biblical or Biblical?

shakespearean or Shakespearean? homeric or Homeric? Now both of those adjectives are based on personal names, but there is also a specific corpus in mind in the case of each, as in the case of biblical or Biblical. I usually see the former, but quite often the latter occurs.

The SBL Handbook prefers lowercase biblical (App. A, p. 154), following the Chicago Manual of Style, where we find recommended “Bible; biblical” (14th ed. §7.87; p. 269). Here’s what the CMS says about capitalization of religious names and terms:

In few areas is an author more tempted to overcapitalize or an editor more loath to urge a lowercase style than in religion. That this is probably due to unanalyzed acceptance of the pious customs of an earlier age, to an unconscious feeling about words as in themselves numinous, or to fear of offending religious persons is suggested by the fact that overcapitalization is seldom seen in texts on the religions of antiquity or more recent localized, relatively unsophisticated religions. Is is in the contexts of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism that we go too far. The editors of the University of Chicago Press urge a spare, down style in this field as in others: capitalize what are clearly proper nouns and adjectives, and lowecase everything else except to avoid ambiguity (CMS 14, §7.77, p. 265; emphasis theirs).

Now as far as these prescriptive sources go, they’re fine. There are a couple of reasons, however, that I’m coming out in favor of uppercase Biblical, despite my purely aesthetic typographical preference for the title of this blog! Note the confused recommended “Bible; biblical” of CMS. Why this mix of cases? We all recognize with CMS that uppercase “Bible,” as the title of a particularly well-known book that is itself a collection of smaller books, is valid. And yet, illogically, the recommended adjective is the lowercase “biblical.” My issue with this particular “down style” is related to my discomfort with the neologism “biblioblog.” To my eye, “biblical” is too close to the generic “bibli-” usage, as in bibliophilia, bibliography, etc, implying a connection to books in general, while “Biblical” is quite a bit more obviously referring to that compendium “the Bible.” Similarly, in the above quotation, the CMS recommends “capitalize what are clearly proper nouns and adjectives.” Is “biblical” not an adjective in Chicago?


  1. It depends on the context. If it were referring to the actual books of the Bible and it’s thought etc… then sure, Biblical is appropriate. However, many use biblical to refer to the general though around the time, including apocrypha, pseudepigrapha, and thought unrelated to the Bible except by time period alone. In this way, biblical should remain uncapitalized. Saturnine is capitalized when referring to Saturn, but if referring to melancholic, it should be saturnine. At least according to me…

    1. Sure, but I think that, most of the time, we’re less ambiguously referring to the Bible. Not its generalized milieu, or some only more revisionistic notion of the literary genre. (…As in, ‘Religious Texts for Dummies.’ –No they’re not.)
      …In which context, it would be a real shame if, conversely, we had to resort to such grotesquely contortionate compensatory constructs as, what, ‘The Bible,’ when talking about an assemblage of texts which has been in use for the past millennium and a half.
      …I frankly don’t know what the adjectival form of ‘Tanakh’ is, but I’ll always be happy to render it in upper case, along with ‘Koranic’ /’Quranic.’

  2. Great to see other people taking this issue seriously! As I mentioned in my post, the difference in capitalization or not is semantic and therefore significant. The author of the CMS seem to equate “piety” with “non-academic,” an ideological move in itself. I’m not entirely sure how to express this, but I think the move towards de-capitalization represents a general post-modern distaste for “reified substances.” Not that I think the Bible is such a thing, but by writing “b” for biblical one is dissolving its identity as something that exists in and of its self, as a personal identity, as you or I. It’s the classic attempt of history-of-religions approaches to Biblical studies to flatten out the content of the Bible into yet another example of the general phenomenon of human religiosity. It undermines the nature of the Book as a collection which wishes to make its own, independent statement by making it a subset of some vaguely conceived notion of “religiosity.” One doesn’t have to believe in the Bible’s content in order to agree that it is a relatively self-contained reality which makes an independent statement.

    Thanks for pointing this out!

  3. Kevin,

    I was reading Phil’s post and I came to your post. I always write “biblical” because it is the academic way of following the proper style. But I agree with you and Phil. From now on, I will use “Biblical” and let us encourage others in our field to change the way we write the word. Remember, common use eventually becomes the norm.

    Thank you for your post.

    Claude Mariottini

  4. Clear as a blizzard?

    Bible/ biblical

    1. Capitalize Bible and all nouns referring to sacred texts.

    2. Lowercase the word biblical and other adjectives derived from names of sacred texts.

    CORRECT: He didn’t have sufficient biblical evidence for his supposition, though he did reference two fairly long Bible verses.

    See also I.sacraments/services and rites.

    I. Usage of Christian and other religious terminology

    Apocrypha/ apocryphal

    1. Capitalize Apocrypha only when referring to the books included in the Septuagint and Vulgate but excluded from the Jewish and Protestant canons of the Old Testament. Do not italicize Apocrypha or the name of any sacred text. Spell out the names of books of the Apocrypha:

    Baruch 2 Maccabees
    Bel and the Dragon Prayer of Manasses (or Manasseh)
    Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) Rest of Esther
    1 Esdras Song of Three Holy Children
    2 Esdras Susannah
    Judith Tobit
    Letter of Jeremiah Wisdom of Solomon
    1 Maccabees
    2. Do not capitalize the word apocryphal, which describes information of spurious origin and doubtful authenticity.

