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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Answering Bible Difficulties

Don Stewart :: Why Don’t the New Testament Writers Quote the Old Testament Word-for-Word?

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Why Don’t the New Testament Writers Quote the Old Testament Word-for-Word?

Answering Bible Difficulties – Question 27

One objection against the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is the lack of word-for-word quoting of the Old Testament from the New Testament. This accusation can be summarized as follows:

Accusation: Lack of Word-for-Word Quoting from the Old Testament Refutes the Idea of Inerrancy

If the Scripture teaches inerrancy, why didn’t the New Testament writers cite the Old Testament writers word-for-word? The lack of verbal exactness in citing the Old Testament has caused some to deny the biblical teaching of inerrancy.


This objection does not carry much weight for a number of reasons. They include the following:

There Are Different Languages Involved in the Two Testaments

First, there is the issue of languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, with parts in Aramaic, while the New Testament was composed in Greek. Any quotation, therefore, cannot be given word-for-word because there are two different languages involved. There had to be a translation from one language to another.

The Ancient Practice of Citing Another Written Work Must Be Appreciated

While in some modern cultures it is the accepted method to quote another author word-for-word, this was not the case in biblical times. It is not so much the exact words, as the exact content that was being cited. As long as the content is accurately stated, then it is not necessary to quote the author word-for-word. The Old Testament was not quoted for its words, but rather for the meaning. The New Testament writers also expanded upon what was written. They gave the true meaning and application.

This Mistakenly Assumes the Writer Must Quote Another Written Source Word-for-Word

The attack is based on the assumption that citations must give the exact words of the writer quoted, when no such rule exists in literature. Unless the writer specifically says that he is quoting another word-for-word, we should not assume that this is the case. The writer is quoting correctly if he gives the true sense of the text.

There Was a Free Manner of Quoting the Old Testament

The New Testament writers frequently quote the Old Testament without verbal exactness. Most likely, many of the quotations were from memory. At times, the citations were made according to the sense of the Old Testament passage rather than making a direct quote from the passage.

The Quotations Are Sometimes Indirect

Sometimes the quotations in Scripture are indirect, not direct. An indirect quotation does not cite someone directly, but does report accurately what that person said.

For example, John makes the statement to us, “I was at work from nine in the morning until five in the evening.” Then we, in turn, tell someone that John told us that he was at work all day. While our sentence does not quote John word-for-word, it does give an accurate account of what he said.

Although an indirect quotation may not use any of the speaker’s original words, it can correctly report what the speaker said. The point is that indirect citing of someone can be accurate without using someone’s exact words.

There Were No Punctuation Marks in the Original

Another thing that needs to be emphasized is that the ancients did not use the same type of punctuation as we do today. There were no punctuation marks, ellipses, brackets, or other such devices in the original writings of Scripture—the autographs. Consequently, we do not know whether the ancient writer was citing something directly or alluding to it.

Therefore, in some instances, the so-called misquotation is not a citation of Scripture at all. There was no intent of the writer to cite another portion of Scripture.

There are several other points that need to be emphasized:

There Is One Author Behind All of Scripture: the Holy Spirit

The Bible emphasizes that the Holy Spirit is the Author of the entire Bible. Peter wrote the following about the work of the Holy Spirit in the divine inspiration of Scripture:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:20-21 NIV)

Since this is the case, we should allow the author of the Old Testament, God the Holy Spirit, to quote Himself as He pleases.

This Theory Assumes the Apostles Were Ignorant of Scripture

The attack is also based on the assumption that the apostles, when judged by modern standards, were rather ignorant in the area of theology. This is a rather arrogant position to hold seeing that they were two thousand years closer to the Old Testament than we now are, and consequently were in a much better position to evaluate the evidence and to cite it correctly.

There Is Hardly Ever Any Attempt to Harmonize

Whenever there is a seeming problem with the way a New Testament writer quotes the Old Testament, an error is automatically assumed—no attempt is made to find a solution. This is not a fair way to deal with the issue.

Inerrancy Only Requires That the Bible Always Tells the Truth

Inerrancy does not require word-for-word quotations from the Old Testament by the New Testament writers. The doctrine of inerrancy simply means that the Bible always tells the truth. Time and time again we find the writers doing this.

Summary – Question 27
Why Don’t the New Testament Writers Quote the Old Testament Word-for-Word?

One of the main objections against an inerrant Bible is the lack of verbal exactness when the New Testament quotes the Old. The fact that the Old Testament passage is not quoted word-for-word supposedly is an argument against the doctrine of inerrancy. However, this is not the case. First, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew while the New Testament was composed in Greek. This makes verbal exactness impossible.

In addition, in ancient writing there were no such things as punctuation marks, quotation marks, or any other such devices. Consequently, one can never be certain when a passage is being directly cited, or merely paraphrased. It also may be asked, “Why must an author quote another word-for-word to be faithful to what the quoted author wrote?”

It must be remembered that the Holy Spirit is the ultimate author behind all the books of Scripture. Should He not be able to quote His own work any way that He wishes?

Finally, the biblical doctrine of inerrancy does not demand the Old Testament be quoted word-for-word in the New Testament. The doctrine of inerrancy requires that the Bible should always tell the truth. This is exactly what it does.

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