Give Me Chapter and Verse: A Brief History

My wife and I went to Turkey a few years ago on a tour of the seven ancient cities mentioned in chapters two and three of the Book of Revelation. In many of the places we traveled, we saw engravings dating back nearly two millennium and written in Greek. Since I know some Koine Greek, I was eager to read these signs.

It was more difficult than I expected, partly because the Greek sometimes differed from the Koine I know, but largely because (as I anticipated) the Greek letters were all capitals and there was no spacing between words. Students of biblical Greek usually learn the language as it is printed today, with lower-case letters and with spaces between words and sentences.

Try reading the following well-known Bible verse in English: JUDGENOTLESTYOUBEJUDGED. You were probably able to read this and may recognize it as something spoken by Jesus and recorded in Matthew’s Gospel. But imagine what work it would be to locate and read a particular passage if the entire Bible ran together like this.

We take our Bibles for granted, but navigating the text was not always as easy as it is now. Translating the original language into English was, of course, an enormous task, but even after it was translated, and word spacing was introduced, and upper and lower cases were used, it was still much more difficult to find a text than it is today. That is because the books of the Bible were not divided into chapters for more than a millennium or into verses for more than 1500 years.

Imagine owning a Bible without any verse or chapter breaks. You’re at church and the pastor says, “Today, we’re looking at the most famous passage in the Bible,” so you hurry to locate the part about God so loving the world that he gave his only begotten Son. But there would be no John 3:16, so you would need to scan for key words like “so,” “loved,” “begotten,” and more. Good luck with that.

It was the thirteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton who came up with the brilliant idea of placing chapter divisions in the text, although it took a hundred-and-fifty years before a Bible was published using them. In 1448, Rabbi Nathan divided the Old Testament into verses, but it was not until 1555 that Robert Estienne divided the New Testament into the numbered verses we now know.

Yet chapter and verse divisions, while an enormous help in locating texts, can also be problematic. Because the original writers did not use them – who numbers the sentences in a letter and divides them into chapters? – we cannot always be sure that an author intended to conclude a thought at the end of a verse or to move on to another subject at the end of a chapter.

Taking the chapter breaks (and even verse breaks) as authoritative can lead to interpretive failures. For example, St. Paul’s famous paean to love in 1 Corinthians 13 is often removed from its context as if it were a stand-alone text. This happens frequently at weddings.

What is wrong with reading 1 Corinthians 13 at a wedding? Nothing. I’ve done it myself many times. However, if we remove it from the church’s corporate life and worship and read it only at weddings, we will think of it as a song about marital devotion. But 1 Corinthians 13 was written to a church, not a married couple—a church that was plagued by infighting and power struggles. Knowing that opens the text to us as we read.

Another example (there are many) is the story of the meeting between Jesus and the well-known teacher Nicodemus. The current chapter division begins the story with the introduction of Nicodemus, but it would be better to divide the chapters three verses earlier. Those three verses set the stage for Rabbi Nicodemus entrance and help us make sense of Jesus’s interaction with him.

The moral here is not that we should throw out chapter and verse numbers – we’d all be lost. The moral is that we had better read before and after the numbers to be sure we understand the context.

First published by Gatehouse Media.


About salooper57

Husband, father, pastor, follower. I am a disciple of Jesus, learning how to do life from him. I read, write, walk, play a little guitar, enjoy my family.
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