What are Marginal References in the Bible?
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What are Marginal References in the Bible?

Have you ever noticed the tiny superscript letters next to certain words or verses in your Bible? Those are called marginal references. They point you to related verses that can give you more insight into the passage you’re reading. Marginal references have been an important study tool for Bible students for centuries. In this post, we’ll explore what marginal references are, where they come from, and how to use them to get the most out of your Bible study.


Marginal references first appeared in the Geneva Bible published in 1560. The Geneva Bible was one of the earliest English translations, and it included over 80,000 marginal notes and references. These helped readers dig deeper into the meaning of Scripture. Marginal references have continued to be included in most printed Bibles ever since.

The main purposes of marginal references are:

  • To connect similar concepts or passages for deeper study.
  • To clarify the meaning of words and phrases.
  • To provide historical or cultural background.
  • To show Old Testament quotations and allusions in the New Testament.

Here are some key things to know about marginal references:

  • They are additional study tools, not part of the biblical text itself.
  • Different Bibles may have different marginal references.
  • Some references are more helpful than others.
  • Use marginal references to dig deeper, but don’t base doctrines on them.
  • Let Scripture interpret Scripture, not marginals.
  • Marginals can guide you to related passages, but read context.
  • Pray for wisdom when studying marginals and Scripture.

In the rest of this post, we’ll explore marginal references in more depth using examples from the Bible. Let’s dive in!

What are marginal references in the bible?

Types of Marginal References

There are a few main categories of marginal references:

Clarification of Meaning

Some marginal references point to verses that can clarify the meaning of words, phrases, or concepts that may be unfamiliar or ambiguous. For example:

  • Genesis 1:2 – “the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The marginal reference points to Deuteronomy 32:11, where an eagle hovering over its young illustrates God’s protective care.
  • John 3:8 – “The wind blows where it wishes.” The marginal reference directs us to Ecclesiastes 11:5, giving more insight into the sovereign and mysterious movement of the wind/Spirit.

Cross References

Cross references link passages with similar ideas, words, or themes. They show how different books are interconnected. For example:

  • In Exodus 20:13, the command “You shall not murder” points to Matthew 5:21-26, where Jesus expands on anger and murder.
  • When Jesus says “I am the light of the world” in John 8:12, the reference connects to Isaiah 9:2 where the Messiah is described as a light.

Quotations and Allusions

Marginal references highlight Old Testament quotations and allusions found in the New Testament. For example:

  • Matthew 2:6 quotes Micah 5:2 about the ruler being born in Bethlehem.
  • In Matthew 1:23, the virgin birth of Jesus is said to fulfill Isaiah 7:14.
  • Peter quotes Proverbs 26:11 when referring to false teachers in 2 Peter 2:22.

Historical and Cultural Background

Some marginal references provide historical context or background information to give more insight. For example:

  • In John 4 when Jesus meets the Samaritan woman at the well, marginals reference 2 Kings 17:24-41 about the origins of Samaritans.
  • When Paul says “there is neither Jew nor Greek” in Galatians 3:28, the reference points back to Joel 2:28-32 about God’s Spirit being poured out on all people.

Geographical Locations

Marginals may reference other verses that mention the same city, region, or geographical landmark. This can shed more light on the location. For example:

  • In John 1:28 when John baptizes Jesus in “Bethany beyond the Jordan,” the marginal points to another Bethany mentioned in John 1:44 near Jerusalem.
  • When Abraham settles in Hebron in Genesis 13:18, the reference links to 2 Samuel 2:1-3 which also mentions Hebron in relation to David.

Fulfillment of Prophecy

Some marginal references highlight messianic prophecies that are fulfilled in Jesus, connecting the Old and New Testaments. For example:

  • Matthew 12:17-21 quotes Isaiah 42:1-4, pointing to Jesus as the suffering servant.
  • John 19:36 notes that Jesus’ bones were not broken to fulfill Psalm 34:20 and Exodus 12:46 about the Passover lamb.

As you can see, marginal references cover a wide range of topics and connections between verses. This highlights the unity and consistency of the Bible. Now let’s look at some principles for using marginal references effectively.

Principles for Using Marginal References

Marginal references can be a helpful tool – but they need to be used carefully. Here are some key principles to keep in mind:

  • Pray for discernment. Ask God for wisdom to evaluate marginal references and understand His Word (James 1:5). Depend on the Spirit’s guidance.
  • Consider the context. Don’t just read the marginal and move on. Go back and read the full context of both passages. Make sure you understand how they are connected in context.
  • Be a Berean. Examine the Scriptures like the Bereans who searched the Scriptures to confirm what Paul taught (Acts 17:11). Evaluate marginal references in light of biblical context.
  • Watch your doctrines. Do not form major doctrines solely from marginal references. Base your core beliefs on clear biblical texts, not marginals.
  • Keep Christ central. Remember all Scripture points to Christ (Luke 24:27). How do marginal references highlight His person, work, and teachings?
  • Prioritize clear passages. In case of any conflict, let unambiguous passages of Scripture interpret marginal references – not the other way around.
  • Use multiple references. Look at all the marginals about a verse, not just one. How do they complement each other for better understanding?
  • Consider the source. Some marginal references may come from man’s opinions more than others. Weigh them, but Scripture must remain the authority.

