Dividing the Word of Truth

Audio – Dividing the Word of Truth“We are all agreed to speak of the Bible as a supremely great literature. Yet, when we open our ordinary editions … the eye catches nothing but a monotonous uniformity of numbered sentences!”
–Richard Moulton, The Modern Reader’s Bible, 1907


The above words, written over a century ago, express an understandable dislike for the chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles. They may be the most conspicuous of all the manmade alterations of God’s word. Most of us today are so used to seeing this host of numerals throughout the pages of our Bible that we tend to think of them as an inherent part of the text. But despite having a long history, these demarcations originated with man, not God. Chapter and verse divisions enable us to easily reference portions of the Biblical text, and in that respect they provide a valuable service. But most people fail to think about the adverse effects they can have upon the way we read and understand the Scriptures.

Division of the Scriptures throughout History

The Dead Sea Scrolls show us that, well before the time of Jesus, Jewish copyists divided the books of the OT into sections (called parashot) according to the logical sense of the text. Somewhat akin to modern paragraph indentions, a blank space preceded what the copyist perceived as a new unit of thought (a closed parashah), while a blank line indicated a more significant shift in subject matter (an open parashah). These ancient divisions of the text were not numbered, nor were they standardized in any way. Greater uniformity began to emerge in the Rabbinic period when Babylonian Jews divided the Torah into 54 parashot divisions. By reading a parashah each week in the synagogue, the entire Torah could be completed in a year. To accommodate a three-year reading cycle, Palestinian Jews divided the text into 154 smaller units (called sederim). Each of these units was approxiately the same length; quantity of material rather than subject matter was the determining factor.

This copy of Isaiah (150 BC), one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, shows us that Jews from an early period divided the OT text into sections, as the rabbis of the Middle Ages would later do. These early text divisions were not standardized.

Early Christian copyists also began to segment the books of the NT. By the fourth century, it was common for Christian scribes to denote shifts in subject matter by dividing a NT book into sections (called kephalaia). These divisions of the text were determined subjectively; different copyists divided a given book differently. For example, Codex Vaticanus, a fourth century manuscript, separated the Gospel of Matthew into 170 sections, while Codex Alexandrinus, a fifth century manuscript, divided Matthew into 68 sections.

The chapter divisions of our modern Bibles stem from a system created in the early 13th century by Stephen Langton, a Catholic scholar who later became the archbishop of Canterbury. Langton divided the entirety of the Latin Vulgate into chapters so that readers could easily locate a given portion of the text. Langton’s reference system proved to be so helpful that Jewish rabbis added his chapter divisions into Hebrew manuscripts of the OT. This standardized reference system greatly facilitated Jews and Christians as they engaged one another in religious debate during the 14th and 15th centuries. (To this day, Jewish Bibles continue to utilize this same basic reference system, one that was created by a Christian!) With the invention of the printing press, Langton’s chapter divisions quickly became a part of virtually all printed Bibles. They continue to be used in almost all Bibles today.

Around AD 1230, Hugo of St. Cher, a French Dominican friar, further divided Langton’s chapters into seven subsections using the first seven letters of the alphabet to designate them. This reference system enabled Hugo to create the first Bible concordance. Designed for the Vulgate, Hugo’s concordance allowed Bible students to locate, with relative ease, each use of the key words of the Bible. Hugo’s system of seven subdivisions per chapter (and later four subdivisions for smaller chapters) continued in use for a long time in handwritten Bibles, as well as many of the early printed Bibles.

The division of a Biblical book into very small segments, or verses, is a practice that originated with Masoretic Jews of the Middle Ages. When the Masoretes produced Hebrew manuscripts of the OT books, they indicated a full stop by inserting a space (and later various symbols) into the text. In the 15th century, Rabbi Isaac Nathan took this a step further. He created a concordance to the Hebrew Bible that cited Masoretic verses according to the Vulgate’s chapter divisions, just as we cite the chapter and verse of a Biblical book today. Printed Hebrew Bibles of the 16th century then began to include numerals to designate the verses of each chapter. The first person to versify the chapters of NT books was Dominican scholar Santi Pagnini in 1527, but his system of numbered verses was never widely adopted.

A 1551 edition of an early English Bible (“Matthew’s Bible”) with chapters, but no verses. Capital letters in the margins denote the subsections created by Hugo of St. Cher.

