Why are some words italicized in the Bible?

“Why are some words italicized in the Bible?” Ensign, Feb. 1978, 22–23

Why are some words italicized in the Bible? Is that for emphasis or for some other reason?

Robert J. Matthews, chairman of the Department of Ancient Scriptures, Brigham Young University The words printed in italics in the King James Version of the Bible are for emphasis, but not for emphasis in the usual sense. The use of italics is a device to call attention to those words that were added by the translators in order to convey and/or clarify the meaning. That is, the italics enable the reader to distinguish between words found in the manuscripts of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament that actually translate into English, and words that were necessarily added to make sense in English. This is a sign of the honesty of the translators, who wished to point out such places in their work.

There are at least two situations that make the use of italics necessary. One very natural condition is the difference in construction between the biblical languages and English. The nature of English grammar requires that to convey a concept it is sometimes necessary to use certain words that are not needed in another language to convey the same thought. For example, in the well-known expression from the twenty-third Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd,” the word is is italicized because it is not needed in such a sentence in Hebrew but is needed to make an intelligible English sentence.

The other situation is that the manuscripts used by the translators were sometimes not clear and accurate and thus needed special attention. A translator in such instances apparently felt obliged to add something to convey the meaning as he perceived it to be.

An examination of the italics in the King James Version shows that they seem to be for the most part valid and wise choices, but in some cases it seems that a better selection of words could be used. The Prophet Joseph Smith often, but not always, altered the italicized words in making his New Translation of the Bible.

An interesting use of italics is found in Luke 17:34–36, wherein Jesus said,

“34 I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.

“35 Two women shall be grinding together; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

“36 Two men shall be in the field, the one shall be taken, and the other left.”

In each instance above, the words men and women are italicized, and thus give notice that they were added by the translators. These additions are needed in this instance because the terms in Greek that were translated “the one” and “the other” in verses 34 and 36 are masculine, whereas in verse 35, the terms for “the one” and “the other” are feminine. In English this distinction would not be apparent unless it were so stated and thus the translators made the specification in English. However, in the New Translation by Joseph Smith these words that appear in italics in the King James Version of Luke 17:34–36 are omitted.

An interesting situation involving italics is found in Luke 8:23, which gives an account of Jesus and the Twelve in a ship on the Sea of Galilee. The passage reads: “And there came down a storm of wind on the lake; and they were filled with water, and were in jeopardy.”

Since the men were all in one ship, it is a little amusing to say that “they were filled with water.” The immediate conclusion one reaches is that it was not the men literally, but the ship in which they were riding, that was filled with water. However, the Prophet Joseph Smith took a different view of this passage and caused it to read, “and they were filled with fear.”

Thus the emphasis is shifted from the ship to the men, who being at sea in a storm were afraid. This takes a position that is more consistent with the events that followed, for Jesus then chided them and said, “Where is your faith?” which he might reasonably say to those who feared, since fear is not compatible with faith. Of course, he would not likely say that to those who were simply filled with water!

In many cases the passages of the King James Version would be more direct without the inclusion of the italicized words, and in some instances the meaning would seem to be just as clear. For example, in Matthew 22:35 [Matt. 22:35] we read: “Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying …” In John 8:9 we find, “And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last. …” Further, in 1 Corinthians 15:41 [1 Cor. 15:41]: “for one star differeth from another star in glory.” In each of these, the meaning could be ascertained without the italicized words.

A different kind of a situation is seen in John 2:24. The King James Version reads: “But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men.” Without the italics it would read, “… because he knew all.” This would be a rather indefinite ending, for it would not specify whether Jesus knew “all” in its widest sense, or whether it meant he knew “all” of the people. The Prophet Joseph Smith put a more definite interpretation to it by making it read, “… because he knew all things.”

Observing the italics in the Bible can be a very rewarding, and sometimes a puzzling, experience, and it may be helpful to know a little of the history of italics in the Bible text. The earliest use of italics (or of some alternate type for the same purpose) seems to have been by the French translator Pierre Robert Olivétan, who published his translation of the Bible in French in 1535. (S. L. Greenslade, ed., The Cambridge History of the Bible, Cambridge University Press, 1963, p. 118.) The Geneva Bible, printed in 1560, is credited with being the first in English to use italics for words not found in the manuscripts.

The King James Version, issued in 1611, used italics, and as subsequent revisions were made the number of italics increased. One scholar reports that in the gospel of Matthew alone, the number of italicized words and phrases has increased from 43 in the 1611 edition to 583 in the Cambridge Paragraph Bible of 1870. (P. Marion Sims, The Bible in America, New York: Wilson-Erickson, 1936, p. 97.)

Since italics are found on every page of the King James Version, Bible students like to know something about them. We have included here only a very small glimpse of the role of italics in biblical study, but probably enough has been said to show their purpose and importance, and to illustrate how the Prophet Joseph Smith sometimes dealt with them.