How to cite the Bible: a short introduction with examples

Some people quote the Bible so readily that it is practically a reflex action. (Christian preachers are the obvious example.) We have even have an idiomatic expression that serves as a reminder of the core information needed: “chapter and verse”. Of course, “book” is necessary too. And, for optimal results in an academic context, the “version” (because translation makes all the difference). This blogpost is a placeholder to help students (new specialists and non-specialists) work out how to cite the bible in academic writing–and how to fill gaps where key information is not provided. Examples are given in MHRA style.

NB This blogpost converts all footnotes (found at the foot of a printed page) into endnotes (found at the end of the blogpost, after the Bibliography).

A desire to quote from scripture is at least as old as scripture itself. This is especially evident within the New Testament, where reported speech very often includes direct references to the Jewish scriptures.

For example, in the first sermon of the Book of Acts, Peter says: “this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: / ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, / that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…’”.[1] As demonstrated by cross-references in some editions, the author of Luke-Acts here quotes Joel 2:28-32. (That said, the NRSV editors appear to have missed a step here, since in their Joel 2:28 one finds “on” rather than the “upon” of Acts 2.)

Looking carefully at the preceding paragraph, you may observe that I have already used two different referencing methods.

On the one hand, I have used a footnote. Because this is the first footnote of its kind, I have also given full publication information. This was a little challenging, because the online version used did not include all necessary publication information. Knowing that I was about to embark on a discussion of different passages and bibles, I added a further note in the footnote to identify this version as my default source. That’s a pretty standard scholarly remark. Even where discursive footnotes (i.e. ones that go off at a tangent or attempt to sneak in extra argument) are forbidden, it is okay to supply extra citation information within the note as modelled here.

On the other hand, I have used a conventional in-text reference. This makes sense, since the point being made is specifically to confirm that the Acts passage does indeed cite a specific part of Joel. Since I am writing about biblical citation, I ought to also observe that both citations rely on an established short form of the book names. E.g. I have not written “The Book of Acts”, or “The Book of the Prophet Joel”. It would be very unusual to see such titles written out in full in scholarship, and thankfully that means convention does not require it. (The MHRA guide is kind enough to confirm as much—see entry 11.2.8.)

My reference to the “NRSV” in the main text is questionable, since I have not already introduced this abbreviation in my discussion. I have included the information in the footnote though, so perhaps this small abuse of your attention can be excused.

In subsequent discussion, you will observe that my references are confined to footnotes. That’s because the exact location of the passage is not central to the discussion. In such cases, the footnotes allow the interested reader to locate the item under discussion and they do so in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the discussion.

So what are the conventions of biblical citation? And does authorship not matter?

There are some ways of referring to biblical texts that place emphasis on authorship. For example, when Martin Luther set about translating the first five books of the Bible (1523 onwards), he referred to them as the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth books of Moses. This approach is not conducive to brief references, and later practice has tended to favour shorter and more precise book names. In English, individual books of the Pentateuch (yes, this is a fancy way of talking about those same first five books) are typically designated simply as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

In other cases, the conventional forms are based on an understanding of authorship. For example, what might be fully termed “The Good News (or Gospel) according to Matthew” is conventionally referred to simply as Matthew. Where the traditional identity of the author is believed to be important in identifying a biblical book, it is already part of the short name. On the same basis, convention avoids redundant forms of citation where naming the author would duplicate the standard title, such as:

  • Matthew, “The Good News according to Matthew”, The Holy Bible.

Note also that when one refers to the short form of the book (as e.g. Matthew), this information is not italicised.

In spite of the above adjustments which simplify the task of referring to biblical texts, there are still some multi-volume books. For example, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles each have two volumes (traditionally designated with Roman numerals, I Samuel, II Samuel, etc.); while the New Testament canon includes two letters to the Christian community at Corinth (I & II Corinthians), as likewise to Thessalonica, to Timothy, and three from “John” (I, II & III John).

For chapter and verse, some writers may refer to “ch.” (plural ch.) and/or “v.” (plural: vv.). However, it is more typical to simply use Arabic numerals (0-9) and separate chapter from verse using a colon (:). This approach is short and neat.

Think before you cite: does your discussion involve more than one translation?

