Chapters and verses are some of the most familiar elements of the Bible text, and when you look at almost any Bible today, it is divided into sections. We read the text through a multitude of divisions, sentences, verses, paragraphs, section headings and chapters. These divisions have a major influence on how we understand the Bible, but how much do we actually know about what they are and how they got there?
Verse divisions the author intended
When the Old Testament was written it had almost no verse divisions. We have to say almost, because there are a few places where we might argue that it did.
Take Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the Bible, as an example. It’s an alphabetic psalm that starts with eight poetic lines beginning with aleph (ַא), the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, then has eight beginning with beth (ב), the second letter, and so on through the 22-letter Hebrew alphabet. 22 × 8 gives 176 poetic lines, or in today’s terms, 176 verses. So the division today into 176 verses simply reflects the alphabetic structure of the original writer. Psalms 25, 34, and 145 have similar alphabetic structures which are reflected in their modern verse divisions.
Likewise, the first four chapters of the book of Lamentations are alphabetic, and the passage about the virtuous wife (Proverbs 31:10–31) is 22 verses long because it’s based on the Hebrew alphabet. Even in
non-alphabetic poetry, wherever verse divisions and clear poetic lines coincide, we may say that the verse divisions reflect the author’s own structure.
From the time of Jesus to the Talmud
By the time of Jesus, there are still no clear references to the existence of verse divisions in the Old Testament.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, which come from the three centuries prior to AD 68, don’t have our verse divisions. Scrolls often had spaces in the beginning, middle or end of a line of writing. While sometimes these coincide with our modern verse divisions, at other times they occur in the middle of our verses.
However, by the time of the Mishnah (see Glossary) the situation is completely different. The Mishnah contains specific rules on the number of verses that can be read. Mishnah Megillah 4:4 says:
There’s much more evidence in the Babylonian Talmud (see Glossary) of textual divisions beginning to resemble the verses we have today. For instance, Babylonian Talmud Taanith 27b implies the same verse division as we have in modern Bibles for Genesis 1. But not all the verse divisions were exactly the same. When Babylonian Talmud Qiddushin 30a states that “And he will shave himself” (Leviticus 13:33) is the beginning of the middle verse of the Torah (Pentateuch), it means that their central verse was about five chapters later than what we would count as the central verse today.
From the sixth through to the tenth centuries, a group of Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes took particular care in copying the text. They sought to record and hand on the tradition they had received. They therefore made notes of the numbers of verses, words and even letters in each book, and carefully counted the number of occurrences of phrases or spellings which would be easy to get wrong.
Their identification of verses was so complete that they recorded that there were precisely 11 verses that began and ended with the letter nun (נ) or that there were three verses that contained exactly 80 letters. These and hundreds of other similar notes would have been impossible unless they had a clearly identified verse system.
Masoretic manuscripts also identified the beginning and middle of verses by placing special accents on the words. The Masoretes identified Leviticus 8:8 as the middle verse of the Torah. In modern Bibles it’s arguably Leviticus 8:9. However, this shows that by this stage the modern verse system was essentially fixed.
summaries of discussions and conclusions by rabbis, about how to follow the Law of Moses in practice. It contains material going back to the first century BC, and gradually grew to its present form by the third century AD.
The Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds:
highly abbreviated discussions by rabbis from the third to the fifth centuries, debating what the Mishnah means.
The beginning of verse numbers
It was around 1440, shortly before Johannes Gutenberg began printing his Latin Bible — the first printed book in history — that Rabbi Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymus completed a concordance of the Old Testament with verse numbers every fifth verse. This is probably the first use of verse numbers.
Verse numbers were again taken up in 1509 when Jacques Lefèvre of Estaples (Jacobus Faber Stapulensis) produced his Quincuplex Psalterium — which laid out five editions of the Psalms, divided up into verses. The verses in this edition of the Psalms weren’t quite the same as ours: for instance, Psalm 1:3 was divided into two verses, giving the psalm a total of seven verses as opposed to our six.
Numbered New Testament verses
The verse divisions of the Old Testament were made long before verses themselves were numbered, but the invention of New Testament verse divisions does not appear to have taken so long. From our perspective today it seems as if in the middle of the 16th century there was a remarkable and sudden emergence of verse divisions and verse numbers in printed Bibles.
Estienne’s verse numbers weren’t an original idea. He almost certainly would have seen the Old Testament numbered verses in the Quincuplex Psalterium of 1509 by Jacques Lefèvre, which was printed by Estienne’s father, Henri.
Nowadays verse numbers often occur in the main text of the Bible itself, but when they were first used this was not the case. Estienne produced a three-column edition with the Greek text set in the middle of two Latin translations. On the inner margin was the traditional translation, the Vulgate. On the outer margin was Erasmus’s translation. This was an edition for comparative study and so he made sure the three texts aligned by presenting each verse as a separate paragraph and placing the verse number in the blank space between the Greek and Erasmus’s Latin. Verse numbers were first used to aid comparison between these different texts, not to help read a single text.
Knowing the history
Verse numbers and divisions form such a familiar part of the furniture of the Bible page that we stop noticing them, but the influence they have on how we read the Bible is far from insignificant. Knowing when and where they come from, who decided where they should be, and some of the curious conditions in which they were made, can bring them into sharper view and help us to notice how they shape the text we’re reading.
Today we can benefit from the existence of the extensive location mechanism provided by verse numbers, recognising that these divisions carry intriguing histories of their own.
Dr Peter J Williams is Principal of Tyndale House
Images: Peter Williams