Thursday, November 15, 2012

Who is responsible for chapters and verses in the Bible?

One of the classes I teach first year seminary students  is course on how to read and interpret the Bible. It is very basic in approach and forces people to slow down, read, and observe. Many come away from the class admitting that they weren't really reading the Bible.

One common stumbling block almost all my students encounter is the chapter and verses numbers. Since this is the only way they have ever read the Bible the numbers are ingrained in their approach to the Bible. They assume, for instance, that since 1 Cor 11:1 is the beginning of a new chapter it must mean Paul has started a new topic. But as most bible students discover when Paul says "imitate me" in 11:1 he is really ending his discussion of eating meat offered to idols in chapter 10, not starting a new topic.  That verse should never  have been part of Paul's discussion on head coverings in the church. Most modern Bible translations recognize this and thus separate 11:1 from the rest of chapter 11

But it is amazing how the verses have reached "inspired status" over the years. People assume, subconsciously at least, that they have always been there and that Isaiah, Paul and others included them in their original document. In reality, the creation and inclusion of chapters and verses in holy writ has taken 100's of years. In English translations, for instance, the first time chapters and verses appear together is in the the 1599 Geneva Bible. This means that prior to 1599 holding up a sign at a football game with John 3:16 on it would have meant nothing to those who read it. And a quick comparison of modern Bible translations will reveal that the verse numbering system can change, even if only slightly, from translation to translation. 

Over at the Bible Gateway Blog there is a short piece on how we got the chapters and verses. Here is a bit of what they say.

For one thing, our chapter/verse numbering occasionally creates quirky or confusing situations. In your own Bible reading, you’ve probably noticed places where a sentence or train of thought is oddly interrupted by chapter or verse numbers. (See Acts 8, which opens with the final sentence of the previous chapter’s story.) Chapters and verses vary widely in length, and don’t necessarily correspond to the beginnings and ends of stories or sentences.
These numbering quirks do not hinder our ability to read Scripture, but you can bet that plenty of Bible scholars and readers have dreamed up alternate reference schemes to make chapter and verse numbering more consistent. But even if you’ve come up with the perfect Bible reference system, don’t hold your breath waiting for the world’s Bibles to conform to it—people probably won’t want to “break” several hundred years’ worth of Bible scholarship and verse memorization just because you think “John 3:16″ would be more logically called “Gospel/John.14.25-a.”

You can read the whole article here


  1. I actually read an article a while back on how the chapters were formed and then many years later verses were added. I think they are helpful but certainly not "inspired."

  2. The honour goes to Pagninus in 1527, some time earlier than Robert Stephanus.