    1. Capitalize the terms referring to the Lord’s Supper or Communion and its equivalents the Mass and Eucharist.

    CORRECT: Raised both Lutheran and Catholic, Gerard Duo took awhile to understand that the Lord’s Supper and the Mass were different interpretations of the same sacrament.

    2. Lowercase the names of religious services and rites.

    CORRECT: Seder followed vespers, which followed bar mitzvah, which followed confirmation; it had been a long and ecumenical week.

    See also I.baptism.

    sacred texts

    Capitalize, but do not italicize (as with book titles) all nouns referring to sacred texts: Apocrypha, Bhagavad Gita, Bible, Dead Sea Scrolls, Qur’an (Koran), Talmud. The adjectives derived from names of sacred texts are lowercased: apocryphal, biblical, scriptural, talmudic.

    See also I.Apocrypha/apocryphal and I.Bible/biblical.

  5. The problem with capitalizing the adjective is that adjectives also become the roots of compound words, such as nonbiblical. This is not just a matter of slamming down the pinky. It’s also extra keystrokes for the hyphen and this adds unnecessary complexity to all constructions that use biblical or variations thereof as their root. Allow me to respectfully disagree.

    I believe there’s probably some element of your thinking that is ideological, rather than logical, and while you have every right to use your language choices to promote your ideology, I believe that doing so without acknowledging it as the real motivation is inauthentic and false.

    @Phil wrote, “It’s the classic attempt of history-of-religions approaches to Biblical studies to flatten out the content of the Bible into yet another example of the general phenomenon of human religiosity.” In making this statement, Phil is harkening to the Christian false doctrine of exceptionalism, an ideology that seeks to have our secular culture recognize Christianity as unique. Among the things, this doctrine causes non-Christians to consider Christianity as an arrogant, emotionally violent, and repressive ideology.

    This is certainly a doctrine that does not recognize all God’s children as equal in his sight. For the sake of truth and wisdom, it should be “biblical,” not “Biblical.”

    1. Wow, who’s getting ideological now over capitalization? No, my objection is not ideological. It’s semiotic. “Bible” as the title of this collection of writings varying from community to community however it may be is a recognized object, however conceptual it may be. When that particular object is intended, the word is capitalized. Adjectives based upon it should simply be capitalized, as in the case of Shakespearean, Einsteinian, Freudian, etc. That these are personal names makes little difference. Historically, capitalization in English is all over the map, in any case, with nouns and personal names being more often capitalized than not. This is a simple matter of maintaining clear boundaries of signification. “Bible” is simply never without the lower case initial, historically. An adjective based upon it should reflect that.

    2. Considering the claims and effect Christianity has had upon society at large, giving women and children, for example, a level of personhood that Rome and pagan societies did not, is exceptional. Even the view of man not being a side thought of the gods, but rather created in the image of God with so much value that said God would become man and suffer death to redeem His creation, is also exceptional.

  6. As a technical writer/editor and professor, I have wrestled (figuratively only) with peers over whether or not to capitalize “Biblical.” As you pointed out in your original post on this topic, capitalizing “Biblical” is consistent with the Chicago Manual of Style’s guidelines for capitalization: “…capitalize what are clearly proper nouns and adjectives, and lowecase everything else except to avoid ambiguity (CMS 14, §7.77, p. 265.” Thus, I cannot understand the illogical conclusion not to capitalize “Biblical,” which is clearly a proper adjective made from a proper noun. I agree with Phil’s explanation of a possible contributing factor in not capitalizing it: “the move towards de-capitalization represents a general post-modern distaste for ‘reified substances.'” I’ve even seen “Bible” with a small “b.”

    1. Yes, Linda, I’ve see “bible,” too. It’s peculiar. While I shy away from decrying any sort of anti-Christian sentiment, this phenomenon does seem to be a symptom of such an attitude. And it looks so adolescent, I must add. “Looky, let’s make a Christian uncomfortable! I’ll use a lowercase b in Bible! Tee hee!”

  7. I have lately become the capitalization police. I am of the belief that everything pertaining directly to the Trinity should be capitalized.

    God * Jesus Christ * Holy Spirit * Holy Bible * Biblical * Biblically * Scripture * Scriptural * Scripturally * He * Him * His *
    My spirit is adamant about this. Really? It is the least we can do is give God His due in writing, as we can’t do it in our lives.

    1. I have the printed 15th edition of 2003, which was not too strong on online/computerized text issues. The 16th edition of 2010 is better in that regard, and available in full online:

  8. The word “bible” comes from the Latin “biblia”, which basically means ‘book of books’, or ‘a collection/compilation of books’. There are actually many bibles in existence, and they don’t necessarily have anything to do with God, but there is only one Holy Bible (although there are many translations, interpretations, inscriptions, etc. of The Holy Bible).

    Additionally, there are two basic uses of the word “biblical” or “Biblical”, both being adjectives. One is ‘of or relating to the Bible’, while the other is ‘of a great size or amount, or on a large scale’.

    That being said, if the intention of the use of the word in any given work is to convey a relation to The Bible (be it a spiritual implications, or a specific large scale occurrence, such as reflecting on the massacre of firstborns), then, yes, “Biblical” should be capitalized. However, primarily because “Biblical”, with a capital ‘B’, has implicit implications, “biblical” should never be capitalized if the writers intention is simply to communicate a vastness, overwhelming amount, or grand scale of the subject being described; “Biblical” and “biblical” imply two different thoughts of communication and if you use them incorrectly then you may being saying something that you did not intend to say.

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