Chapters and Verses

October 27, 2020

The Bible was not written in chapters and verses. As helpful as chapters and verses are, they are a later addition to the text. The chapter divisions came first. They date from the thirteenth century and are usually attributed to Stephen Langton in an edition that he did of the Latin Vulgate. (However, the psalms were always individual poems.) The verse divisions were added by Robert Estienne (also known as Stephanus) in his fourth edition of the Greek New Testament in 1551. The first translation to employ his versification was the Geneva Bible (1560).

Since chapters and verses are imposed on the text, they sometimes introduce breaks at the wrong place for the reader. One sentence can run over several verses, and a new sentence can even begin in the middle of a verse. Some of the unfortunate verse breaks led to a quip about Robert Estienne’s work. He made the verse divisions while traveling by horse from Paris to Lyons. The quip says that some of the unfortunate divisions occurred because the horse stumbled. Estienne’s son, however, said that his father likely made the versification when he stopped at inns and not while he was actually riding his horse. The same thing can happen with chapter divisions. They also may break up material that really belongs together.

My advice is don’t read verses; read sentences and paragraphs. To try to understand a verse by itself without seeing it in the larger context of the sentence and paragraph is to make an interpretive mistake. The inspired authors of scripture were not writing in verses; they were writing sentences, paragraphs, and books. It is up to us as readers to understand how these meaningful groups of text fit together.

The need to read the Bible as a book and see beyond the chapter and verse numbers has caused a few publishers to be creative. Alexander Campbell, the Restoration Movement leader, published a New Testament that he called The Living Oracles. Campbell only had a verse number at the beginning of a paragraph. The ESV is now published in the ESV Bible, The Reader’s Edition. It has chapter markers but no verses within the text. Biblica, the copyright holder of the NIV, has published The Books of the Bible, which is an NIV edition without chapter and verse numbers. All these publishing endeavors are attempts at getting readers to see sentences, paragraphs, and books. In other words, to read the Bible in context. They are also not a replacement for your regular Bible.

Do I want to get rid of chapters and verses? Absolutely not! They are helpful in pointing people to a particular place in the text. I always want to give book, chapter, and verse for what I believe. However, I do want us to understand the origin and limitation of chapters and verses. They are convenient place markers and not thought units. As readers, we must read in context.

—Russ Holden