Assuming that you will be storing key information in footnotes, the next section of this post is here to illustrate how you might approach recording information about different bible versions being discussed. Rather than Lorem ipsum (i.e. using Latin nonsense), it offers a superficial discussion of some biblical quotations and their use in English. The important content is still the footnotes.

Some biblical phrases have become so embedded in Anglophone culture that those using them may not even realise they have biblical origins. For example, the expression “a man after his own heart” is a relatively literal translation of the prophet Samuel’s words to Saul—which are spoken with reference to the future king David.[2] The same phrasing appears in the New Testament, when Paul calls upon the example of David (the man after God’s own heart).[3]

Plenty of biblical texts have become famous in a way that the passages they belong to are not. Consider, e.g., the book of Ecclesiastes, which states that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”.[4]

Whether or not one agrees with its philosophy, the preceding statement is only partially true: Ecclesiastes was not written in English, so what it states will depend upon the version encountered.

In the original 1611 edition of the so-called Authorized Version (now commonly referred to as the “King James Version” or “King James Bible”), certain words were set out in an italic typeface, intended to let the reader know where words were added for sake of clear grammar and English expression. Thus, in the Oxford World’s Classics edition—which presents the 1611 text in a more modern typeface—one finds: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”[5]

The fact that some words need to be supplied indicates that there are some other possible ways of rendering the text in English.

If one chose to consult the New Living Translation (NLT), one would instead read “For everything there is a season, / a time for every activity under heaven”.[6]

In the preceding example, one may observe that in order to convey the poetic genre of certain biblical texts, translators may break the line; a facet represented above with the use of a forward slash (/); it is also possible to use a straight line (|) for this purpose. Careful writers will be consistent in their choice of notation, so that the reader can interpret the layout with confidence.

Some features vary according to the intended audience of a specific edition. Thus the New Revised Standard Version exists with American English spellings (NRSV, first published in 1989) and with British English spellings (NRSVA, published in 1995); though the differences are often so minor that we may refer with confidence simply to “the NRSV”.

Intriguingly, the NRSV editors seem to have decided that the poetry of Ecclesiastes 3 begins only at the second verse. To see what I mean, you may hop across to Bible Gateway, using the information provided in my footnotes; and also in the bibliography, of course.

And if you’re only using one translation?

In this case, you can stick to short form references (as in notes 2 & 3). Best practice is to show which edition you are using the first time that you quote from the Bible (as in note 1), and you will definitely need to list the correct details in your bibliography—see the “NRSV” entry below.

A last remark on tools:

The footnote tool on this website automatically encloses footnote markers in square brackets. This is not required, nor expected, in academic work. Use of superscript formatting is sufficient. In fact, you can automate the insertion of footnotes in Microsoft Word by holding down the “Ctrl” and “Alt” keys and hitting “F”. And for more advanced work, you may find free tools like Zotero useful for keeping track of the works cited and generating your bibliography.


Bibliography (i.e. list of works referenced)

Note: One might alphabetise according to published title; however, for practical use—i.e. so that your reader can more easily follow up references—it can be wiser to organise different editions according to the common abbreviations. If you are only using one version of the Bible, alphabetise it under “B” for bible.

[AKJV] The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha, ed. by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, Oxford World’s Classics; Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1998.

[KJV] King James Version (No place: no publisher, 1611). Online edition: <>.

[NLT] Holy Bible: New Living Translation. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Foundation, 2015. Online edition: <>.

[NRSV] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. [No place:] Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989. Online edition: <>.

[NRSVA] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version: Anglicised Edition. [No place:] Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1995. Online edition: <>.


[1] Acts 2:16-17. The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version ([No place:] Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989). Consulted via the online edition: <> [accessed 21 January 2021].  The Bible is quoted with reference to this edition (hereafter “NRSV”), except where otherwise specified.

[2] I Samuel 13:14.

[3] See Acts 13:22.

[4] Ecclesiastes 3:1. King James Version (No place: no publisher, 1611). Consulted via the online edition: <> [accessed 21 January 2021].

[5] The Bible: Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha, ed. by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett, Oxford World’s Classics (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1998), p. 753. [You may find a digital version at that employs an italic font for the same purpose as this print edition; if so, cite that–only cite a print edition if it is indeed what you have in front of you.]

[6] Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Foundation, 2015). Consulted via the online edition: <>. [accessed 21 January 2021].

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