June 4, 2008
The abc's of Verse Citations
Biblical scholars, in an effort to be precise in their citations of chapter and verse, will sometimes append a letter to a verse number to indicate what part of a verse they have in mind. So we might have Psalm 23:4c. But why?
A draconian editorial response might be that these references should never be employed since there is no 4a or 4b or 4c designated in the text! In your effort to be precise, we precisely don’t know what you are indicating! Does each letter indicate a clause? Would this be in English translation or in Hebrew? (Depending on the translation, it might make a difference.) What are the rules for this designation and where may we go to find them? Are we all agreed on these rules? Or do we make them up as we go along? One does not have to be a pedant to find this annoying. (Or does one? Have I been in this business too long? That's a rhetorical question!)
Editorial snarkiness aside, I'm generally more generous in spirit. After all, I too have used these abecede's in scholarly writing. It gives the impression of being more, well, "scientific"!
Here’s my approach. Where there is no "scientific" precision necessary, don’t use the a or b or c. Take, for example, when you have told your reader that the phrase in question is “for you are with me.” What point is there in designating it as Psalm 23:4c (or whatever)? Psalm 23:4 is surely enough. Anyone who opens to the text will see what you are citing, and that you aren't citing the entire verse.
On the other hand, let’s say you are discussing—perhaps in some detail and with repeated reference—the parallelism in the Hebrew of Psalm 24:2. In that case it would make good sense to refer to 24:2a and 24:2b, or just 2a and 2b (where 2a designates “for he has founded it on the seas” and 2b designates “and established it on the rivers”). Likewise, the a's, b's and c's are necessary when you are setting out a chiastic pattern.
Here’s the gist: the a, b, c’s should be used sparingly, thoughtfully and sensibly, where precision is really needed and the referents transparent.