The NT system of versification that we have in our modern Bibles was developed in the 16th century by Robert Estienne, a French printer who went by the moniker Robert Stephanus. Intent on producing a more functional concordance than Hugo’s before him, one with a more precise reference system, Stephanus published a Greek–Latin NT in 1551 that divided each chapter of a NT book into numbered verses. Four years later, he published a complete Latin Bible, using the Hebrew versification for the OT books, and his own versification for the NT books. The first English Bible to insert both chapter and verse divisions into the text was the Geneva Bible, published in 1560. Subsequent printed Bibles in Latin, English, and other languages followed suit.

Stephanus’ system of versification did not always meet with high praise. Many of his verse divisions were ill conceived, comprising the shortest of sentences (e.g., John 11:35, “Jesus wept”) or ending in the middle of a sentence (e.g., Luke 20:29-31; Col. 2:20-22). Stephanus’ son later said that his father had created his verse divisions while journeying from Paris to Lyons—a remark that prompted detractors to suggest, perhaps not too tongue-in-cheek, that the gallop of Stephanus’ horse occasionally jostled his pen. In reality, the son probably meant only that his father had determined his verses during evening stops at inns along the way. Nevertheless, many of Stephanus’ verse divisions are odd, to say the least.

Problems with Chapters and Verses

The above survey shows us that, throughout the centuries, people have divided and subdivided the text of the Scriptures in various ways. Sometimes these divisions were designed to help a reader see logical shifts of thought in a Biblical book, but very often the main motivation was simply to provide a means of referencing portions of the text. Laudable as these helps may be, it is important to recognize that they are still manmade alterations of the text. Bible readers need to be aware of the ways in which they can negatively affect our reading of God’s word.

The chapter and verse divisions of our Bibles visually interrupt the act of reading. They encourage us to read a Biblical book in piecemeal fashion. We assume that the end of a chapter is the end of the topic at hand and a good place to stop in our reading; however, such is often not the case. We assume that the end of a verse is the end of the sentence, with the next verse beginning a new thought; frequently, this is not so. This problem is exacerbated by Bibles that indent each verse as one would a new paragraph, and separate each chapter by a wide gap. Many preachers and Bible teachers make the mistake of relying on these divisions of the text when outlining a Biblical book, as if the chapters and verses are trustworthy indicators of a shift in thought.

Robert Stephanus’ Greek-Latin NT (1551) divided chapters into numbered verses. This had been done a quarter-century earlier by Santi Pagnini, but it was Stephanus’ versification system that quickly became a part of virtually all printed Bibles.

Because of all this, it is easy for chapter and verse divisions to interfere with how we interpret the Scriptures. Genesis 2:1-3, for example, is clearly the conclusion of the creation account of chapter 1; but because of the chapter break, most readers mistakenly connect these verses with what follows instead of with what precedes. The odd verse division of Colossians 2:22 can make a novice Bible reader think that the commands, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch,” are Paul’s own admonitions, instead of the words of the false teachers at Colossae. Because of an unfortunate chapter break in Paul’s letter to the Romans, many experienced Bible readers who have studied Romans 14 for years fail to realize that the apostle’s admonition about strong and weak brethren accepting one another continues well into chapter 15. If we separate Romans 14 from what Paul says about Jew-Gentile relations in 15:1-12, we will probably miss the real historical issue he is addressing throughout the entire discussion.

Chapter and verse divisions affect how people conceive of God’s word, as well as what they deem important. Many people think of the OT Psalter, not as an anthology of 150 separate psalms, but as a single work containing 150 chapters. Even worse is when Bible readers attach significance to these features of the Bible that did not originate with God. Questions like, “What is the longest chapter of the Bible?” or “What is the shortest verse?” are jejune trivialities that focus attention on irrelevant matters. Worst of all is when people assign spiritual significance to such things. Many people have spent considerable time and energy locating the middle verse of the Bible’s nearly 8000 verses. Why do they bother? “Because,” they say, “God surely intends this verse to show us the central teaching of His word.” (Oh, my goodness.)

Despite the difficulties that chapters and verses create, their utility as a system of reference has always outweighed in people’s minds any obstacles they pose to reading the text. It is true that some current publishers print Bibles without such demarcations, or they relegate chapter and verse numbers to the margin of the page; but the translations used in these Bibles tend not to be the major, time-tested versions. It would seem that numbered chapters and verses in our Bibles are here to stay. This makes it imperative for Bible readers to be on guard against the negative effects these manmade features can have on our reading and comprehension of the text. As we study a Biblical book, we need to read the text as if it were not segmented into chapters and verses, as if these notations were not on the page. That’s not an easy thing to do. But only by ignoring the chapter and verse divisions will we be able to “rightly divide the word of truth” (2 Tim. 3:15).

Martin Pickup


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