Quotes of quotes: Yet another tool for deeper Bible study


Introduction: hearing one end of a telephone conversation

When my wife is on the phone, I often find myself listening in on the conversation. Many times, I cannot tell the identity of her conversation partner, which makes me listen even more closely. If I can catch a sound bite or two of the other person’s voice, I can usually identify who it is. I try to encourage my wife to mention the person’s name, but I confess I do not have her trained very well. Occasionally, my wife can repeat part of what the other person is saying. This helps a lot, both to identify the speaker and to get a sense of the drift of the conversation.

The same thing happens in Scripture. We are often listening in on one end of the conversation. For example, when Paul is discussing the man of lawlessness, he says, “Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?” (2 Thessalonians 2:5). This question prompts us to assume that Paul is not going to repeat everything he said in person to the Thessalonians.

The biblical writer may or may not tell us directly the identity of his audience or a wealth of information that they share, which is undisclosed to us. We can often catch up with the flow of thought, however, if we pay attention to the one end of the conversation that we do have and if we try to identify instances where the biblical writer quotes what his audience is saying.

Direct quotes versus indirect

These quotations may be direct or indirect. A direct quotation reproduces the original words spoken or written, including tenses of verbs and voices of pronouns. An indirect quotation often changes these tenses and voices and may summarize a statement rather than including all of the details.

For example, we learn that after Jesus raised a daughter of the synagogue ruler, “He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat” (Mark 5:43). This is an indirect quotation. A direct quotation would be something like this: “He said to them, ‘Do not, under any circumstances, let anyone know about this. And, by the way, have you noticed that she’s hungry? Give her something to eat.”

In both ancient Hebrew and Koiné Greek, direct quotations are not marked with quotation marks. Nearly always, however, Greek at least introduces direct quotations with the conjunction hoti. Often, in both languages, a direct quotation is introduced by some phrase such as “You say” or “you said.”

Simple quotations

The historical narratives of the Bible are filled with direct and indirect quotations. These are usually easy to identify. See for example, the extended conversation between Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31:26–32. To follow the conversation, the reader only has to remember which character is speaking at the moment. The biblical writers nearly always accommodate our need to know which is which, though occasionally the speaker of one line or another might be hard to identify.

For example, in the book Song of Solomon, the text does not explicitly identify the male and female speakers, except by the gender of the pronouns (she speaks of “him,” and he of “her”). The situation becomes more complicated when the author adds a group of friends, introducing first person plural pronouns. (See Song of Solomon 5:9, but are the friends speaking in the last line of Song of Solomon 5:1 or in Song of Solomon 6:10?)

When using quotations from the Bible we must always remember who the speaker is, and we must ask ourselves whether that speaker is inspired. If the speaker is not inspired, can we assume that he or she is telling the truth? Are they speaking out of ignorance or even with a corrupt mind? We should not suppose, for example, that the friends of Job or Elihu are making reliable statements (e.g., the question of Eliphaz in Job 4:7). Even in cases where they seem to be saying something true, we should avoid quoting them as if their statement is an authoritative word from the Lord (e.g., Job 4:18-19).

In the New Testament, these issues are less of a concern. When Mary visits Elizabeth, the text explicitly says, “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed….” (Luke 1:41–42). When it is Mary’s turn to speak, the text simply says, “Mary said….” (Luke 1:46), but most of us confidently assume that her psalm (Luke 1:46b-55) is inspired. A few verses later, the text is once more explicit: “His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied….” (Luke 1:67).

To fill out this picture, we should look at the words of Simeon in Luke 2:29–36, introduced only by the words, “Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying….” (Luke 2:28). The immediately preceding paragraph, however, three times connects Simeon with the Holy Spirit (Luke 2:25-27). Also, though Luke only gives us an indirect quotation of Anna’s words about the baby Jesus (Luke 2:38), he does call her a prophetess (Luke 2:36).

