It is important to treat the use of quoting the Bible like you would in quoting any source material. Too frequently I run across an author who has not bothered to take that step. But 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 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 only Bible verses. I once had a magazine editor ask me to prove that a quotation I cited in an article was verbatim and not paraphrased. It took me a full day at the library to find that quote again, make a copy of the page where it was found, 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 smartphones to take a picture of the page and file the photo in their research folder.)
The best resource for specifically Christian issues of grammar, style, and spelling is Robert Hudson’s The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, 4th Edition(Zondervan, 2016). (Over 600 pages of essential information for writers who care about such details.)
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 another. 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. Note that the King James Version is in public domain in the U.S. and most of the world and can be used in any project without permission from a publisher. However, in the United Kingdom, the KJV is still under copyright protection from the Crown and usage has certain limitations in print form.
Years ago, I was editing a manuscript and about halfway 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. In the first half of the book, the author used the New International Version. In the second half, he used 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.
Why Is the Bible Copyrighted?
I am a firm believer that the Bible is the inspired and only infallible authoritative Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:19-21). I believe the Bible is God’s message to humanity, disclosing the way of salvation (Romans 1:16) and providing a sufficient rule of life for the saved (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2). That is from our agency’s statement of faith.
But the Bible was not written in English. It was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Koine Greek. Thus, it must be translated. The King James Version, first published in 1611, was last revised in 1769 and is in public domain (outside of the United Kingdom). All modern translations were produced by various Bible societies or publishers at great expense (many times, more than a million dollars to complete). For access to more than sixty English translations and paraphrases, visit BibleGateway.com.
Publishers and Bible societies copyright their work to protect the integrity of their specific translations. Therefore, the organization that paid for the translation does indeed “own” that translation. By protecting the copyright, these organizations protect the work from mishandling or misuse.
Verify the Citation Unless You Wish to Become an Anecdote
Many times a writer will simply cite a particular verse like John 3:16 or group a number of verses in a list (like I did earlier in this post). Usually, this means the verses cited are supporting material for a particular point. It is important that you proofread your citations to make sure they are correct. If you don’t, there can be unintended results. A few years ago, a friend of mine, Tom Blanchard (who taught the Bible for decades in France), told the following story:
After posting one lesson on the Prophets, which I had proofread 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.
If you want to watch comedian Tim Hawkins confess to a hilarious mistake along these lines, watch this video: