’s a big up-side to this, too: readers are unlikely to slog through quotes that run for pages, but they’ll be happy to just look at a few lines at a time.

It’s also important that when you quote, you quote precisely. Use the same capital and lowercase letters. Use the same punctuation. And of course, take the care to get the spelling right. For example, if you’re quoting from the New King James Version, you have to use the deity pronoun at all times (capitalizing the pronouns that refer to God), because that’s what the translators decided upon. If you’re quoting from the New International Version, however (a popular choice), you can’t use the deity pronoun, even if you capitalize those pronouns everywhere else in your own writing. Here’s another example: if you’re writing your book in American English (“color” instead of “colour,” “honor” instead of “honour,” etc.), then you still have to use Canadian/British spellings in your quotes if you’re using a version which employs them.

On the copyright page of your book, you’ll also have to give credit where credit is due. Every publisher has a particular statement that needs to appear in the book if you use their translations. That statement can be found on their websites—again, if you work with Word Alive Press, we’ll insert them for you. If not, you’ll have to do some hunting.

In conclusion, being aware of the rules will help you avoid problems down the line when you finally make the decision to get your book published.

About this Contributor

Ribbon_right_inverse
Small_headshot_-_evan_braun

Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored two novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has also released a sequel, The City of Darkness (2013), with a third entry in the series due later this year. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.