There is one occasion in which the Fourth Evangelist gives a direct quotation of the high priest Caiaphas: “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:49b-50). Although the New Testament consistently portrays Caiaphas as wicked, the gospel writer points out that on this occasion his words were a true prophecy (see John 11:51-52). If God is able to speak through Balaam’s donkey (see Numbers 22:21-30), he can also communicate through this wicked high priest. Yet even in his prophecy, the opening line, “You know nothing at all!” reveals the man’s self-righteous arrogance.

Embedded quotations

The whole matter of quotations becomes complicated when an author embeds quotations within quotations. This happens often in the prophets, who usually begin with the formula, “This is what the Lord says,” followed by a direct quotation from God. Most modern translators attempt to distinguish between what the prophet says and what God says by changing to single quotes at this point. But if God is quoting what the people say, the translators have to change back to double quotes. And sometimes, God is quoting the people as they quote God, which means a change back to single quotes again. If you are only paying casual attention, you can get confused in a hurry.

Here is an example. In the famous Potter’s House sermon, Jeremiah begins:

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does?” declares the Lord (Jeremiah 18:5–6a).

Here, the prophet is simply quoting what the Lord is asking the people. But a few verses later, it gets more tangled:

“Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: “Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.” But they will reply, “It’s no use. We will continue with our own plans; each of us will follow the stubbornness of his evil heart” ’ ” (Jeremiah 18:11–12).

Here, the prophet Jeremiah is quoting the word of the Lord (first set of double quotation marks). But within that quotation, the Lord tells him to tell the people His message (first set of single quotation marks). Then, the message itself is quoted (second set of double quotation marks). In some passages, as many as five sets are embedded inside each other, prompting translators to have to choose between either showing confusing marks at the end of the sentence (such as: ” ’ ” ’ ”) or eliminating some of them on the assumption that the careful reader can sort them out and the casual reader won’t care.

As a careful reader, you will want to follow these embedded quotations with precision, keeping in mind who the speaker is, and who is quoting whom. Another example of embedded quotations is the diatribe style of the book of Malachi.

As we untangle the embedded quotations and sort out who said what, we must remember to give the weight to the authentic voice of God.

Quotations in First Corinthians

In First Corinthians, the quotations Paul makes are quite significant for obtaining an accurate understanding of the text. He opens chapter 7 with the words: “Now for the matters you wrote about…” (1 Corinthians 7:1), creating a division between chapters 1 through 6, and chapters 7 through 16. In addition to drawing from his own knowledge of the Corinthians based on his relations with them, Paul responds to oral reports (see 1 Corinthians 1:11) in chapters 1 through 6 and to their letter in 7 through 16.

His quotations of the Corinthians, then, come from these three sources: personal knowledge, oral testimony, and written correspondence. Modern translators have indicated these quotations by enclosing them in quotation marks, but in a few cases, whether a statement is a quotation or the extent of the quotation is a debatable point.

In 1 Corinthians 6:12, for example, Paul seems to quote a Corinthians slogan when he twice says, “Everything is permissible for me.” This is probably a case in which Paul’s converts take his teaching about grace further than he intended. Their slogan suggests that they believed a Christian could be connected with God and still lead a sinful lifestyle.

In the next verse, Paul apparently quotes them again: “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food.” Here, the Corinthians are euphemistically speaking of sex and the sex drive, arguing that engaging in sex (apparently without worrying about restricting it to the confines of marriage) is merely operating according to God’s design for the functioning of the apparatus. I believe that the next phrase, “but God will destroy them both,” is also a part of the quotation (see 1 Corinthians 6:13). If so, the Corinthians are saying that sex issues are only temporary; they are merely trivialities of the fleshly body that is heading for the grave. In view of their denial of the resurrection in chapter 15, assigning this argument to the Corinthians makes sense.

The opening verse of the section responding to the Corinthian letter has this quotation: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1b). Once more, we should understand this, not as the teaching of the apostle Paul, but as an erroneous teaching of the Corinthians which Paul seeks to correct. Taking it at face value has led feminists to accuse Paul of misogyny (hating all females). Other passages, however, repudiate this claim, for he praises women highly, demonstrating that he deserves the distinction of being the most pro-woman Jewish teacher of the first century. See, for instance, his statements about women coworkers in Romans 16:1-2,3,6,7,10,12,13,15 and in Philippians 4:2-3. Even in this passage, Paul gives the husband and the wife mutual obligations, rather than creating a double standard (see 1 Corinthians 7:3-6).

