All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. [2 Timothy 3:16-17 (NLT)]
When Old Testament passages are quoted in the New Testament, the quoted verses frequently do not match their source. Trained as a Pharisee, Paul should have been able to quote Hebrew scripture word for word but he frequently doesn’t. Jesus certainly should have known every word written in Scripture and yet, like Paul, His quotes from the Hebrew Bible often were imprecise. We find quotation discrepancies in New Testament accounts, as well. Although Jesus’ words during the last supper are quoted in Matthew, Mark, Luke and 1 Corinthians, none record the exact same words. Who’s wrong?
The problem is that neither ancient Hebrew nor Greek used any punctuation. With no quotation marks, we can’t accurately know when speakers changed or whether something is an exact quote or simply a paraphrase, summary, or explanation. The punctuation marks we see in our modern Bibles were added later by translators. The placement of those quotation marks, however, is just an editorial guess—hopefully a Spirit-inspired and educated one—but still a guess and translators differ as to if and where they should be placed.
When looking at John 3, we see how the variations in quotation mark placement can cause us to interpret John 3:16 in two ways. While speaking with Nicodemus about being born again, Jesus said the Son of Man had to be lifted up so that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” [3:15] Since many translations (like the ESV and NLT) do not place an end quote mark after that verse, the following one, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” appears to directly quote Jesus. In those versions, His words continue all the way until an end quote is placed after verse 21.
On the other hand, translations like the New International Version (NIV) and the Easy-to-Read Version (ERV) place an end quote after verse 15 meaning that John 3:16 is no longer a direct quote of Jesus’ words; instead, the verse is John’s inspired comments on Jesus’ words. We really don’t know whether “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” are the words of Jesus or John. They are, however, the words of God!
Since the original writers didn’t use quotation marks, neither does the King James Version (KJV). Considering quotation marks imperfect additions to the original words and not wanting to give the misleading impression that something is a direct quote when it may not be, it has no quotation marks. (The modernized New King James Version (NKJV), however, does use them.)
Regardless of which translation we use, we really have no way of truly knowing whether we’re reading an actual word-for-word quotation or something else. The Bible’s authors weren’t being slipshod or inaccurate; they didn’t have today’s grammar rules that a distinction should be made between direct and indirect quotations. Rather than using exact quotations, they often intended their statements to be summaries of God’s truths. When we find what seem to be discrepancies in Scripture, we must remember that the quotation marks we find there may or may not be properly placed. Nevertheless, whether it’s a direct or indirect quote, Scripture remains a reliable report of the words that were spoken so many centuries ago because every word in it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Regardless of inconsistencies in the words or punctuation, we will never find inconsistencies in the message; rather than contradictory, the various accounts are complementary. The Bible does not contradict itself because it is the Word of God!
It is as impossible to understand the Scriptures without the Spirit’s help as it is to read a sundial without the sun. [William Gurnall]