Quotation Marks

Some readers get frustrated after realizing that there are no quotation marks in the KJV.  The NASB, ESV, NIV, NKJV, etc. all have quotation marks indicating spoken parts.  However, there are at least two reasons why the KJV's lack of quotation marks is helpful for a serious student of the word.

1. Quotation marks are editorial guesses

In most cases, a typical reader can distinguish between a spoken passage and a non-spoken narrative.  However, there are some places where the reader can get confused as to whether a passage is spoken by a character or by a narrator.  These are places where a frustrated reader might desire the help of quotation marks.  However, these are precisely the places where quotation marks should not be placed.

Quotation marks do not appear in the original Hebrew or Greek, and the KJV does not add quotation marks.  The addition of quotation marks would be tantamount to the addition of information that does not exist in the original Hebrew or Greek.  These are passages where the reader must interpret for himself (with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) who the speaker is.  Quotation marks are thus false assurances.

Here are some examples of passages where quotation marks are tenuous guesses:

Job 32:15-17
  • There is a view that Elihu wrote the book of Job.  Job 32:15-17 can be read as Elihu's narration and proof of his authorship of the book.  However, in many versions these verses are enclosed in quotation marks, which make these words the words of Elihu as a mere character in the narrative.  Having no quotation marks allows the reader to come to his own interpretation.
John 3:31
  • John the Baptist begins talking in verse 27 and continues for certain until at least verse 30.  Verse 30 is the last verse wherein John the Baptist uses the personal pronoun.  However, it is uncertain as to whether John the Baptist continues speaking through verse 31 to 36.  Thus different translations end John the Baptist's quote at different places.  The NKJV, NASB and NIV end the quote at the end of verse 36, but the ESV and NRSV end the quote at the end of verse 30. 
John 3:16
  • This famous verse is usually attributed to Jesus, but there is no telling as to whether this verse was spoken by Jesus to Nicodemus or by the Holy Spirit through John the Apostle to the readers of the Gospel.  The RSV ends Jesus' quote at verse 15.  The footnotes in many translations indicate that the identity of the speaker is not certain from verse 16 to 21.
Luke 14:10
  • Most translations attribute the words, "then shalt thou have worship in the presence of them that sit at meat with thee" to Jesus.  The quotation of the host is usually concluded before this statement.  However, these words could have been the words of the host, not of Jesus.  This is the interpretation of Matthew Henry: "Note, The way to rise high is to begin low, and this recommends a man to those about him: "Thou shalt have honour and respect before those that sit with thee"" (Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible (Luke 14:10)).  Thus it may not have been our Lord's will that we receive worship or honour from men.
Acts 19:5
  • Most translations exclude verse 5 from the quotation that begins at verse 4.  The ESV, for example, says, "And Paul said, 'John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.' On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus."  According to this placement of quotation marks, Paul baptized his Ephesian disciples in the name of the Lord Jesus.  However, the quotation could extend to the end of verse 5.  The KJV says, "Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus."  If we include verse 5 in the quotation, Paul is saying that John baptized his hearers in the name of the Lord Jesus.  This is how John Gill interprets this verse in his Exposition of the Entire Bible.  It would make better sense if Paul is saying that John baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus because Paul would have baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just as our Lord commissioned us (Matthew 28:19).
Song of Solomon
There are countless examples in the rest of the Bible where the Hebrew or Greek is ambiguous as to who is speaking.  Re-attributing words to another person can change the meaning of the passage.  A serious student of the word can gain fresh perspectives and new insights by not being swayed by the editorially inserted quotation marks.

