“What is your favorite verse?”
If you’ve spent much time in a church, you’ve probably heard this question. Many people like to choose life verses, write verse references on keychains, stones, or tracts, or even plaster them on bumper stickers.
Interestingly, however, the Bible did not originally contain chapter and verse references. Instead, these were added later — hundreds or even thousands of years later.
Why Was the Bible Divided into Chapters and Verses?
Unlike a novel or even a history textbook, the Bible is a compilation of many different types of literature, from books of history to books of poetry, to letters. The Bible might be considered an anthology, with multiple authors all writing under the influence of God.
With such a mass of text, it is understandably difficult to point someone else to a specific point in Scripture without any outside references. “That one part where David talks about God’s power” will make for quite a bit of searching.
Even direct quotations (e.g., “the heavens declare the glory of God”) will take a very long time to find by flipping through without a reference to find them (Psalm 19:1).
If people wanted to discuss passages, look at the context around passages others were discussing, or reference them for the sake of scholarship, a system was needed.
Who Divided the Bible into Chapters and Verses?
People have been dividing the Bible into manageable sections for millennia. For example, in the fifth century, the theologian and biblical translator Jerome divided the Bible into shorter passages called pericopes, a predecessor to chapters.
The chapter divisions we use today are usually credited to Stephen Langton, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1207-1228. His chapter divisions were used in the Wycliffe English Bible of 1382 and have been used in nearly all versions since.
Verse divisions, or predecessors thereof, go back the longest for the Old Testament, thanks to Jewish scholars. The Ben Asher family divided the Old Testament into verses around AD 900, though other divisions came after that.
Verse divisions for the New Testament took a bit longer. The verse divisions we use today originated with Robert Estienne (or Stephanus), who included them in the printing of his Greek New Testament in 1551.
The first full Bible to be published with verse and chapter divisions was Estienne’s edition of the Latin Vulgate in 1555. He seems to have used the Old Testament verse divisions created by a Jewish rabbi named Nathan in 1448.
The first English version to have full chapter and verse divisions for the entire Bible was the Geneva Bible of 1560. These divisions have been used in almost all versions since.
Do Chapters and Verses in the Bible Cause Problems?
Despite the good that chapters and verses do to help us communicate with one another and find passages quickly and easily, they were added by fallible humans and are not part of the inspired Word of God. Thus, sometimes problems can arise.
These problems come when we look at a verse or a chapter as a self-contained unit. Since God did not place chapters and verses in the Bible, He did not intend for a single verse or single chapter to be taken into account by itself.
In fact, without context, some verses and chapters can have incorrect interpretations or concerning meanings.
This seems to say that with God, we can do anything, right? It’s often used in athletics, as an inspirational verse to imply that because God is with the person or team, they will win.
That isn’t what it means. The context of Philippians 4:11-13 reads,
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Thus, rather than being a verse about achieving or succeeding, this is a verse about leaning on God’s grace to endure any situation — not to change or overcome the situation, but to live in it in contentedness.
Other verses, alone, may say things that are outright wrong. For example, Ecclesiastes 1:15 states, “What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.”
This implies that there is no redemption. Also see Ecclesiastes 1:2, which says, “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’”
Taken alone, these verses give a bleak picture. However, Ecclesiastes is meant to be taken as a full book, one which examines all things of the world and finds them all lacking without God. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 concludes:
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
Ecclesiastes doesn’t teach that there is no redemption or meaning in life; it teaches that these things do not exist outside of God.
How Can We Best Use Chapters and Verses in the Bible?
Chapters and verses are incredibly helpful for communicating with one another. This article uses multiple verse references.
However, we must remember that chapter and verse breaks were made by man, and sometimes don’t actually follow the original linguistic structures. Whenever we read a verse or a chapter, we need to look at it in context.
Read the verses before and after, and the chapters before and after. Read passages with the context of the full Bible in mind.
Begin Bible reading with a prayer that God would lend understanding. And never be afraid to do more research, to ask questions, even to dive into the original Greek or Hebrew texts.
Chapters and verses in the Bible are wonderful tools to help us communicate and share the Word of God. As we use these tools, may we also appreciate the Bible as a full work and continue to learn and study it in new ways.
For further reading:
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.