When and How Was the Bible Split into Chapters and Verses?
Christians have always sought to memorize sections of the Bible, something they inherited from Judaism, which also encouraged memorization. For centuries, Christians have memorized the sections of the Bible in the way they understand it, in books, chapters, and verses. The books have always existed, but they have not always been structured in the chapters and verses as they are understood today. Instead, they were traditionally one long document. Some of those documents were songs, some were poems, some were letters, and some were historical documents written down on scrolls.
Over time, both Jewish scholars for the Old Testament and Christians broke these larger documents into smaller, more digestible sections. Generally, these chapters and verses have been adapted and used across languages and translations.
While there are pros and cons to this structure, its creation makes memorization more accessible and allows for a more universal experience for believers all over the road to study God’s Word.
Who Developed the Chapter/Verse Structure?
In ancient cultures, memorization was an important skill. Ancient texts like The Iliad were not originally written down, but memorized and passed down in an oral tradition. Before the Exodus from Egypt as recorded in the Pentateuch, the Hebrew people did not have their own written form of communication. Until that time, they shared their history as a verbal tradition.
After a culture developed a writing system, memorization would still be encouraged, but not relied upon. The skill of memorizing large amounts of a narrative has become less and less needed over time, though not completely lost. This need for smaller chunks to memorize is one reason to have subsections of a larger written work. In the early days of writing in Hebrew, there were no vowels and words were not divided; by the time Jesus began His earthly ministry, there were word divisions, but no chapters or verses.
As a religious text, the Bible is something those who believe in it wish to study regularly, but some of the larger books are difficult to approach, or to find a logical stopping point, and then pick up again in the same space later. Another reason to have smaller sections is to make that study easier. Ecumenical churches and state churches, such as the Roman Catholic or Episcopalian churches, also encourage uniformity across their parishes. If someone goes to a church in Rome this Sunday, but in Washington D.C. next Sunday, they could be receiving messages that are following the same books of the Bible in the same order. Reverends and priests in these denominations are encouraged to follow the same order. While this is not universally upheld, many churches that are organized with a hierarchy follow the same order of study for the Bible.
To that end, people have been looking for ways to make the Bible easier to study, as well as more universal, for centuries. Saint Jerome, a believer in the 4th century, divided up the Bible, though his divisions are not used today. While some people experimented with divisions, the chapter divisions used today were created by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1207-1228. The Bible was in Latin at this time, and the Catholic Church was the dominant, though not the only, faith on the European continent. The Wycliffe English Bible from 1382 used these divisions and that is how they made their way into the English Bible. Because the original divisions were in Latin, it became easy to standardize them across the countries where the Latin Bible was used.
The divisions of the Old Testament used today were formalized by Rabbi Mordecai Nathan in 1448. The New Testament verses came about a century later when Robert Estienne, also called Stephanus, developed them. He was a former Catholic who converted to Protestantism. When the Geneva Bible became the first published edition of the Bible in 1560 it used these standardized chapters and verses.
Why Is This Helpful?
With the Bible being the first text mass produced that same century, it was easy for new printing businesses to copy the existing standard. The printing press changed the way the culture consumed information, and the Bible was no exception. In fact, having standardized chapters became even more crucial, since people could now read the Bible on their own in their native language, and they needed to be able to talk about it collectively.
Having standardized chapters and verses across languages and Bible translations has many other benefits. These include, but are not limited to:
1. Making it easier to memorize in an age where memorizing large documents is uncommon
2. Making it easier to find specific passages or find one’s place in a Bible study
3. Making it easier to discuss the Bible amongst Christians
4. Making it easier for pastors to preach to large groups
5. Making it easier to evangelize because it is simple to find key passages, verses, and someone can find the exact same spot after hearing a verse
6. Making it easier to communicate about the Bible across languages.
The chapter and verse format has probably been one of the best tools for standardizing study across the church across time. When a theologian from the 1700s referred to a passage in a work, contemporary scholars, or believers deeply interested in theology, can turn to that same passage and examine it for themselves. People are empowered to study and understand God’s Word, in part because they have access to it in manageable pieces that can be easily cited and to which they can refer back.
Is This System Problematic?
There are problems that can arise from the chapter and verse format, especially when it comes to understanding context. Because of the chapter and verse structure, it is easier to pull out small sections of the Bible, twist its meaning by removing it from its context, and then misrepresent it. A common tactic by individuals, whether false teachers or non-believers, who want to put their own spin on God’s Word or to convince an audience of an inaccurate read of the text will often pull singular verses or passages out of their context.
Another issue that can arise from the chapter and verse format is that people lose the context of what is going on because they read a chapter at a time, or hop from a chapter in one book to another. Sometimes, chapter breaks are in the middle of an event, or separate cause and effect events or whole sermons. If someone is stopping at every chapter, or only reading a book in small chunks, sometimes they can lose explanations, contexts, and important correlations. Some translations try to rectify this by creating subheadings that create context regardless of the chapters. There are also translations that remove chapters and verses entirely.
Understanding the history of the chapter and verse system can help Christians appreciate how the Holy Spirit has guided people through the centuries to make God’s Word more accessible to everyone. It also presents the opportunity for believers to approach the Bible in a new way. Whether that means reading a book in one sitting and ignoring chapters, reading based on events, or reading all the red-letter text, there are lots of ways to get more out of the books of the Bible outside of just reading chapters.
Barton, John. A History of the Bible The Book & Its Faith. New York: Penguin Books, 2020.
Childress, Diana. Johannes Gutenberg and the Printing Press. Buffalo: Twenty-First Century Press, 2008.
Smith, Christopher. The Beauty Behind the Mask Rediscovering the Books of the Bible. Toronto: Clements, Publishing, 2007.
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Bethany Verrett is a freelance writer who uses her passion for God, reading, and writing to glorify God. She and her husband have lived all over the country serving their Lord and Savior in ministry. She has a blog on graceandgrowing.com.