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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Why Is the Bible So Special?

Don Stewart :: Why Is the Bible Divided into Chapters and Verses?

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Why Is the Bible Divided into Chapters and Verses?

Why the Bible Is So Special – Question 8

Today, when we want to find a passage of Scripture, we look it up under its chapter and verse. Where did these divisions come from? Are they found in the original writings? If not, who decided how the sacred writings should be divided? There are a number of important points that need to be made:

1. There Were No Chapter or Verse Divisions in the Original

When the books of the Bible were originally written, there were no such things as chapters or verses. Each book was written without any breaks from the beginning to the end. Consequently, there are a number of important observations that need to be made about the present chapter and verse divisions that we find in Scripture.

2. The Books Have Been Divided into Chapters and Verses for Convenience

The chapter and verse divisions were added to the Bible for the sake of convenience. There is no authoritative basis for the divisions we now find. For the greater part of human history, there have been no chapter or verse divisions in Scripture.

3. The Origin of Chapter Divisions

The divisions of individual books of Scripture into smaller sections began as early as the fourth century A.D. Codex Vaticanus, a fourth century Greek manuscript, used paragraph divisions. These were comparable to what we find in manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.

In the fifth century, the biblical translator Jerome divided Scripture into short portions, or passages, called pericopes. The word is still used today to refer to a self-contained unit of Scripture. His work preceded the dividing of Scripture into chapters.

The actual chapter division took place much later. A man named Stephen Langton divided the Bible into chapters in the year A.D. 1227. The Bible he used was the Latin Vulgate. Langton was a professor at the University of Paris at the time. Later, he became the Archbishop of Canterbury.

These chapter divisions were later transferred to the Hebrew text in the fourteenth century by a man named Salomon ben Ishmael. There seems to have been certain changes made by Salomon ben Ishmael because the chapter divisions in the Hebrew text do not line up exactly with the English Bible.

4. The Origin of Verse Divisions

The modern Old Testament division into verses was standardized by the Ben Asher family around A.D. 900. However, the practice of dividing the Old Testament books into verses goes back centuries earlier.

Modern verse division for the New Testament was the work of Robert Stephanus (Stephens), a French printer. He divided the Greek text into verses for his Greek New Testament published in 1551.

The first entire Bible, in which these chapter and verse divisions were used, was Stephen’s edition of the Latin Vulgate (1555).

The first English Bible to have both chapter and verse divisions was the Geneva Bible (1560).

5. Chapters and Verses Are Helpful for Reference and Quotation

The chapter and verse divisions are convenient for reference and quotation purposes. They make it easier to find certain statements and accounts in Scripture.

It must always be remembered that the divisions into chapters and verses are human-made. They are sometimes arbitrary, and they sometimes interfere with the sense of the passage. The first step in Bible interpretation is to ignore the modern chapter and verse divisions.

6. The Chapter Divisions Can Cause Problems

The divisions into chapters and verses can actually cause some problems. There are instances where chapters are wrongly divided. For example, the end of Matthew chapter 16 should actually be placed with the beginning of Matthew 17.

Matthew 16 ends with Jesus saying the following:

And I assure you that some of you standing here right now will not die before you see me, the Son of Man, coming in my Kingdom. (Matthew 16:28 NLT)

The next verse reads:

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. (Matthew 17:1 NRSV)

This verse should have been in the same chapter as the previous verse since it is continuing the story.

The Verse Divisions Can Also Cause Problems

Dividing the Bible into verses can also give the impression that the Scripture consists of a number of maxims or wise sayings. For example, Paul wrote to the Colossians:

Don’t handle, don’t eat, don’t touch! (Colossians 2:21 NLT)

This verse, by itself, gives the impression that Scripture encourages some type of physical self-denial. Yet just the opposite is true. In context, Paul is actually teaching against this type of behavior. His argument is as follows:

You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the evil powers of this world. So why do you keep on following rules of the world, such as Don’t handle, don’t eat, don’t touch! (Colossians 2:20-21 NLT)

The next verse emphasizes that such restrictions are human commandments—not commandments from God:

Such rules are mere human teaching about things that are gone as soon as we use them. (Colossians 2:22 NLT)

When we read the verse in context, it says the following:

You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the evil powers of this world. So why do you keep on following rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle, don’t eat, don’t touch.” Such rules are mere human teaching about things that are gone as soon as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, humility, and severe bodily discipline. But they have no effect when it comes to conquering a person’s evil thoughts and desires. (Colossians 2:20-23 NLT)

Therefore, this one verse, when read on its own, gives the wrong impression of the biblical teaching. This is one of the problems with the Bible divided into verses—people will isolate the verses from the rest of the context.

Many more examples could be listed. Indeed, one could argue that the Bible teaches atheism:

There is no God... (Psalm 14:1 NIV)

Of course, the complete verse reads as follows:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. (Psalm 14:1 NIV)

Others could contend that Jesus taught cannibalism! The Gospel of John records Jesus saying the following:

So Jesus said to them, “I assure you: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life in yourselves. Anyone who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day, because My flesh is true food and My blood is true drink. The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood lives in Me, and I in him.” (John 6: 53-56 HCSB)

This is why it is important to read each particular verse in context. Otherwise, one can make the Bible say things that it does not want to say.

Chapters and Verses Are Not What the Authors Intended

The original authors of Scripture did not intend that their writings be divided up into chapters or verses. They intended that the books be read straight through from the beginning. A number of the books of Scripture can be read through in one sitting. This is the best way to discover what the author is trying to say.

Dividing up the Scripture into chapters and verses encourages people to read only small parts at a time. This is not always helpful. This is why the Bible should be read the same way as the original authors intended it to be read.

Summary – Question 8
Why Is the Bible Divided into Chapters and Verses?

In the original text of the various books of the Bible, there are no such things as chapter and verse divisions. They were added later for the sake of convenience. While they are helpful, they are not authoritative in any sense of the term. In fact, they can cause a number of problems.

Chapter and verse divisions give the impression that the Scripture should be read and studied in bits and pieces. This is not what the original authors intended. The entire context must always be considered. Consequently, the chapter and verse divisions should be ignored when one attempts to properly interpret the entire message of Scripture.

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