In my NIV Bible I see tiny letters inside the text and references to other passages in the margins. Some of these are tremendously helpful, some seem only to relate by the use of one word.

Where do these cross-references come from, did they originate with the authors of the NIV or are they from some older source? On what basis did the creators of this system decide that passage A should be related to passage B? Do we know the intention of the authors for how they should be used?

2 Answers 2


Before examining the New International Version use of cross-references, here is a brief look at the history behind Bible cross-references.

“One of the fundamental principles of Protestant biblical interpretation is that "Scripture is its own best interpreter." Luther expressed this principle with the words, Scriptura sui ipsius interpres ("Scripture is its own expositor"), and it was summed up by the authors of the Westminster Confession thus: "The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture ... it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly." For this reason the most important feature of any edition of the Bible (aside from the quality of the translation itself) is the system of cross-references provided in the margin, which helps the reader to find out the meaning of any hard place by "comparing spiritual things with spiritual" (1 Cor 2:13). A good set of cross-references, when used diligently and with intelligence, will make much commentary unnecessary.” Source: http://www.bible-researcher.com/cross-references.html

William Carpenter in the preface to his work Scientia Biblica from 1825 states: “The first collection of parallel passages the editor believes to have been that published with the third edition of Tyndale’s Testament, in 1534. Coverdale’s Bible, also, the first edition of which appeared in 1535, has a few marginal references. These were augmented and improved in the various editions of the Bible and New Testament, which were published subsequently to that time: the first edition of the present “Authorized Version” containing nine thousand references (Preface, p. vi)... In 1683, the “Authorized Version” was corrected, and many additional parallel texts were added by Dr. Scattergood; and in 1690, Samuel Clark published “The Holy Bible, containing the Old Testament and the New, with Annotations and Parallel Scriptures,” &c. In the Preface to this edition of the Scriptures, the Editor states that he took a great deal of pains in collecting parallel texts, and that not only for words and phrases, but for sense and matter. Source: http://www.realbiblestudy.com/?p=91

From this, we can see how marginal notes and references can be traced back to 1534 and how, over time, they have been expanded. With regard to how the NIV uses cross-references, we need look no further than the Introduction pages to the NIV Study Bible. It has a cross-reference system of 100,000 entries. The 1985 edition of the NIV Study Bible says this:

“The cross-reference system, developed over many years by June Gunden, John R. Kohlenberger III (OT) and Donald H. Madvig (NT), can be used to explore concepts, as well as specific words.”

Pages xvi and xvii in my 2000 edition of the NIV Study Bible explain how the cross-reference system works. Because this material is copyright, I am not at liberty to reproduce what it says, but I did find an on-line article which was published with the permission of Zondervan Publishing House.


The intentions of the Committee on Bible Translation for the NIV Study Bible are explained in the Preface and your other questions about how cross-references should be used are explained in the Introduction pages. I hope you find this helpful.


Many times New Testament writers quoted Old Testament Scripture verbatim. It is likely Jesus would have done the same in his teaching or even in casual speech - the same way Christians (and Jews) do when they are familiar enough with Scripture to insert it into their conversations. So some of these cross references are simply a matter of someone giving you the information that this thing Jesus said (Luke 4:18-21, where Jesus reads in the synagogue) can be found in this place (Isaiah 61:1-2).

Other times, it's the gospel writer explicitly attributing this action (say, Matthew 2:14-15, Joseph taking Jesus to Egypt) to this Old Testament prophecy (Hosea 11:1, "Out of Egypt I called my son.") This sort of cross referencing (Matthew is famous for it) holds as much credence as you and your scriptural view give it. If the evangelist is infallible in his writing then this is a proper interpretation (arguably THE proper interpretation, again depending on your view of scripture) of the Old Testament verse/passage. Regardless of whether or not Matthew had right/reason to attribute Hosea 11:1 to Jesus in Egypt, the chapter and verse you see in your margin are simply the editors helping you to find it in the Old Testament in case you want to see it for yourself in its original context (which, by the way, was not a messianic prophecy, but that doesn't necessarily mean Matthew was "wrong" for using it).

In both of these instances, the references added by the editors/translators of the Bible version (whether NIV or another version) are not creative - that is to say they simply provide the information on where to find the reference that was made in the text itself.

In other cases, the reference may be creative and/or theological in nature. Sometimes key words (seen during translation) are considered rare enough in their usage to arguably link two passages. Sometimes key theological concepts can be seen in two different passages. But they are the links seen by the translators/editors and so they do sometimes vary from translation to translation (the "creative references" in the NIV may be slightly different to the ones in the NASB).

"Creative" references will usually reflect broadly assumed Christian theologies. Remember, the 15 people doing the translating and editing of the NIV Bible were from various denominations and had to answer to each other (and a whole scholarly community) - they weren't allowed to push any personal agendas with the way they translated and referenced. The references you see in your NIV Bible originated with the NIV's editors, on the basis of the obvious reference in the text itself or a reasonable association between a text or theological concept seen in two separate verses. These references are one of many helpful tools that can help you to understand the text.

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