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Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation

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Questioning Quotation Marks

by  Eric Lyons, M.Min.

Quotation marks in written texts are often very beneficial to the reader. They help the reader know exactly when a person is speaking. They also help the reader understand exactly what the person has said. Did the husband merely say that he appreciated his wife, or did he tell his wife: “I love you more than life itself”? Did Patrick Henry merely ask for freedom, or did he cry, “Give me liberty or give me death”? Did Abraham Lincoln state, “About 90 years ago, our pappies started a country,” or did he actually say, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation”? Quotation marks help the reader to know the difference between an actual quote and a paraphrase of what was said.

Whereas writers in modern times are accustomed to using quotation marks for direct quotes, students of the Bible must remember, “ancient writers did not use the same literary devices employed today. Quotation marks, colons, ellipsis marks, brackets, etc., were unknown to them” (Jackson, 1988, emp. added). It is very important for Bible students to keep in mind that the inspired writers of Scripture and the amanuenses who copied their works, did not use quotation marks to identify what various individuals said. As with all writers of antiquity, quotation marks were foreign to the Bible writers. The thousands of quotation marks in many modern translations were added by translators in hopes of helping the Bible student have an easier time understanding the text. Unfortunately, quotation marks can be a hindrance if the Bible student does not first understand that the inspired writers often did not intend for their statements to be precise quotations, but rather summaries of inspired truths.

Sometimes it is quite obvious that quotation marks are out of place. For example, the inspired writer of 1 Kings 14 recorded how God informed the prophet Ahijah that King Jeroboam’s wife was coming to pay him a visit. The penmen then wrote: “Thus and thus you shall say to her” (14:5). In several versions that utilize quotation marks (e.g., NKJV, NASB, RSV, etc.) you may be left with the impression that what God told Ahijah was literally, “thus and thus….” In actuality, “thus and thus” was merely the inspired writer’s way of saying that God spoke some things to Ahijah—the things that Ahijah then specifically relayed to Jeroboam’s wife in verses 6-16. God did not literally reveal “thus and thus” to Ahijah. He revealed to him some very specific words that the phrase “thus and thus” summarizes.

The same terminology was used in 2 Kings when, after an Israelite servant informed Naaman’s wife that Elisha could heal Naaman of his leprosy, Naaman told the King of Syria, “Thus and thus said the girl who is from the land of Israel” (2 Kings 5:4, emp. added). Naaman obviously did not approach the King of Syria and literally say, “thus and thus.” Rather than repeat what the girl said to Naaman’s wife, the inspired penman of 2 Kings summarized Naaman’s statement to the king with the words “thus and thus.” Yet, because these words appear within quotations marks in certain modern translations, some might misinterpret the encounter. These two examples from 1 and 2 Kings are elementary, but they clearly demonstrate how Bible students in the 21st century must be careful when interpreting “quotations” from 1,900+ years ago.

QUOTATIONS OF JESUS

Numerous times in the gospel accounts, the Bible writers recorded statements made by Jesus while He was on Earth. Although Bible writers frequently recorded the same statements, they are not exactly (word-for-word) alike. For example, whereas Matthew recorded that Jesus told Satan, “It is written again (palin gegrapti), ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’” (4:7), Luke wrote: “It has been said (eiratai), ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God’” (4:12). Although this difference is considered minor, and is referring to the same thing (the Old Testament), Matthew and Luke still recorded Jesus’ statement using different words. Why? Why did Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John not always record the words of Jesus exactly alike?

First, it is possible that some differences throughout the gospel accounts are due to Jesus having made both statements. It is unwise to think that every similar statement recorded by the gospel writers must refer to the exact same moment. In the example of Jesus responding to Satan’s temptation, it may be that Jesus repeated the same thought on the same occasion using different words. After telling Satan, “It has been said, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God,” Jesus could have re-emphasized the point (especially if Satan repeated the temptation) by saying, “It is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’” Thus, Jesus could have made both statements.

A second reason why differences exist among the gospel writers’ quotations of Jesus is because the writers’ purpose was to record precisely what the Holy Spirit deemed necessary (cf. John 16:13), but not necessarily exactly what Jesus said. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), one writer may paraphrase a person’s (e.g., Jesus’) words, while another writer may quote the exact words. Similar to how two different but honest, intelligent newspaper reporters can give accurate accounts of the same event, all the while using different terminology, styles, etc., God’s inspired penmen could give accurate accounts of what Jesus communicated to mankind, especially considering “they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21, emp. added).

CONCLUSION

Throughout the Bible, one can find accurate statements that Jesus and others made, but not necessarily the exact quotations (despite the fact that modern translators and publishers often offset the sayings of Jesus and others with quotation marks). Keep in mind, however, that inspired summaries of what someone said do not take away from the accuracy of the God-given Scriptures, nor a person’s ability to apply those Scriptures to one’s life.

REFERENCE

Jackson, Wayne (1988), “Principles of Bible Prophecy,” Reason & Revelation, 8[7]:27-30, July.




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