2. Quotation marks give the false idea that authors quoted word-for-word

Quotation marks indicate words that are direct quotes.  However, biblical writers did not always quote speakers word-for-word.  For example, consider Matthew 2:23.  The verse says:
  • "And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene."
Most recent translations put quotation marks around "He shall be called a Nazarene."  The problem with putting quotation marks around these words is that no prophet appears to have said these exact words.  Moreover, the words, "He shall be called a Nazarene," are attributed to the "prophets" and not to any single speaker.  We certainly do not find multiple speakers uttering these words, let alone one speaker.  Most scholars agree that this prophetic fulfillment concerns the various Old Testament prophecies that refer to the Messiah's humble and despised status.  Isaiah 53:2-3 and Psalm 22:6 are such examples.  Jews in Jesus' time despised Nazareth, as we see in Nathaniel's question to Philip (John 1:46).  So the phrase, "He shall be called a Nazarene," is not a direct quote of any prophet, but a summarized idea of what various prophets said concerning Jesus' humble and despised status.  The NIV 2010 update finally recognized the error of placing quotation marks here and has removed them:

NIV 1984
and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

TNIV 2005
and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

NIV 2010
and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Sometimes parallel accounts (i.e. the Gospels) do not give the exact same quotations.  This is because the authors of the accounts probably did not quote word-for-word.  This is not to say that the authors were careless or inaccurate, but it means that the New Testament writers did not follow English rules of grammar and style.  In contemporary English there is a sharp distinction between direct quotations and descriptions:

Direct quotation:
    • He said, "I am a Russian, and a soldier by occupation."
Description:
    • He said that he is a Russian soldier.
If we were to directly quote, we must follow the originally spoken words word-for-word.  But if we were to describe rather than directly quote, we do not have to follow the originally spoken words word-for-word.  There is simply no expectation to follow the spoken words word-for-word in a descriptive statement.  But both, the direct quotation and the description, are equally true.

There is no indication that Hebrew and Greek authors followed these sharp distinctions between direct quotations and descriptions.  The fact that quotation marks do not appear in Hebrew and Greek is strong indication that such distinctions were not made.  Thus what we consider "quotes of Jesus" are perhaps something of a hybrid between his word-for-word quotes and the Holy Spirit inspired description of his quotes.  These words are true nonetheless.

For example, the words of our Lord during his last supper are slightly different in Matthew, Mark, Luke and 1 Corinthians.
  • For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:28) - τουτο γαρ εστιν το αιμα μου το της καινης διαθηκης το περι πολλων εκχυνομενον εις αφεσιν αμαρτιων
  • This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. (Mark 14:24) - τουτο εστιν το αιμα μου το της καινης διαθηκης το περι πολλων εκχυνομενον
  • This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22:20) - τουτο το ποτηριον η καινη διαθηκη εν τω αιματι μου το υπερ υμων εκχυνομενον
  • This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. (1 Corinthians 11:25) - τουτο το ποτηριον η καινη διαθηκη εστιν εν τω εμω αιματι τουτο ποιειτε οσακις αν πινητε εις την εμην αναμνησιν
These are probably not all direct quotations.  Matthew and Mark's accounts seem to be congruent in the beginning at least, but in Greek the word for "for" in the beginning of the quote in Matthew comes after the word for "this," so the two accounts are not congruent word-for-word after all.  These could all be direct quotations if our Lord repeated this statement four times, but that is highly unlikely.  If this occasion were the only time that "discrepancies" appeared, that may be a possibility.  But this common pattern of superficial discrepancies among parallel accounts cannot all be explained by the theory that our Lord repeated the statements.

Biblical writers did not always directly quote speakers.  The Holy Spirit inspired writers conveyed the words accurately but with more freedom than how an English writer today provides direct quotations.  The inclusion of quotation marks perpetuates the false idea that these words are direct quotations, for quotation marks are inherent markers of direct quotations.  When we supply quotation marks, we are essentially saying, "Dear reader, the words you are about to read are direct quotations."  However, this is not always true.  Many atheists who try to find contradictions in the Bible often point out that quotations in some parallel accounts do not match word-for-word.  They then point to this fact as an example of the unreliability of the Bible.  These critics attack a straw-man, but the irony is that this straw-man was put in place by Christians themselves who supplied these misleading quotation marks.

Conclusion

The KJV does not have quotation marks because the Hebrew and Greek do not have quotation marks.  If a reader has trouble discerning who the speaker is in the KJV, most likely even professional Bible translators have trouble discerning who the speaker is in the same passage. The absence of quotation marks allows the reader to interpret the passage without being swayed by editorial guesses.  Moreover, biblical writers did not always directly quote speeches.  Quotation marks can give the wrong idea that whatever words that are enclosed in quotation marks are direct quotes.