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How to Quote the Bible Like a Pro

Are you able to quote book, chapter, and verse numbers for every Bible passage that you know? If not, does it prevent you from engaging in faith discussions with people who are able to?

I often hear from Catholics who admit that they are intimidated by how well many anti-Catholics seem to know the Bible. When challengers come around slinging Bible verses left and right, these otherwise knowledgeable Catholics clam up, shying away from the conversation in fear of embarrassment. They know what the Bible says but, since they cannot cite many verses off the top of their heads, they feel ill-equipped to defend their faith. Do you ever feel this way? If so, you would probably like to do something about it.

One option is to invest some time and effort into memorizing Bible verses. There are more than a few resources available to assist with this. Another option is to keep a handy “Bible Cheat Sheet” with you (see below to order one). This is a great resource to have when faced with many of the most common challenges to the Catholic Faith.

But there is a third option that can be implemented right now: Go ahead and jump into the fray just as you are! If you have a fairly good grasp of the Bible and are able to at least paraphrase what you know it says, there is no shame in being unable to pinpoint, off the cuff, precise book, chapter, and verse citations. If pressed to do so, you can always offer to look up citations later. Bible websites and software make it quite easy to find them.

You might feel uneasy about jumping in, but you shouldn’t. Chapter and verse numbers did not originally appear in the Bible. In fact, the division into chapters as we have them today was introduced in the thirteenth century. Division into verses came in the sixteenth century. So, for the bulk of the history of Christendom, chapter and verse citations were not used at all. Granted, citations are often quite helpful, especially in written correspondence. But knowing them by heart simply is not a required prerequisite for discussing Scripture.

Consider the examples of the sacred authors and biblical figures themselves. The Bible is full of vague references to other Scripture passages. For example, after Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land, the sacred author of the book of Joshua tells us that they built an altar to the Lord as had been commanded by Moses and the elders in Deuteronomy 27:5 (Josh. 8:31). Of course, the sacred author did not cite the chapter and verse numbers, which would not be added until about three thousand years later. Instead, he simply cited “the book of the law of Moses.”

References to “the law” are quite common in the Bible and they may refer either broadly to its first five books, the Pentateuch, known as “Torah,” a Hebrew term meaning “teaching” or “instruction,” or more specifically to an individual book such as Deuteronomy, a Greek term meaning “second law.” Vague references to this part of the Bible, even when citing specific points of the law, often sufficed for both the sacred authors and the biblical figures they wrote about.

We find such phrases as “the book of the law of Moses” (e.g., 2 Kings 14:6 referring to Deut. 24:16), “the book of the covenant” (e.g., 2 Kings 23:21 referring to Deut. 16:2), and, simply, “the law of Moses” (e.g., Dan. 9:11 referring to Deut. 28:15ff) each citing specific Bible verses or passages that are often cited more precisely today. They often are, but such precise citations clearly are not an absolute requirement, especially in casual conversation.

Some might argue at this point that the Pentateuch may have originally been one long document without divisions so people had no way to be more specific in their citations. However, even if the Pentateuch was originally one long document, more specific references could have been provided by, for example, providing more contextual information for citations. In any case, at least by the time the Septuagint appeared in the last few centuries before Christ, the Pentateuch had been divided into five books, and yet New Testament sacred authors and biblical figures continued to use vague citations.

Luke vaguely referred to “the law of Moses” and “the law of the Lord” (citing Lev. 12:2-8, Ex. 13:2, and Num. 18:15) in Luke 2:22-24 and Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:9, simply referenced, “the law of Moses” (citing Deut. 25:4). Peter even used a much more vague reference in 1 Peter 1:16 in which he cited Leviticus 11:44-45 with nothing more than “it is written.” Jesus often used this phrase when referencing Old Testament Scripture passages (e.g., see Matt 4:1-11).

Other parts of the Old Testament (e.g., the Psalms and Prophets) are often similarly vaguely cited throughout the New Testament. Many more examples could be provided, but I think you get the point: It is not necessary to cite every book, chapter, and verse number when quoting Scripture, so don’t let your inability to do so keep you from engaging in Bible discussion. Until you are able to provide more specific citations, you can always follow the example of the author of the letter to the Hebrews and simply say, “It has been testified somewhere” (Heb. 2:6 citing Ps. 8:4-6).

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