The divisions of chapter and verse are extremely handy in a book like the Bible. They subdivide lengthy books into readable (and, usually, thematic) chunks, they make it far easier to compare translations and versions, and they make it easier to quote.

The Hebrew Bible has been divided in various ways for thousands of years, primarily used to divide the books up into lengths suitable for worship events. Some of these are quite similar to the chapter and verse divisions in the Old Testament.

Bronze depiction of Stephen Langton with King John sealing the Magna Carta, 1870-1890

Bronze depiction of Stephen Langton with King John sealing the Magna Carta, 1870-1890

The chapter divisions that we (mostly) use today were developed in the early 13th century by the Archbishop Stephen Langton (yes, that Langton of Magna Carta fame – small world!). Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro was also working on chapter divisions around the same time, but his arrangement just didn’t stick.

The first verse divisions were added to the New Testament in the early 16th century by Santi Pagnini, an Italian scholar. His system never gained much traction, but a publication of the New Testament in Greek came out just a few short years later, in 1551, that included a verse numbering system developed by Robert Stephanus (also known as Robert Estienne), which was then used again in 1553 for a French version. It is Estienne’s system that most modern numbering systems are based on.

A few years after that, in 1560, the first English Bible to use both chapter and verse divisions was published. That was the Geneva Bible.

Though chapters and verses are now fairly ubiquitous, some have taken issue with them. We’ve already seen several areas where they seem misplaced – verses cut sentences in half, chapters bisect stories. In yesterday’s post, we saw that the first bit of Numbers 18’s story has apparently been left in Numbers 17, obfuscating the meaning of that section. As a result, some editions have been published without the standard divisions – usually dividing the books by thematic or literary criteria instead. A recent example is The Books of the Bible (2007).

I think that it’s worth considering, as we make our way through the Bible, just how the chapter and verse divisions affect our reading – both in terms of pacing and in how we contextualize the stories.