The good news is that, if you already read Greek and Hebrew well, you don’t need to worry too much about how the Bible reads in your native language. For the rest of us, we must rely on others to perform the translation. Those who have been careful to translate the Bible accurately and thoroughly use a variety of formatting and notes to help communicate its message as clearly as possible in other languages.
As a result, if you read a print Bible, I strongly encourage you to take the time to review the translation notes, usually in the front (i.e., near the preface). If you read the Bible online, follow the links to learn more about the translation(s) that you typically read.
However, here are some common formatting conventions. When you recognize them, you can learn even more about what the original authors of the Bible were saying.
- Red letters typically refer to the words of Jesus. You can find these in the Gospels, where Jesus’ words are recorded from His time living on the earth, as well as other parts of the Bible where Jesus is quoted.
- Chapters and verses organize the contents of the Bible for quick reference. They aren’t usually part of the original writings, but were added for convenience. (A book like the Psalms would be the exception, having natural “chapters” for separate songs, poems, etc.)
- References to a specific book, chapter, and verse are often made in shorthand, like John 3:16, referring to the book of John, the third chapter, and the 16th verse in that chapter. (To make things a bit more complicated in this case, there are also separate books of 1 John, 2 John, and 3 John, each with their own chapter(s) and verses.)
- A few books of the Bible are so short that they only have one chapter. “Chapter 1” is not always included in references within these Bibles, so Jude 25 is a verse from the only chapter within the book of Jude.
- Not every translation will split up specific verses exactly the same way – it’s usually a good idea to read the context of a given verse that you’ve looked up, regardless of whether or not the verses line up the same.
- Footnotes are used for various reasons. One of their purposes is to offer more details or context to a passage that either was difficult to translate, or had more than one possible explanation. Translators can use this sort of footnote to be up-front about what a particular passage may have meant, when they aren’t sure. Another helpful use of footnotes is to identify other passages in the Bible that are being quoted. That way, if an older document is quoted, you can look it up and read more about the context in which it was originally written.
- Citations of content from elsewhere in the Bible may be indented, or put in all caps, in addition to being footnoted. With this information visible, it becomes clear how much of the Old Testament is referenced in the New Testament.
- Section headings are generally left to the translator. They can be helpful summaries about the contents of a group of verses in the Bible, and a handy way to find a particular section. However, they should never substitute for the actual content of the Bible itself.
- Commentaries or devotional thoughts are found in some study Bibles. Like section headings, these are meant to help you with your reading and understanding of the Bible. Also like section headings, they should only be trusted if they align with what the Bible says. A commentator may provide some historical context, an explanation of the original languages, or just some suggestions for you. Many are quite good, but don’t elevate them to the same level as God’s Word, itself.
- Capitalization of pronouns referring to God. Generally, if you see a pronoun (like He, Him, or His) capitalized in the middle of a sentence, this is referring to one of the persons of God (whether God the Father, God the Son – Jesus, or God the Holy Spirit). That’s a means of showing respect, but they can also help you sort out Who these pronouns are referring to. In fact, some translators reserved special pronouns like Thee, Thy, and Thou to refer to God specifically (see Fancy Prayer Words).
- Where you see LORD or GOD in all-caps (unless capitalized for other reasons), this typically refers to a particular, special name of God. We’re not even sure today exactly how to pronounce it, since the Jewish people would not speak it (out of reverence) and the Hebrew form didn’t include vowels. The main thing is that this is a specific, unique reference to God Himself.
- Some translations mark certain words and phrases in italics, where those specific words didn’t necessarily exist in the original writing, but are implied (either through the sentence structure, the context, or other elements of the source languages. These extra words are inserted to make passages more readable in the translated language. Sometimes, I’ll re-read the passage without the inserted words, to “hear” more how the original author may have said something. Generally, I find that it’s pretty easy to understand why the translators added some helper words to try and make the same point as the authors, since I don’t speak the same language as they did.
So, armed with this information, I hope that you will gain even more details of what the authors of the Bible were writing about. Read, study, and learn! Then, let others know what you discover.