IMAGINE that you are a Christian living in the first century. Your congregation has just received a letter from the apostle Paul. As you listen to it being read, you notice that Paul often quotes from “the holy writings,” that is, the Hebrew Scriptures. (2 Timothy 3:15) ‘I would really like to see the text he is quoting from,’ you say to yourself. But that would not have been easy. Why not?
NO CHAPTERS OR VERSES
Consider what the manuscripts of “the holy writings” that were available in Paul’s day looked like. One is shown here—a portion of the book of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls. What do you see? Solid blocks of text! No punctuation. And none of the numbered chapters and verses that we use today.
Bible writers did not divide their message into chapters or verses. They just wrote down the whole message God gave them so that the readers could also get the whole message, not just tiny parts of it. Is that not what you want when you get an important letter from someone you love? You read the whole letter, not just bits and pieces of it.
The lack of chapters or verses, however, did pose a problem. Paul could only identify his quotations with such words as “just as it is written” or “just as Isaiah foretold.” (Romans 3:10; 9:29) And it would have been difficult to find those quotations unless you were very familiar with all “the holy writings.”
Furthermore, those “holy writings” were not one simple message from God. By the end of the first century C.E., they consisted of a collection of 66 separate books! That is why most Bible readers today are glad to have numbered chapters and verses that help them find specific information, such as the many quotations in Paul’s letters.
‘So,’ you might ask, ‘who put those chapter and verse numbers in the Bible?’
WHO ADDED THE CHAPTERS?
English cleric Stephen Langton, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury, is credited with adding the chapter divisions to the Bible. He did this early in the 13th century C.E., when he was a teacher at the University of Paris in France.
Before Langton’s day, scholars had experimented with different ways of dividing the Bible into smaller sections or chapters, mainly, it seems, for reference purposes. You can imagine how much easier it would have been for them to find a passage if they had to search through only one chapter rather than a whole book, such as the book of Isaiah with its 66 chapters.
All of that, however, created a problem. The scholars produced many different and incompatible systems. In one of them, Mark’s Gospel was divided into almost 50 chapters, not the 16 we have now. In Paris in Langton’s day, there were students from many countries, and they brought with them Bibles from their native lands. However, lecturers and students could not share references. Why? Because the chapter divisions in their manuscripts simply did not match.
So Langton developed new chapter divisions. His system “caught the imagination of readers and scribes,” states The Book—A History of the Bible, and it “spread rapidly across Europe.” He gave us the chapter numbering we find in most Bibles today.
WHO ADDED THE VERSES?
Some 300 years later, in the middle of the 16th century, renowned French printer-scholar Robert Estienne made things even easier. His aim was to popularize Bible study. He realized how valuable it would be to have a uniform system of both numbered chapters and numbered verses.
Estienne did not come up with the idea of dividing the Bible text into verses. Others had done that already. Centuries earlier, Jewish copyists, for example, had divided the whole Hebrew Bible, or the part of the Bible commonly called the Old Testament, into verses but not into chapters. Again, as with the development of chapters, there was no uniform system.
Estienne divided the Christian Greek Scriptures, or what is called the New Testament, into a new set of numbered verses and combined them with those already in the Hebrew Bible. In 1553, he published the first complete Bible (an edition in French) with basically the same chapters and verses that most Bibles use today. Some people were critical and said that the verses broke the Bible text into fragments, making it appear as a series of separate and detached statements. But his system was quickly adopted by other printers.
A BOON FOR BIBLE STUDENTS
It seems to be such a simple idea—numbered chapters and verses. This gives each verse in the Bible a unique “address”—like a postal code. True, the chapter and verse divisions are not inspired by God, and they do at times break up the Bible text in strange places. But they make it easier for us to pinpoint quotes and to highlight or share individual verses that may have special meaning for us—just as we highlight expressions or phrases that we specially want to remember in a document or a book.
Convenient though the chapter-and-verse divisions are, always keep in mind the importance of getting the big picture—understanding the whole message God gave. Cultivate the habit of reading the context rather than just isolated verses. Doing so will help you to become more and more familiar with all “the holy writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation.”—2 Timothy 3:15.