How the Bible got ‘Versified’

Whenever we want to refer to a particular passage from the Bible, it’s customary to cite “chapter and verse.”   But did you ever notice that the Biblical writers never do that for us?   At best they’ll say something like “… who was spoken of by the Prophet Isaiah when he said …” (Matthew 3:3) or even more vaguely “For he has somewhere spoken of …” (Hebrews 4:4).  Really?   Why didn’t they give us better references than that?

There are actually two answers to that question:  The first is that they really didn’t think they needed to.  You see, ancient peoples were vastly more adept than we are at memorizing things because that was a big part of their education.  At the time of Jesus it was the expectation that a ten-year-old Jewish boy would have memorized the entire Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy).  The better students continued their schooling and memorized the entire Old Testament by the age of fourteen!  So Jewish men literally carried around their scriptures in their heads, and could readily recognize passages just by hearing them – they didn’t need to look them up.  That would have been quite impractical in any case.  First of all, manuscripts were hand-written on large parchment scrolls that were very expensive: not the sort of thing you’d own privately, and certainly not carry around with you.  Secondly, the process of rolling through a long scroll to find a particular passage was quite a tedious business – it was cheaper, quicker, and easier to just remember it!

The even better reason that the ancient writers never cite chapter and verse numbers is that there weren’t any!  In fact, the original Hebrew texts of the Old Testament and the Greek texts of the New Testament were written entirely in capital letters packed closely together without spaces or punctuation.  Over time, those refinements were introduced to make the texts easier to read, but it was a VERY LONG TIME before our modern divisions into numbered chapters and verses took place.

In the case of the Old Testament, there was a kind of paragraph marking employed from antiquity, and also the longer texts were broken into larger sections that corresponded to convenient readings in the synagogue.  By the time of Jesus, the everyday language of Jews in Palestine was Aramaic and few people spoke Hebrew.  Consequently, the synagogue readings involved first reading a small section of text in Hebrew, and then the same text from an Aramaic translation (a Targum).  Standardized dividing marks in the text facilitated this, and this was the basis for the verse numbering system created by Rabbi Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymus in the mid 1400’s.  Similarly, the early Christians did subdivide the New Testament for convenience, but the chapter divisions of the Bible as we know them today seem to originate from Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 13th century.

Our modern system of chapters and verses for the entire Bible was really motivated by the invention of the printing press in the mid 1400’s and the Protestant Reformation in the early 1500’s, which together created a great demand for copies of the Bible for personal study.  Robert Estienne, a Parisian printer (who also went by the name of Stephanus) was a convert to Protestantism who wanted to print a concordance to the Greek New Testament which would allow you to look up every occurrence of a particular word in the text.  Without verse numbers, that was pretty much impossible ­– so he invented them!  According to his son, his dad accomplished this on a trip by horse to Lyon and back.  Some think this meant that he actually worked out the verse divisions while bouncing along on horseback, and while that’s probably not true, it would certainly help to explain the odd ways that the verses are sometimes broken up!  When Estienne later published the entire Bible, he pretty much used the Old Testament numbering of Rabbi Nathan.  And that’s the standard numbering system we still use today.

While this kind of trivia could be either fascinating or pointless (depending on your personal perspective) there is an important take-away for anyone who reads the Bible:  Those chapter and verse divisions are NOT part of the original text and can sometimes subtly change the meaning.  The authors of the Bible never intended for us to study it verse-by-verse, but rather to read it as a continuous narrative.  So this is one reason why we should always look at the context of a verse (or even of a chapter for that matter) rather than assuming that it’s a self-contained thought.

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