The Significance of Direct Speech in Scripture

James Coakley
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I have sat on a jury several times throughout my life. Lawyers on both sides of a case tried to influence the jury to agree with their presentation of the evidence, but when the principal litigants were called to the witness stand, I tended to be much more alert to their exact words stated on the stand, since the case was centered on them, and their oral testimony carried more weight. Biblical authors are like courtroom lawyers in that they present a literary case for readers, but sometimes they allow for the characters to address the reader in their own words, often for thematic purposes.

This technique of noticing direct speech calls on readers to isolate direct speech and contemplate how they not only reveal the speaker’s character but also how they often convey key theological and thematic points that the author intends readers to identify. This is extensively used in narrative texts but also present in other genres of the Bible.


Look for quotation marks and isolate the direct speech that characters make. Reflect on how those words either reveal a character trait or express a main theological or literary theme of the passage.


This technique is one of the quickest ways for readers to ascertain what truly motivates a character. In addition, a character often voices key themes of the passage that the author is highlighting, so it can be used as a means to determine whether a reader is tracking what the biblical author is intending to convey.


This technique is easiest to identify when the biblical author inserts a single direct speech quote from the lips of one of the characters as compared to a text with extended back-and-forth dialogue between two parties. It is also a lot harder to analyze longer speeches, such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7) or Stephen’s speech (Acts 7), since they are extended discourses, making it harder to isolate foregrounded statements.

Biblical authors often “show rather than tell” in narratives.

“Step Up to The Mic”

English Bible translations make finding these “Step Up to the Mic” occurrences easy to spot because of quotation marks. Once quotation marks are located, the next step is to ask this question: “Why is it that the author yielded the microphone to allow us to hear a character speak in their words instead of simply narrating the event?” Many Scripture readers are already aware of the importance of this because of red-letter editions to emphasize the words of Christ. To be sure, these versions may give the subtle message that the words in red are more important than the other words recorded in the gospel accounts, which is not always the case, but it does help in identifying the quoted words of Jesus.

An Example: Genesis 12:10–13

“Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”

The narrator could have just told us that Abram lied, but instead, we as readers witness Abram lie with his own words. Why did the author allow us to hear the character’s words instead of the author summarizing the speech?

The Benefit of Direct Speech

Direct speech can accomplish different things that narration is unable to do. It slows down the tempo of the action to zero in on a particular scene where the author wants to stress something. In addition, direct speech often confirms a literary or theological theme that is communicated in the surrounding narrative. When this happens, we hear that theme directly from the lips of the character rather than indirectly from the narrator.

Another benefit of direct speech is that when there is dialogue between two characters, it is an indicator of the type of relationship that exists between them. Is there a power differential? Is there respect and admiration?

When we look for quotation marks and consider why the author gave us the actual words expressed, it helps us to get a more intimate portrait of the character who is speaking. Luke 6:45 gives us this principle succinctly: “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

Biblical authors often “show rather than tell” in narratives. They allow the reader to come to their own conclusion about the rightness or wrongness of a character’s actions or words without commentary to that effect. In the case of Abram, the author (Moses) provides us with Abram’s own speech to his wife exactly as he said it. Abram then is seen to really “own” this because we are hearing it “straight from the horse’s mouth” and not through an intermediary.

This technique is a great way to develop a deeper sense of the speaker’s character, and, in many cases, the thrust of the passage is often found on the lips of one of the characters within the story rather than by the narrator recounting the events.

For Further Reading:

14 Fresh Ways to Enjoy the Bible

by James Coakley

The Bible is God’s masterpiece and gift to you—claim it for all that it’s worth. The Bible is the most read book in all the world....

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