Chapters and Verses

You’ve probably studied a book of the Bible chapter by chap­ter, or even verse by verse. You may have heard preaching about the need for “book, chapter, and verse” as authority for what we do. And doubtless you’ve learned to cite Scripture by book, chap­ter, and verse (e.g., John 3:16; Ephesians 6:1; etc.). We do these things, naturally, because each book of the Bible is divided into chapters and verses. But it wasn’t always so.

The Bible’s inspired authors didn’t use chapter divisions or verse numbering. While many Bible books are arranged in sections that are fairly obvious from the text, the original writers didn’t think in terms of chapter and verse when they put their message on paper. So where did the chapters and verses come from?

By the first century AD, scribes had begun dividing the books of Hebrew Scripture into sections to aid in study and public read­ing. When the New Testament began to be copied, the same thing was often done. But for more than a thousand years there was no formal system of numbering chapters and verses.

The chapter divisions in our Bibles were developed in the early 13th century. English Bible scholar Stephen Langton divided each book into chapters to aid in his writing of commentaries. The first edition of the Bible to include his chapter divisions was published in 1240. Langton’s system grew in popularity until, by the 15th century, it had become a standard feature in most Bibles.

The system of verse divisions came along later, through the work of Parisian book printer Robert Stephanus. His 1555 edition of the Bible included not only Langton’s chapter divisions, but also verse numbering within each chapter. For the Old Testament, Ste­phanus basically followed the verse divisions that were already present in many Hebrew manuscripts. For the New Testament, he divided and numbered the verses himself. His “versification” of the New Testament was done during a hasty journey from Paris to Lyons, leading historians to debate whether he did the work on horseback or at inns and taverns along the way! In any case, his system soon found its way into popular printed editions of the Bi­ble. Langton’s chapters and Stephanus’ verses have been with us ever since.

So the chapter and verse divisions are not part of the original text of the Bible. They are simply reference points designed to help us locate passages within the text. In that respect, they’re a big help. (Can you imagine trying to find a particular passage in Isaiah without any divisions in the text?) However, we need to remember that God didn’t insert the chapters and verses; men did. And, as helpful as this system is, it still has its shortcomings.

A century ago, writer Hermann von Soden complained that the chapter divisions in our Bibles “leave much to be desired” and “do not rest upon a comprehension of the literary structure of Bib­lical books.” He had a point. Sometimes the chapters within a book follow the natural divisions of thought, but other times they break awkwardly right in the middle (see Ezekiel 1-2; Acts 4-5; Acts 21-22; Gala­tians 1-2; Hebrews 4-5; 1 Peter 2-3). Von Soden also complained that the verse divisions “frequently do not do ser­vice to the sense of the text.” A verse may contain several sen­tences, or just one, or only a fragment of a sentence. The lengths of verses vary widely: in the KJV, John 11:35 contains just two words, while Esther 8:9 contains 90. In short, there are plenty of times when an observant reader finds himself asking, “Why on earth would some­one put a chap­ter/verse break here?”

The chief drawback of the chapter and verse divisions is that they can affect how we read and think about the text. For in­stance, the mere presence of verse numbers may cause us to focus on individual chunks of thought, while ignoring how all those thoughts connect to form a coherent message. This can lead to lift­ing a verse out of its context and distorting its meaning. In our study, we need to pay careful attention to the flow of thought and information from one verse to the next, one chapter to the next.

Bible scholar A. T. Robertson went so far as to recom­mend ignoring the chapters and verses. That may sound odd, but give it a try. The next time you’re reading your Bible, try to ignore the verse divisions and just read the text. You might use a word proces­sing app to create a text-only version of a chapter or book, with no verse divisions. Start small, maybe with 3 John or Philemon. However you do it, make a conscious effort to read past the verse numbers and just focus on the text. If you do this, you will look at the text differently. Words and phrases will jump out which you hadn’t noticed before. Connections of thought that once seemed obscure may become clearer. You may find that a difficult passage be­comes easier to understand. There’s no telling what you might learn. Who knows? You may find a whole new joy in reading the word of God. And if that happens, it will be worth the effort.

I’m not starting a campaign to remove the chapters and verses from our Bibles. They serve a useful purpose; and they are such an integral part of our reading of the Bible that it would be impractical to do away with them. But they are not inspired, and they are not perfect. Let’s be aware of their limitations, and let’s do our best to read the text of the Bible for all it’s worth.