Chapter and Verses

a copy of a document from Daniel Fuller

Chapters and Verses — Late Comers
by Daniel P. Fuller
Parchment or papyrus were difficult to come by as materials upon which to write, and thus in many ancient texts of both the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament there is the space-saving device of scriptio continua, that is, continued writing in which there are not even spaces between words or sentences. Of course, we do not possess any of the original autographs of the biblical books, but it is safe to infer from the evidence of the most ancient extant manuscripts that the autographs likewise contained little if any punctuation. Even question marks were not used commonly in Greek manuscripts until the ninth century A.D.1
With the passage of time, however, the need arose in connection with biblical texts to delimit the sections that were about the size of large paragraphs, both because of the necessity to be able readily to locate a passage in the text and because of the desirability to have units of this magnitude stand out clearly. Thus in the Old Testament, even as far back as the time of Qumran, the text was divided into sections called parashoth. Larger sections were denoted by beginning a new line or by omitting an entire line, and smaller sections were denoted by leaving a gap within a line. Such sectioning, historically related to the practice evident in the Qumran texts but not identical with it, continued on in the Masoretic texts and is present in our Hebrew Bibles today. A samech (the Hebrew “s”) between sentences indicates a paragraph break of smaller degree, while a pe (the Hebrew “p”) between the ending of a sentence on one line and the beginning of a new sentence on another indicates a larger break.
Verse divisions within these parashoth came in during the Mishnaic period (c. A.D. 200) when it was necessary to intersperse the Hebrew reading with an Aramaic translation so the hearers could understand. The amount of Hebrew that was read before the translation was given in Aramaic became the verse divisions in the the Old Testament, and around A.D. 500 these were signified by the soph pasuq ( : ) that still appear in the Hebrew text.2
Divisions of paragraph magnitude were also the first punctuation marks that came into the New Testament texts. The earliest such divisions were the kephalaia indicated in the Nestle text by a single number in italics in the inner margin. Smaller divisions are indicated by a large Roman script number in the inner margin. A good bit of the function of these early textual divisions was for reference rather than for giving the author’s units of composition, and their use has not been carried over into our modern versions.
The present chapter divisions in our Bibles were invented in 1205 by Stephen Langton, a professor in Paris (he later became Archbishop of Canterbury), who put these into a Vulgate edition of the Bible. These chapter divisions were first used by the Jews in 1330 for the Hebrew Old Testament in a manuscript and for a printed edition in 1516. This system of chapter divisions likewise came into the Greek manuscripts of the New Testament in the 1400s.
It was Robert Stephanus, a Parisian book printer, whose versification of the Bible has prevailed to the present. He took over the verse divisions already indicated in the Hebrew Bible by the soph pasuq and assigned numbers to them within the chapter divisions already assigned by Stephan Langton. While riding on horseback from Paris to Lyons he affixed his own verse divisions to the New Testament and numbered them within Langton’s chapter divisions. Consequently the quality of his work was not the best. Von Soden complained,
The verse divisions of Stephanus which he, according to an incidental remark by his son, made during a trip from Paris to Lyons, frequently do not do service to the sense of the text. There is no consistent method at work in this system. The verses sometimes coincide with a single sentence, and sometimes they include several sentences; sometimes a single sentence is divided into two verses, with the result that the reader is led to consider the second verse while forgetting the point of view of the first verse. Especially objectionable is the way in which words introducing a direct quotation sometimes belong to the preceding verse and sometimes to the verse in which the quotation is found.3
But through Stephanus the versification of the Old Testament found its way into the Hebrew Bible printed first in 1571. Then Theodor Beza’s use of Stephanus’ verse and chapter divisions in his edition of the textus receptus of the New Testament (1565) assured them the permanence that they enjoy in our Bibles today.4
From this brief survey of the history of the Bible’s chapter and verse divisions it is very apparent that these are nothing more than a handy method of reference. They do not necessarily represent those units of composition present in the author’s mind as he strove to impart his thoughts. It is utterly impractical, however, to think of expunging them from our Bibles. As von Soden says,
There is no doubt that the chapter divisions which we have inherited from Langton leave much to be desired. These divisions do not rest upon a comprehension of the literary structure of the Biblical books. . . But it is utterly impractical today to think of trying to correct this system of chapter divisions. From practical considerations, this system must be kept as the means for designating individual passages. All that we can do is to realize that this system falls far short of doing justice to the inherent units of Scripture. Therefore, if future editions want to aid rather than hinder a reader’s understanding of the New Testament, it should be realized that the time is ripe to cause both the verse and chapter divisions to disappear from the text and to be put on the margin in as inconspicuous a place as possible. Every effort must be made to print the text in a way which makes it possible for the units which the author himself had in mind to become apparent.5
The Nestle edition of the Greek New Testament does as von Soden recommended and places the chapter and verse divisions on the margin. So does the text of Tasker.6 The Greek text put forward by the American Bible Society for use in Bible translation keeps these references within the text7, but possibly this would be more helpful to Bible translators. It is unfortunate that the Biblia Hebraica of Kittel has both chapter and verse divisions in the text. But whatever the text that is being used, the advice of A. T. Robertson should be followed: “The first step in interpretation is to ignore the modern chapters and verses.”8
But what of the punctuation marks, inserted by more recent editors as an attempt to delimit the author’s own units of thought? Indeed, the interpreter should acquaint himself with the system of punctuation used in these texts, and he or she should seek to discern the reasons why the various editors divided the texts as they did. No two editors, however, agree fully on where these units begin and end, and this means that the interpreter himself must make the final decision as to the all-important matter of the delimitation of the larger and smaller literary units.
Starting Points | Biblical Expositions | Biblical Theology | Not Being a Loser
1 B. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament. Tr. by P Ackroyd (Oxford University Press, 1963), p. 27.
2 R. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament, rev. ed. (New York: Harper and Row, 1948), p. 80.
3 H. von Soden, Die Schriften des Neuen Testamentes (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck, 1912), I, 484.
4 For material on the history of the modern chapter and verse divisions see the article in Die Religion in der Geschichte und der Gegenwart (3rd ed.), III, 1141 f., and the literature cited there.
5 von Soden, ibid., p. 482.
6 R. Tasker, The Greek New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press), 1964.
7 K. Aland, M. Black, B. Metzger, A. Wikren, eds., The Greek New Testament (New York: American Bible Society, 1966).
8 A. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1925), p. 101.