Additional quotations of the Corinthians may occur in 1 Corinthians 6:18; 8:1,4-6,8; 1 Corinthians 10:23,30; and 1 Corinthians 11:2, though some of these are debatable. The best way to tell whether a statement is a quotation of the Corinthians is to watch for what Paul does next. Does he immediately refute or qualify a statement? If so, the initial statement is probably a quotation of the Corinthians.

Conclusion: Read carefully

Modern translators have done a reasonably good job of alerting us to problems involving quotations. Read the footnotes as well as the text.

For example, in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, it is hard to tell when the dialogue with the distinguished Jewish teacher ends and the gospel writer’s commentary begins. Does the dialogue end on a sour note with the question of Jesus in John 3:12: “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then would you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” Or does it extend through verse 15, which speaks of the lifting up of the Son of Man? Some even believe that the dialogue continues through verse 21. Consult John 3:9-21, and decide for yourself.

A similar problem occurs at the end of the same chapter, which reports a conversation between John the Baptizer and his disciples. The discussion begins in verse 26, but does it end at verse 30 or extend through verse 36? Look at the entire context of John 3:26-36.

My opinion is that John 3:16-21 and John 3:31-36 are both inspired commentaries by the gospel writer similar to the prologue (John 1:1-18) and the epilogue (John 21:25), of which the gospel writer is definitely the author. Other passages of the Fourth Gospel, where it is hard to identify whether the speaker is Jesus or the gospel writer, include: John 5:21-23 and John 6:27,33,46.

A crucial part of going deeper in the Word of God is developing the ability to observe, ask questions, and seek reasonable answers. Just reading the text without having the brain engaged has little value. Reading it slowly, carefully, analytically, practically, and humbly releases its power to transform both your own heart and the hearts of those willing to listen as you share what you have discovered.

Want to go deeper?

Henry J. Cadbury. “Lexical Notes on Luke-Acts: IV. On Direct Quotation, with Some Uses of hoti and ei.” Journal of Biblical Literature. 48, 3-4 (January 1, 1929):412-425.

In a very detailed and technical study, Cadbury discusses the Greek idioms for making direct and indirect quotations (including the use of hoti). He points out that Luke often starts with an indirect quotation, to which he adds a direct quotation. Other scholars agree that this is characteristic of his style and even serves as evidence of the unity of Luke-Acts.

John C. Hurd, Jr. The Origin of First Corinthians. Revised edition. Macon, Ga.: Macon University, 1983. 61-94.

Hurd provides guidance for what sentences in 1 Corinthians should be regarded as direct quotations from the Corinthians, and even seeks to deduce from Paul’s answers many of the questions that may have been in the letter to him from Corinth. I should point out that these deductions are tenuous, at best.

Norman A. Mundhenk. “Punctuation.” The Bible Translator 32, 2 (April 1981):234-240.

Mundhenk discusses the problem of quotations within quotations, explaining that Hebrew predominately uses direct quotation and avoids indirect. He cites Jeremiah 7:1-4 as an example of four levels of quotation marks.

Merrill C. Tenney. “The Footnotes of John’s Gospel.” Bibliotheca sacra 117, 468 (October 1, 1960): 350-363.

Tenney calls John 3:16-21 and John 3:31-36 “long theological notes,” two of the three he finds in the Fourth Gospel (the other one is John 12:37-43). He also discusses John’s editorial notes as scattered throughout his gospel, dividing them into nine additional categories.

Steve has been a Bible teacher for over 30 years. He has written many articles, more than 20 e-books, and several study guides, most recently, Overcoming: Guide to Understanding the Book of Revelation. His website, DeeperStudy.com, encourages all people to go deeper in their understanding of the Word of God, the Bible, and to become authentic, New Testament Christians who serve a risen Lord.

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