Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Where Did Bible Verses Come From?

Historical, confessional Evangelicals love our Bibles and will contend tooth-and-nail for the principle of Sola Scriptura, which says that Scripture alone is the authoritative, necessary, and sufficient source of truth for all believers (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16).

There is a prominent feature of our Bibles that we don't really think about, however. It is the chapter and verse divisions. Today, this is a practically universal feature of Bible editions (whether produced by Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, or cults. But did you know that the original manuscripts for the Greek New Testament don't have similar divisions? So why do our English/Tagalog/Ilocano/Cebuano/etc. Bibles have them?

The Old Testament

Interestingly, the most ancient manuscripts of the Old Testament already contained verse divisions, although the first Hebrews Bibles printed only marked each fifth verse with its Hebrew numeral. Later, when a similar system for dividing the New Testament was established, the practice of marking every OT verse became common.

The New Testament

Unlike the OT, the original manuscripts of the New Testament featured neither chapters nor verses.

The first Bible to be divided into chapters was a 13th-century edition of the Latin Vulgate. Credit for this goes to either to Archbishop Stephen Langton of Canterbury (d.1228) or Cardinal Hugo of Saint Cher (c.1240).

It was another three centuries (and a Protestant Reformation) until another milestone was made. This time, it was a son of the Reformation, Robert Estienne (a.k.a. Robert Stephens), a Parisian publisher, who published the first versified New Testament in 1551. This system was so helpful to citation and memorization that its use quickly spread. Minor variations have been introduced over the centuries, but Estienne's innovation has proven the test of time. Virtually all Bible editions adopt these verse divisions.

Bane or Blessing?

Is this chapter & verse system helpful to the Church's study of God's Word?

Some would say No. For example, the Rev. Frederick Scrivener wrote,
the Genevan New Testament of 1557 unfortunately broke up the text into divisions at once so minute and so arbitrary as the verses invented by Robert Stephens. [Citing James Nourse] “The subdivision of the books of Sacred Scripture into chapters and verses, without regard to the sense, and frequently to its great injury, has thrown a most serious obstacle in the way of common readers.” It has given rise to “a very erroneous impression, that the Bible is rather a collection of apophthegms, or disconnected sentences, than composed of regular histories and treatises on religion, which have their separate topics and connexions.” “It is a method peculiar to the Bible, and confined to translations alone. Yet the word of God is not deserving of such an injurious peculiarity as this.”
Similarly, Walter Scott commented,
Can any one reasonably suppose that a man on horseback, or even resting in the inconvenient inns in these days, was competent, under such circumstances, to break up the text of Scripture into 7959 verses? How much better were the Bible sectioned off into paragraphs, according to the evident sense of the Spirit in the respective portions.
Maybe I'm just so used to thinking of the Bible in terms of chapters and verses, but I disagree. I really do think this is the best system for modern Bible readers. I share Robert Mackenzie's opinion that
The numbering of the Scripture writings by this ardent son of the Reformation [Robert Estienne] abides to this day. It has often been condemned as unsatisfactory; and so it is, chapters chopping up paragraphs meant to stand as one, and verses dividing thoughts that are knit by the closest ties Yet none have dared to produce anything better. Where the verse system has been modified or abandoned, the result has not proved satisfactory, at any rate from the point of convenience. Indeed stand it must, as practically the whole earth in its numberless tongues possesses the Scriptures, and with them Stephens' versicular division.

So, next time you think of a chapter and verse of Scripture (which will hopefully be sometime today, soon), keep in mind that these divisions are part of God's infallible Word (in the case of the the OT), or they aren't (in the case of the NT). Either way, they make Bible study and memorization so much easier, and are definitely a blessing we should be grateful for.

  1. A. Dana Adams, "Formation of the Bible and Languages," 4000 Questions & Answers on the Bible.
  2. Frederick Schrivener, "Introduction," The Cambridge Paragraph of the Bible of the Authorized English Version.
  3. Phillip Schaff, "The Civil Government,"  History of the Christian Church.
  4. _____. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Reproduced in part in the Bible Researcher website
  5. Walter Scott, "The Bible: Its Divisions, Chapters, Verses, Titles, and Subscriptions," The Story of Our English Bible. Reproduced in the Stem Publishing website.
  6. Robert Mackenzie, "The Dictionary of the Bible," John Brown of Haddington.

1 comment:

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