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Where did the Bible’s verse and chapter numbers come from? (5/25/09, 3/2/13)



Written Hebrew originally had only consonants and a very few long vowels; these are called the “letters.” Hebrew punctuation and the rest of the vowels were invented and added to the letters about 500 or 600 BC.  The verse numbers in the Old Testament pretty much follow this punctuation, ending each verse at the Hebrew equivalent of a period.

The rabbis started dividing the Bible (Old Testament) into sections and subsections even prior to the Babylonian Exile, and the verse divisions were gradually added.  Since the divisions were made by Biblical scholars, most of the verse and chapter divisions make sense. 

The New Testament was originally written in Greek, all capital letters, with no punctuation, verse or chapter divisions, or even spaces between the words. Gradually scribes and scholars divided the text into separate words and sections, using upper and lower case letters and punctuation.

The New Testament versification that we use was created around 1550 by a printer.  My husband says that he was told in seminary that this was done on horseback.  Whenever the horse’s head bobbed, the printer's pen hit the text, and that was a verse.  Whenever the horse stumbled, there was a blot, and that was a chapter division.  This explanation, even though it’s a joke, makes sense to me, because the NT versification splits sentences, lumps sentences together, and frequently even divides sentences, not to mention thoughts, between chapters!

The lectionary is sometimes just as puzzling.  The idea of the lectionary is to read – along with a great many other Christians from numerous denominations – the bulk of the Bible during the worship service over the course of three years.  Why did the lectionary compilers feel compelled to omit half a verse from Psalm 104:24-35a, the reading for the week of 5/25/2009?  I guess vs. 35a, “Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more,” doesn't have the proper ecumenical spirit.

Always read the Bible for yourself, and don’t rely on other people to tell you where a passage really begins or ends.

Having said all that, I should add that Bible study without chapter and verse numbers can be very difficult, particularly for groups. The Sunday School class I attend is reading The Story, an abridgement of the New International Version. We always had to say things like, “Right there at the bottom of page 109, in the middle of that last paragraph. Do you see it?” I noticed that it wasn’t long before people were bringing their regular Bibles, and we went back to saying, “Could somebody read Acts 8:30-31?”


Copyright 2009, 2013 by Regina L. Hunter. All rights reserved.

Opinions expressed on this page are solely those of the author, Regina Hunter, and may or may not be shared by the sponsors or the Bible-study participants.  Thanks to the Holy Spirit for any useful ideas presented here, and thanks to all the readers for their support and enthusiasm.  All errors are, of course, the sole responsibility of the author.

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