By following these guidelines, marginal references can aid your study rather than hinder it. Next, let’s look at some examples of helpful marginal references and how to interpret them.

Examples of Using Marginal References

Let’s walk through some real examples to see how to use marginal references wisely and well:

Example 1

In Acts 16:31, Paul tells the Philippian jailer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” The marginal reference points to John 3:16, which says that God gave His only Son so that those who believe in Him would have eternal life.

How to interpret: This marginal cross-reference connects believing in Christ for salvation in both passages. It shows unity within the Bible about the centrality of faith in Christ. But we interpret Acts 16:31 based on its own clear context – the marginal just strengthens understanding.

Example 2

Hebrews 13:8 says “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” The marginal refers to Hebrews 1:12, which contrasts Christ as unchanging compared to creation which grows old and perishes.

How to interpret: The marginal illuminates the meaning of the Hebrews 13:8. It gives the theological background that Christ’s immutability is what distinguishes Him from creation. This aids our understanding of the key verse, keeping Christ central.

Example 3

In Revelation 3:20, Jesus says “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” One marginal reference is to Song of Solomon 5:2. In Song of Solomon, the woman in bed hears her lover knock and hesitates to answer immediately.

How to interpret: We must be careful with this marginal reference, as Song of Solomon is highly symbolic poetic literature. We should not use this as a major basis for interpreting Revelation 3:20. The clear invitation in Rev. 3:20 itself is our guide. The marginal may convey Christ’s desire for fellowship with us, but the original context and symbolism differ.

As you can see from these examples, marginal references can be helpful when interpreted properly in context. Now let’s look at how to get the most out of the marginal references in your Bible.

Making the Most of Marginal References

Here are some tips for fully benefiting from marginal references in your studies:

  • Take notes on insights. Write down concise summaries of how the marginals illuminated the passage. Record helpful cross-references for future study.
  • Create your own reference index. Make a list of topics like “Love,” “Fearing God,” “Humility” and note key verses and related marginals under them for topical study.
  • Do your own cross referencing. Use a concordance or topical Bible to find other verses related to the passage beyond what the marginals referenced.
  • Compare different Bibles. Examine how different translations handle marginals for a passage. Compare for unique insights.
  • Use a marginal reference guide. Some Bibles have guides explaining what each marginal covers and why it was included. Use these tools.
  • Learn about the history. Study the history of how marginal references were chosen for your Bible translation and by whom to gain more context.
  • Focus on Christ. Ask how every marginal points to Christ – His nature, work, fulfillment of prophecy, dealings with humanity, etc.

By applying these tips, you can get so much more out of the marginal references in your Bible. Next, let’s explore some common questions people have about marginal references.

Frequently Asked Questions

Here are answers to some common questions about marginal references:

Are marginal references inspired? No, marginal references are not part of the original manuscripts of Scripture. They have been added by translators and publishers to aid study. But they are fallible human additions, not the inspired Word.

Should I treat all marginal references equally? No, weigh all marginals in light of context, comparing Scripture with Scripture. Some marginals are extremely helpful, while others may be questionable or uncertain connections.

Do all Bibles have the same marginal references? No. Marginals often vary by translation. Some translations include more extensive marginal notes and references than others.

What is the difference between a marginal note and reference? Marginal notes provide commentary, explanations, or background details. Marginal references point to specific verse cross-references related to a passage. Notes give information, references link internal connections.

Is it bad to teach from marginal references? You should not form major doctrines solely from marginal references. However, after evaluating in light of Scripture, some insights from marginals can be helpful for teaching.

Should I study every single marginal reference? It’s often helpful to look at all of them about a particular passage. But some marginals may be less useful, so you don’t have to read every single one exhaustively across the whole Bible.

These frequently asked questions highlight key facts about marginal references that are important to keep in mind as you interpret and apply them during Bible study.


Marginal references can be a wonderful tool to enhance your study of God’s Word. When used properly, they can help connect related passages, provide background insights, illuminate meaning, and point you to Christ. But marginal references must also be approached with care, always examining them in light of the clear context and meaning of Scripture.

So next time you’re reading your Bible and come across those tiny superscript letters, take time to explore the marginal references. Let them aid you in mining the riches in God’s Word. But ultimately, let Scripture interpret Scripture as you study. Let the Spirit give you wisdom and understanding as you meditate on marginal references and the biblical text. Marginal references should not determine your doctrines. But when used well, they can greatly expand your knowledge and application of the treasures in God’s Word for the purpose of knowing Christ and bringing Him glory.

Pastor duke taber
Pastor Duke Taber

Pastor Duke Taber

All articles have been written or reviewed by Pastor Duke Taber.
Pastor Duke Taber is an alumnus of Life Pacific University and Multnomah Biblical Seminary.
He has been in pastoral ministry since 1988.
Today he is the owner and managing editor of 3 successful Christian websites that support missionaries around the world.
He is currently starting a brand new church in Mesquite NV called Mesquite Worship Center, a Non-Denominational Spirit Filled Christian church in Mesquite Nevada.