The complete Bible of today is ordinarily divided into chapters and verses, but such divisions were not part of the original texts. They were developed at a much later date, primarily in the interest of facilitating reference; consequently they do not always agree with the natural development of thought in the text.
Divisions in the Hebrew Text.
The earliest biblical manuscripts, from Qumran, have certain divisions in the text, although they are not yet standardized and may occur at different places in copies of the same book. Eventually a system was developed (except in the Psalter) involving what are called open and closed paragraphs (pārāšâ, plural pārāšiyyôt), the purpose of which was to give assistance in understanding the flow of thought. An open (pĕtûḥâ) paragraph is one that begins a new line after an empty or incomplete line; a closed (sĕtûmâ) paragraph is separated from the preceding paragraph by a short space within the line. Later scribes ignored this distinction in the actual written format but prefixed the Hebrew letter p or s to indicate the distinction. In the Psalter the verse division depends on the parallelism (See Poetry, Biblical Hebrew).
Another division of the text into more lengthy sections was developed by Palestinian scholars, who provided 452 sĕdārîm (weekly lessons) for a three‐year lectionary cycle. In Babylonia, where the Torah (See Canon, article on Order of Books in the Hebrew Bible) was read through each year, the division was made into fifty‐four (or fifty‐three) weekly lessons.
Divisions in the Greek Text.
Division within books in Septuagint manuscripts was also in use at an early period. The variety in the systems used suggests that they were drawn up independently by a number of different scribes and/or editors.
In New Testament Greek manuscripts we find several different systems of division. The oldest seems to be that contained in Codex Vaticanus, in which the divisions into sections were made with reference to breaks in the sense. There are 170 in Matthew, 62 in Mark, 152 in Luke, and 80 in John.
Many manuscripts of the Gospels are provided with an ingenious system developed by Eusebius of Caesarea (ca. 260–ca. 340 CE) to aid the reader in locating parallel passages. Each gospel was divided into longer or shorter sections, depending on the relation of each section to one or more parallels in the other Gospels: 355 for Matthew, 233 for Mark, 343 for Luke, and 232 for John. Then Eusebius prepared tables, called canons. The first contains a list in which all four Gospels agree; the second, passages common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke; the third, passages in which Matthew, Luke, and John agree; the fourth, passages in which Matthew, Mark, and John agree; and so on until almost all the possible combinations were exhausted. Finally, there were references to material in each gospel alone—62 in Matthew, 19 in Mark, 72 in Luke, and 96 in John.
For the book of Acts several systems of chapter divisions are found in the manuscripts. Codex Vaticanus has two sets of chapters, one of thirty‐six, the other of sixty‐nine. Most of the manuscripts of the book have a system of forty chapters.
The Pauline and general letters were also divided into chapters. Codex Vaticanus has two sets of chapters—an earlier and a later. In the Pauline letters, according to the earlier division of the text, the numeration of the chapters runs continuously through the whole corpus as though the letters were regarded as constituting one book. Because of a break in the numbering between pages 70 and 93 of the codex, it is evident that in an ancestor of Vaticanus the letter to the Hebrews stood between Galatians and Ephesians.
Some manuscripts of the book of Revelation are supplied with a system of divisions that was developed by Archbishop Andrew of Caesarea in Cappadocia (ca. 600), who wrote a commentary on the book that gives a “spiritual” exegesis. He divided the book into twenty‐four discourses (Gk. logoi) and each of these into three smaller divisions, thus making seventy‐two of the latter. According to Andrew's explanation, the number of the discourses corresponds to the number of elders sitting on thrones about the throne of God (Rev. 4.4), and the three subdivisions symbolize the tripartite nature of the elders (body, soul, and spirit).
Development of Modern Chapter and Verse Divisions.
The introduction of the present system of chapter divisions has sometimes been attributed to Cardinal Hugo of St. Cher (d. 1263) for use in his concordance to the Latin Vulgate. Before Hugo, however, the system that, with small modifications, is still in use today was introduced into the Latin Bible by a lecturer at the University of Paris, Stephen Langton, later Archbishop of Canterbury (d. 1228). Even before the invention of printing (ca. 1456) the system began to be adopted for manuscripts of the Bible in languages other than Latin.
The chapters were at first subdivided (probably by Hugo of St. Cher) into seven portions (not paragraphs), marked in the margin by the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, G. In the shorter Psalms, however, the division did not always extend to seven. This division (except in the Psalms) was modified by Conrad of Halberstadt (ca. 1290), who reduced the divisions of the shorter chapters from seven to four, so that the letters were always A–G or A–D. This subdivision continued long after the introduction of the present verses.
Numbered verses (for a Hebrew concordance to the Masoretic text) were first worked out by Rabbi Isaac Nathan in about 1440. In the earlier printed Hebrew Bibles each fifth verse is marked with its Hebrew numeral. Arabic numerals were first added for the intervening verses by Joseph Athias at Amsterdam in 1661 at the suggestion of Jan Leusden. The first portion of the Bible printed with the Masoretic verses numbered was the Psalterium Quincuplex of Faber Stapulensis. The Psalterium was beautifully printed at Paris in 1509 by Henry, father of Robert Stephanus, each verse commencing the line with a red letter and a numeral prefixed. In 1527 (or 1528) the Dominican Sanctes Paginus of Lucca published at Lyons, in quarto, his accurate translation of the Bible into Latin from the Hebrew and Greek. The verses are marked with Arabic numerals in the margin.
The current verse division in the New Testament was introduced by Robert Stephanus (Estienne), who in 1551 published at Geneva a Greek and Latin edition of the New Testament with the text of the chapters divided into separate verses. The first whole Bible divided into the present verses, and the first in which they were introduced into the Apocrypha, was Stephanus's Latin Vulgate issued at Geneva in 1555. In the books of the Hebrew Bible Stephanus followed Paginus, but in the New Testament and in the Apocrypha he increased the number of verses. Thus, in the gospel of Matthew, Paginus has 577 verses, and Stephanus 1071; in Tobit Paginus has but 76 verses, while Stephanus has 292. According to Stephanus's son, his father made the divisions into verses inter equitandum on a journey from Paris to Lyons. Although some have taken this to mean “on horseback” (and have explained occasionally inappropriate verse divisions as originating when the horse bumped his pen into the wrong place!), a better interpretation is that the task was accomplished at intervals while he rested at inns along the road.
The verse divisions devised by Stephanus were widely and rapidly adopted and first appeared, for example, in English in the Geneva Bible (New Testament, 1557; Bible, 1560). Despite its utility, the system has often been criticized not only because the division sometimes occurs in the middle of a sentence, thus breaking the natural flow of thought, but also because to the reader the text appears to be a series of separate and detached statements. While it is too late to change the system to correct unfortunate verse divisions, at least the verses should never be printed each as a separate paragraph (as in most editions of the King James or Authorized Version), but the text should be continuous, in logical paragraphs, with the numerals in the margin or printed inconspicuously in the text.
Walter F. Specht