Authorities for SBL Style: Abbreviations, Spelling

We’ve mentioned three levels of authorities for SBL style that apply across your whole project.1 These include house styles (from a publisher or a school), the SBLHS blog, and of course, the SBLHS itself.

The next four authorities apply in specific cases. Here, we’ll cover the first two—those for abbreviations and spelling.

4. Specific-case Authorities

4.1 For Abbreviations: IATG3

As we already alluded, the SBLHS recommends that “abbreviations for works not listed [in §8.4.1–8.4.2] should follow Siegfried M. Schwertner, Internationales Abkürzungsverzeichnis für Theologie und Grenzgebiete, 3rd ed. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014 …)” (here IATG3).2

IATG3 clocks in at a stout 700+ pages (not including introductory matter). The volume can be intimidating to new users. On closer inspection, however, it is pretty transparently structured. Let’s go from back to front:

Part two contains “titles with bibliographical notes and abbreviations” for “periodicals, series, encyclopaedias, [and other] sources.”3 This section provides the full title of each source in alphabetical order. So this part will likely be most useful to readers who come to IATG3 from the SBLHS.

Part one contains “explanations of the abbreviations” for “periodicals, series, encyclopaedias, [and other] sources.”4 This section contains the same title-abbreviation pairings as in the second section. The first section simply sorts these pairings in alphabetical order by abbreviation.

Also valuable is the front matter (xxvi–xliii). It contains several other helpful abbreviation references (e.g., for common German abbreviations, the writings of Philo, Nag Hammadi texts).

To use IATG3 properly with the SBLHS, you need to go through a few different steps. These weren’t all immediately apparent to me when I started using IATG3. But the workflow is natural enough once you go through it a few times.

For this full workflow, see “4 Steps to Using IATG with the SBL Handbook of Style.”

4.2 For Spelling: Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

According to SBLHS §,

For words other than proper nouns, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is the preferred authority; where multiple spellings are listed, use the first.

This comment doesn’t specify which edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary to use. This classic reference looks to be in its 11th edition. And indeed, in §, the SBLHS explicitly references Merriam-Webster’s “11th ed.”

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is a key reference for non-English words printed in Roman letters.5 And Merriam-Webster’s conventions apply also to “those authors who are accustomed to using British spellings.”6

Thus, for instance, you would speak about “honor and shame,” not “honour and shame.” You would go “toward” something and not “towards” it.

Of course, it’s important to remember also that this guidance is subject to modification by any particular “house style.” A house style may reverse this convention and ask you to prefer British spellings.


The advice I’ve found in IATG and Merriam-Webster’s dictionary has sometimes surprised me. For example, the “Pillar New Testament Commentary” abbreviation isn’t “PNTC” but “PilNTC.” And although it grates on me a bit for some reason, “interpretative” is a valid adjective form alongside “interpretive.”

But in the end, both are helpful references for bringing standardization to our abbreviations and spelling. Getting to this standardization does require some work. Yet, it can also meaningfully help clarify to others what we’re discussing. And to that end, the effort is well worth it.

  1. Header image provided by SBL Press. 

  2. SBLHS, §8.4. 

  3. IATG3, 193; see 195–726. 

  4. IATG3, 1; see 3–191. 

  5. SBLHS, § 

  6. SBLHS, § 

4 Steps to Using IATG with the SBL Handbook of Style

In the second edition of the SBL Handbook of Style (SBLHS2), chapter 8 is entirely dedicated to abbreviations. According to the Handbook, “abbreviations for works not listed below should follow Siegfried M. Schwertner, Internationales Abkürzungsverzeichnis für Theologie und Grenzgebiete, 3rd ed. (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2014 [=IATG3]).” Here are four steps to make this process as seamless as possible.

1. Get IATG3 in Paperback

As of this writing, the hardcover printing of IATG3 currently sells for just over $280 on Amazon, although you can find it a bit cheaper by shopping around.

But, thankfully, de Gruyter has also released IATG3 in paperback. As of this writing, you can find this paperback printing on Amazon for under $60 and just over $50 elsewhere.

IATG3 isn’t an inexpensive text in either case. But, there is definitely enough in it that’s not also in SBLHS2 to make it something useful to have on hand. And the pricing for the paperback copy makes it much more feasible to have your own copy on hand if your library doesn’t have it, or if you just want to keep from having to jockey with others over who’s using the library copy.

2. Consult SBLHS2

Next, check SBLHS2 §8.4 for a corresponding abbreviation. This section has two abbreviation lists. The first is sorted by the name of the source (§8.4.1). According to this list, “Journal of Biblical Literature” becomes simply “JBL” (194).

The second abbreviation list sorts the same works and periodicals as in the first, except that the sort is done by alphabetical order of the abbreviation (§8.4.2). Generally, the order of this section follows closely the order of the first. But, there are exceptions.

So, for instance, in the first list “Journal of Biblical Literature” appears between “Journal of Bible and Religion” and “Journal of Christian Theological Research” (194). But, in the second list “Journal of Biblical Literature” appears between “Jerome Bible Commentary” and “Jewish Biblical Quarterly” since all three abbreviations begin with “JB” (238).

You will probably find the first list more useful when composing a citation or a bibliography entry and the second more useful if you come across a citation with an abbreviation and need to try to expand that abbreviation into the source it represents. But, the second list is also incredibly helpful in connection with step 4 below, and it’s practically necessary if you’re working with a print version of SBLHS2.

In any case, the main point to remember in this step is not to confuse the two lists. You don’t want to accidentally look at the second list (sorted by abbreviation) and miss something because that list isn’t alphabetized by source.

3. Consult IATG3

Like SBLHS2, IATG3 has two main abbreviation lists. The first is sorted alphabetically by abbreviation (3–191). The second is sorted alphabetically by the name of the source (195–726).

So, for instance, if you needed to cite an article from Scriptura, you would find that SBLHS2 doesn’t have a corresponding abbreviation (step 2).

On finding this, you’d then consult the second list in IATG3 (sorted by source name) and find four different sources with this name (632). If you were looking for the Scriptura produced in South Africa, you’d then find the corresponding abbreviation to be Scr.(S).

4. Double check SBLHS2 doesn’t already assign the abbreviation you found in IATG3 to some different source

For example, if you’re citing something from the “Herders biblische Studien” series, you’ll see that SBLHS2 doesn’t include an abbreviation for this source (step 2). You’d then consult IATG3 and find the abbreviation “HBS” (step 3; 424).

If you go back to SBLHS2 and look up this abbreviation, however, you find that it’s assigned to “History of Biblical Studies” (235).

What do you do in this case? If you’re writing strictly according to SBLHS2, then its abbreviations take precedence over those in IATG3 (SBLHS2 §8.4). So, “HBS” would mean “History of Biblical Studies” and not “Herders biblische Studien.”

In this case, you have basically two options. First, if you’re writing a longer-format piece (e.g., a thesis or dissertation) and can create your own abbreviation list, you can adopt your own custom abbreviations for each of these two sources. Or, if you only use one of the sources, you could define “HBS” explicitly as the source you use.

Failing this, second, your best option is not to abbreviate “Herders biblische Studien” and simply write it out in full in order to avoid ambiguity and confusion.


At first blush, the hundreds of pages of abbreviations in IATG3 can be a bit intimidating. But, by following these steps, it doesn’t take much to become accustomed to using IATG3 alongside SBLHS2 as you’re doing research and composing citations.

What other tips do you have for using IATG3 with SBLHS2?

Header image provided by Anastasia Zhenina