In our recent Bible Reading is Broken, and It’s Not Your Fault video discussion, it was mentioned that the Bible reads somewhat differently if the verse numbers are removed. But if the familiar verse and chapter numbers in our Bibles weren’t part of the original manuscripts, where did they come from and why do we use them?
Where Verse and Chapter Numbers Came From
Chapter and verse numbers are such a familiar (and useful) part of Bible reading that we rarely give them much conscious thought. In fact, verse numbers are so integral to the way we talk about Scripture that it’s hard to imagine the Bible without them. But those numbers haven’t always been there.
The Old Testament has long been organized into sections and subsections; our modern chapter and verse divisions generally (but not always) correspond to the traditional Jewish organization of the text. While the Old and New Testaments have been roughly organized at least since the Bible canon was established, it wasn’t until 1,000 years later that something resembling our modern chapter and verse system was widely accepted.
The person credited with dividing the Bible into chapters is Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1207-1228. While Langton’s isn’t the only organizational scheme that was devised, it is his chapter breakdown that has survived.
But while chapters are a useful organizational tool, the ability to refer to specific phrases within those chapters would make the system even more usable. Robert Stephanus (aka Robert Estienne) created a verse numbering system in the mid-16th century and was the first person to print a Bible with verse numbers in each chapter.
The chapter and verse numbers we know and love today are direct descendants of these systems. Different languages and versions of the Bible occasionally make use of alternate systems, but our current chapter/verse system is almost universally understood.
How Do Verse Numbers Affect Our Reading of the Bible?
The history of Bible reference numbers may be interesting in its own right (at least to Bible scholars and history geeks), but it’s also had an important influence on the ways that each of us reads the Bible today. Not everyone is happy with the chapter/verse numbering system—and in fact, it’s worth taking a moment to consider some of the implications of this familiar system.
For one thing, our chapter/verse numbering occasionally creates quirky or confusing situations. In your own Bible reading, you’ve probably noticed places where a sentence or train of thought is oddly interrupted by chapter or verse numbers. (See Acts 8, which opens with the final sentence of the previous chapter’s story.) Chapters and verses vary widely in length, and don’t necessarily correspond to the beginnings and ends of stories or sentences.
These numbering quirks do not hinder our ability to read Scripture, but you can bet that plenty of Bible scholars and readers have dreamed up alternate reference schemes to make chapter and verse numbering more consistent. But even if you’ve come up with the perfect Bible reference system, don’t hold your breath waiting for the world’s Bibles to conform to it—people probably won’t want to “break” several hundred years’ worth of Bible scholarship and verse memorization just because you think “John 3:16” would be more logically called “Gospel/John.14.25-a.”
But beyond this practical issue, our numbering system brings up a broader question about Bible reading and interpretation. How does the current chapter and verse breakdown influence the way you read the Bible? It helps us memorize verses, but does it also encourage us to “proof-text”—that is, to quote select phrases from Scripture out of context? Consider how you might organize the Bible text differently… and how your hypothetical system might influence your Bible reading, positively or negatively. Even something as simple as reading the books of the Bible in a different order can offer fresh insight; how would your reading experience change if the entire chapter/verse numbering system were different?
Experiment for Yourself and See
Here’s a very simple experiment you can conduct to get you thinking: turn off the display of chapter and verse numbers on Bible Gateway and see how it does or doesn’t change your reading experience. Here’s how to do that on Bible Gateway. Does it feel strange to read Scripture without the verse numbers? Is it a more natural way to read, or do you rely on verse numbers as anchor points?
Regardless, our familiar chapters and verses aren’t going away anytime soon, so you’re still safe memorizing John 3:16. But as you explore the Bible, it’s worth considering how the organization of the text affects the way you engage with its content. And give thanks that despite the quirks of our human numbering system, the Word of God speaks clearly and truthfully to all generations.