May 15, 2021 08:00am
Knowing Your Bible: What Are Those Little Words?

Have you ever wondered what all those little words are at the bottom of the pages in your Bible? Here’s your answer!

You might be thinking, “A blog about footnotes . . . how exciting.” Whoa, hold on. You want to be smart, right? You want to understand the Bible more, right? Of course you do! So let’s tackle ten of the most common footnotes at the bottom of your Bible’s pages. 

Basically, it’s all about your Bible’s translators and publishers who may write them a little differently, but these are the most common top ten footnotes.

#1 – “Or”

When you see a footnote with “Or”, that means that the footnote is an alternate translation. Translating words from one language to another isn’t an exact science. Sure, most words have a perfect equivalence —like rojo in Spanish and red in English—but some words do not. 

Bible translators want to be transparent about this so they include it in a footnote.

#2 – “Lit”

This one is similar to “Or”—”Lit” literally means literally. Sometimes there are words that are in the original language that mean nothing to us today—so translators use other words to help us. For instance, in Daniel 1:2 the text literally reads “to the land of Shinar”—what’s Shinar? It’s what we call Babylon. That’s why there’s a footnote there to tell us that the translators opted for “Babylon” instead of “Shinar” for clarity’s sake. In short, Lit footnotes tell us when translators tweak a word to make it more clear to modern readers.

#3 – “equals”

Equals is when translators don’t want to tweak the main text to help us but still want to give us a clue. For instance, Psalm 89:18 says, “Surely our shield belongs to the Lord, our king to the holy One of Israel.” Translators want us to know that “our shield” doesn’t literally mean shield, but it is a common Hebrew slang for a king—like is referenced in the second half of the verse. The original writer here is being poetic because psalms are song lyrics.

Let’s combine #4 and #5 – History and Language Helps

These kinds of footnotes are for filling us in on information that we might not know. In Daniel 2, we see both of these kinds of helps in the CSB. For 2:2, translators want us to know who the Chaldeans were—they don’t want to translate “Chaldeans” to “wise men”, but they want to give you that knowledge. For 2:4, the translators want you to know that from this verse to 7:28, the original language isn’t Hebrew like the rest of the Old Testament, but Aramaic.

Since we’re halfway through the list, let me ask you—do you prefer that Bible translators change the main text to be more understandable and leave you a footnote that explains what the original text literally says – OR – do you prefer that Bible translators keep the main text extremely true to the literal meaning and give you understandable explanations in the footnotes? All translations do it both ways, just to varying degrees. Neither is wrong, it’s just a matter of which way you like it.

#6 – “obscure”

Translators really want to be honest with you. If there’s a word in the original language that we don’t fully know what it means, they let you know in a footnote. You might be like, “Whoa, there are some words in the Bible that we don’t know what they mean?” Yes, there are a few in the Bible. But we use context clues to give a probable translation—kind of like how you do when you’re on a phone call and poor reception causes a word to be unintelligible. For instance, if my wife said to me, “Go to the store and get some milk.” I can use context clues to figure out that the missing word is “store” even though I didn’t hear it.

#7 – “some manuscripts” or “some mss”

If there are any words, phrases, or sentences that are not in the oldest and most reliable manuscripts of the Scripture, the translators want to let you know that some do include it.

#8 – Old Testament Quotes

To help us find the place in the Old Testament referenced by New Testament authors, many Bibles put those references in a footnote.

#9 – Old Testament Quotes Plus LXX

This one is a just like what we saw in #8, but the translators are letting you know that if you look it up in the Old Testament in this translation, it will not be quoted exactly. Here’s why: The authors of the New Testament themselves used a translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. This translation, often abbreviated LXX, is Greek. 

So follow me here: Old Testament quotes in the New Testament are not quoting the original Hebrew but the Greek translation of the Hebrew. Again—to be transparent—the translators are showing you the Hebrew to Greek to English version of the Hebrew text because that was what was quoted by the God-inspired New Testament writers. So naturally there will be very slight differences in wording because we are going through another language before we get to English. For more on this, check out this video, linked below.

Finally, #10 – Cross References

Not all Bibles have cross references, but many do, so I want to cover them. Cross references are simply another place where you can find out more about a subject in the same document. In the Bible specifically, it’s a note where a similar subject matter is covered so you can study it more deeply. Often, these are separate from footnotes and appear either in the left and right margins or in the center margin.

There you go! Now you can engage with your Bible with more confidence since you know what all the little words mean. To explore how your specific Bible writes footnotes, the translators have explained them all in the first few pages of your Bible before Genesis 1.

I hope you learned something helpful about your Bible so you can understand it better. 

We talked a lot about languages today. You know who else knows a lot about languages, Lifeword! Lifeword has a HUGE collection of Christian programming you can trust all available for streaming and download in TONS of languages! Head over to to check out the full collection—there’s so much there!

See you next time—grace and peace.

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