Why are some words italicized in the Bible?

I can’t figure out what logic was used to decide which words to italicize in the Bible. I would assume it is to add empahasis, but the word choice appears pretty random. Reading it with emphasis on the italicized words makes it sound pretty bizaare, IMHO. You get things like “He is the Word and the Light and the Truth.” Or is my sense of “rhythym” out of whack and it sounds perfectly fine to you?

“Happiness is nonetheless true happiness because it must come to an end, nor do thought and love lose their value because they are not everlasting.”

  • Bertrand Russell

There are no italicized words in the Bible because neither Hebrew nor Koine Greek (at the times of the writings) allowed for italicization (or its equivalent*).

I suspect that if you look at the foreword of the specific publication of the Bible that you are reading, there might be a key to which words they italicized. Different methods I have seen used include A) highlighting all the words spoken by God (including Jesus in the NT) in red and B) highlighting certain words with the intention of indicating vocal stress when reading the book aloud. The publisher really should provide a key.
*(Actually, there were different scripts or styles available both for Greek and Hebrew, but the ancient copyists never availed themselves of those tools that I am aware of.)


The explanation that I got when I was in Sunday school (so quite a while ago, let’s see if I remember correctly) was as follows.

The Bible we used was the King James version. Since it was translated into English from Greek and Hebrew, certain words were not originally presesnt in the text but were added by the translators to make the text flow in an understandable way, which is why goofy words like “is” and “saith” show up italicized.

Did anyone else get this explanation? Am I remembering right?

“It says, I choo-choo-choose you. And it’s got a picture of a train.”
– Ralph Wiggum

Yes, that’s what I meant, in the English translation (KJV). I wouldn’t question that it is for emphasis were it not that the choice of which words to italicize seems truly weird.

… unless the italicized words are stuck in there by Satan, to deceive the faithful.

Hmmm. If the words are Italicized, that means Roman, so perhaps only Catholics should pay attention to those words?

Seriously, as Tom says, that’s just type font… different publishers use different fonts. Agreed, an explanation should be offered somewhere in the Foreword or Notes.

In many editions of the King James Version italics are used to indicate interpolations and/or non-literal translations. As I understand it, because Hebrew and Greek use different syntax and many verbal particles and other constructions used in English are absent in the original languages, the necessary additions are marked by italics. They are not mistranslations or inserted material, but represent the translators’ best efforts at converting from one language to another. Even then, however, they wanted you to know when they deviated, even slightly, from what was actually written.

“Vandelay!! Say Vandelay!!”

Gaudere writing about italics in the bible:

In the above example, I would say that it is given for empahsis.

He is the Word, the is is to stand out signifying that He still is not was or will be. The Light to emphasize that he is the Light that illuminates the darkness of our sins.

My King James Version that I keep at work, does have the italicized words but does not say what they mean, but they seem to be to give emphasis on the passage.


And I always assumed someone got a little carried away with HTML. . .

Ah, well.

Flick Lives!

Hm, I think pluto and Beadalin’s comments sound plausible. The “emphasis” explanation would mean (in my version at least) that the editors have no clue how to properly use emphasis. I’ve seen some lines that sound positively tortured if the italics are read as emphasis. Might just be in my Bible, though

It’s been a good many years since I used a translation that had the italics, but from what I remember, they are all of the grammatical type described by Beadlin and Pluto, and never for emphasis.

I might be wrong though. I have two questions which might help to clear this up:

  1. There are many bible texts all over the internet, but most are plain text files, which lose the italicization. Can someone post a link to a site which does use the italics?

  2. Gaudere: When you gave your example in the OP <<< You get things like “He is the Word and the Light and the Truth.” >>> did you make that up on the spot, or are those words italicized in your printed version? (I ask this because “is” could very well be a grammatical fillin word, but “the Light” would not be, unless maybe the “and” before it (or after it) was also italicized.)

I dunno whether italics are used for emphasis in newer translations – never paid close attention to the typography – but the supplied-word explanation is true for the KJV. Most printings of it give this explanation somewhere in the front matter. The logic is that Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek “assume” different words than English, so to make the translation something more than Babelfish, the “assumed” words have to be supplied.

Parallel example, from the old song “Guantanamera”: Sp.: Soy marinero.
Eng.: I am a sailor. The pronoun and article are implied in the Spanish but required for coherent English. “Am sailor” doesn’t make it for translation. A somewhat later line literally translates as “Before of to die, to you (I) will recount thoughts of heart.”

I think we need a specific example. I didn’t have a lot of luck using the example phrase cited above.

Here is a Bible search engine.

You can see how it looked in the orginal Hebrew/Greek and see what the italicized words mean:

Made it up on the spot, Keeves; I didn’t have my Bible handy. I was just striving for an example of the sort of weirdly arbitrary italics that I saw. I’m glad to know why the words are italicized; since italics are generally used for emphasis, I’ve been trying to figure out why a word needed to be emphasized and it was confusing me.

More accurately, nowadays italics are generally used for emphasis. I remember once reading about the history of typography, and they said that originally, italic was the default style because of its beauty (or maybe it was because the letters tend to take up less horizontal space because of the diagonal format) and that non-italic was used for emphasis because of its straight boldness.

Clearly, whoever decided to use italics for this translation stuff did not anticipate our reaction to it.

Italics weren’t generally used for printing until the early 1500s, I believe; Aldus started printing with them becuase they resembled a cursive script used for general writings, correspondence, etc., so it was a less “formal” style. He printed inexpensive collections of classical books; from that, italics then became associated with learning and humanism. I’ve heard that it might’ve been to take up less space, too; unfortunately, it generally doesn’t. Even if you squish the letters together you can squish roman letters just as much and it is equally (un)readable, IMHO.

All you ever wanted to know about italics but were afraid to ask. :wink: But I didn’t know why there were italics in my bible!

Well, I dug out the KJ and starting at Genesis there are a lot of ‘was’ and ‘were’ that is being italicized. I can’t find an explanation in the front other than…

“This translation was first published A.D 1610”

Also gives some of the history of the 47 learned persons who KJ appointed (actually originally 54) who put together the translations. This is a 1824 vintage bible.

Yes, italics are used to indicate an implied word. (Note that paraphrases, like [ack!] The Living Bible, have no need for them.) In fact, in the KJV, if you read the passage without the italicised word, it often still scans very well. In many places I felt that they were not really necessary.

Hebrew has no “being” verbs, so all the “was” and “were” being italicized is good indication that it is, in fact, used to indicated English translations that have no parallel in the Hebrew.

Drat. I liked my Italicized implies Catholic theory.