How the Bible Got its Numbering

When the books of the bible were first written, none of them contained chapters, or the more well known verse numberings that we have today. So, where did they come from, and who added them. Let’s go back…

If you take a look at ancient manuscripts, they often appear like they are one long word or sentence. Ancient writers did not have access to the inexpensive reams of paper that we do now; stone or scrolls were their medium. Writing styles evolved where they tried to crowd as much information on one surface as they could.

Hebrew versions of the Old Testament look like one very long word, and some Jewish scholars say that that really long word is the true name of God. (This would not be the version in Christian bibles; they cut out large sections and rearranged chapters).

The Hebrew letter ף or Pei indicated the beginning of a paragraph while ס or Samekh denoted to the reader the end of one. The Torah, or five books of Moses, were divided into 154 sections so that they could be read aloud weekly over 3 years.

The Jewish Tanakh included punctuation to aid with vocalization, and in 1440 AD Rabbi Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymus of France added the Old Testament verse numbers for a biblical translation.

The New Testament as well was sometimes divided into sections, but the chapters of today were developed by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 13th century.

The versification of the New Testament I have always found the most interesting.

Robert Estienne (pictured here) was a printer and scholar in Paris. Originally Catholic, he hopped on the Reformation bandwagon and began to print bibles for the general public. (Remember, Catholics were officially forbidden to read the bible until 1943).

While traveling one time from Paris to Lyon, he began to add verse numbers to a copy of the bible he had. In his later writings, he admitted that his choices were completely arbitrary and based on his personal preferences. He first used this numbering system in a Latin bible he published in 1551.

It must be understood that, until this time, the vast majority of the population of Europe had never read any bible, nor could most of them read at all. But the educated classes did, and they could now own their own copy due to the new invention of the printing press. Millions of people learned to read from bibles, as printers everywhere translated Estienne’s books into local languages.

Since the people had never held bibles before, they just assumed that the chapters and verses had always been there, as most people do today.

In serious bible scholarship, these artificial chapters and verses cause no end of troubles, dividing ideas and stories. The verses cause people to read (and think) in these short bursts of information, and often lose the greater meaning of the paragraph, tale, parable, etc. This is well known in scholastic circles, and more and more scholars are turning to bibles without the numbers.

These are widely available, and I greatly encourage you to purchase one without them. It is a very different read. And I think you will enjoy it.

It does make it much harder for my daily bible verse on my phone. It would get much longer.



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