What’s up with all of the different books, chapters, and verses in the Bible? What is the history of chapters and verses in the Bible?

If you ever feel like daily Bible reading and studying is a chore, you’re not alone. According to a 2017 study from Lifeway Research, more than half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible. Another study says only 19% of churchgoers read the Bible every day on their own.

All Christians know they should be reading (and studying!) their Bibles every day. But the facts are most of us don’t. So, what if we could help fix that problem with one, simple solution.

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What if we could help fix biblical illiteracy in the church with an easy solution?

According to the American Bible Society’s State of the Bible 2018 survey, the most popular frustration Americans reported experiencing was the lack of time. But what if time isn’t an issue for you?

What if reading the Bible was a more enjoyable experience? I’m willing to bet more Americans would read their Bibles if they actually enjoyed reading it.

Improving the biblical illiteracy problem within Christianity isn’t going to happen overnight. And it’s not fixable with just one solution. But what if knowing the history of the division of the Bible into chapters, verses, and headings was a key to unlocking the mystery of reading and understanding the Bible? And what if there was a simple solution for you?

What if reading the Bible was a more enjoyable experience for more people? Would more people spend more time reading their Bibles? Click To Tweet

Did Jesus’ Bible look like our Bibles today?

Picture your Bible in your head. It’s one book, containing 66 smaller books, right? In reality, the Bible is a portable library filled with history books, law codes, poetry, short stories, love stories.

Picture your Bible again. Pick any book in the Bible you’re familiar with. Maybe Genesis, Ruth, Revelation? Picture the pages of the Bible in your head. What do you see? If you’re like the majority of people, you see something that looks like this:

The Parable of the Large Banquet

15Whens one of those who reclined at the table with Him heard these things, he said to Him, “The one who will eat bread in the kingdom of God is blessed! ”

16Then He told him: “A man was giving a large banquet and invited many. 17At the time of the banquet, he sent his slave to tell those who were invited, ‘Come, because everything is now ready.’

18“But without exception they all began to make excuses. The first one said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. I ask you to excuse me.’

19“Another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m going to try them out. I ask you to excuse me.’

20“And another said, ‘I just got married and therefore I’m unable to come.’

21“So the slave came back and reported these things to his master. Then in anger, the master of the house told his slave, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the city, and bring in here the poor, maimed, blind, and lame! ’

22“ ‘Master,’ the slave said, ‘what you ordered has been done, and there’s still room.’

23“Then the master told the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and lanes and make them come in, so that my house may be filled. 24For I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will enjoy my banquet! ’ ”

Luke 14:15-23 (HCSB)

Today this is what our Bibles look like. But that is not what Jesus’ Bible looked like.

If you feel like daily Bible reading is a chore check out the history of Bible chapters and verses - it might not be you. It might be your Bible.
Codex Sinaiticus (c. 350) contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament, as well as most of the Greek Old Testament, known as the Septuagint. Photo: Wikimedia

The Bibles that Jesus, the Jewish people of his day, the Apostles, and the early church read from did not have chapters, verses, or headings. They didn’t even have paragraphs or punctuation. To us, this is a normal writing convention because of the systemization of modern English. In many ways, this makes things easier. What if the biblical writers intended for the reader to absorb the information with minimal disruption?

Allow me to introduce you to the concept of paratext.

The Bible Jesus read did not have paragraphs, punctuation, chapters, verses or headings. What if reading a Bible that looked more like Jesus' Bible made the Bible easier to understand? Click To Tweet

Dividing the Bible into chapters, verses, and headings may not be as helpful as we think

Gerard Genette, in his book Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation (Literature, Culture, Theory), defines paratext as [1] :

those things in a published work that accompany the text, things such as the author’s name, the title, preface or introduction, or illustrations. (p. 1)

Paratexts are devices and social conventions in literature that mediate between the writing and the reader. Headings, introductions, chapters, and verses are all examples of paratext. Why is this important?

Paratext can disrupt or change the reader’s assimilation and interpretation of the content. Meanings are alluded to beyond the content of the text.

A short history of Bible chapters and verses – should we even read it this way?

The first person who divided scripture into chapter/verse segments was Cardinal Stephen Langton of France and England, who served as the Archbishop of Canterbury. He created the chapters and verses about 1205.

Langton used the previously established paragraphs and sections, to decide chapter breaks. Instead of creating chapters and verses based on the context of the content, Langton simply noted every fifth verse in the margins of the Bible. And if chapters are good, then a further break down into verses would be better, right?

That’s certainly what Mordecai Nathan and Robert Stephanue thought, and so an individual verse numbering system for the Old Testament was created in 1448, with the same created for the New Testament around 1551. The Geneva Bible from the 16th century was the first Bible to include both chapter and verse divisions for both Old and New Testaments. 

In total, the Bible now includes approximately 1,189 chapters and 31,173 verses. No wonder we struggle to study a specific number of chapters or verses.

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Discover a new (old?) way to read the Bible and rekindle the joy of Bible reading

Although this systematic division of the Bible makes it easier to memorize specific verses and passages (think John 3:16) and speeds up locating specific scripture (think children’s Bible drills), it can also be distracting. Reading comprehension becomes more difficult when thoughts are separated by chapters or numbers.

Recently I have rediscovered the joys (or maybe discovered a new joy?) of reading a different type of Bible. The Reader’s Bible. Written without headings, chapters, verse breaks or numbering, The Reader’s Bible allows the reader to read Scripture much in the same way as Jesus did.

Here is the same passage from the beginning of this article, without the chapter and verse divisions:

But He said to him, “A man was giving a big dinner, and he invited many; and at the dinner hour he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of land and I need to go out and look at it; please consider me excused.’ Another one said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please consider me excused.’ Another one said, ‘I have married a wife, and for that reason I cannot come.’ And the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the head of the household became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the slave said, ‘Master, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the highways and along the hedges, and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.’”

Luke 14:15-23 (NASB)

Which is easier to read and understand the context of what is happening in this story?

Carrie’s note: after hearing from Debbie how amazing it was to read the Bible without the chapter, heading, and verse divisions I had to give it a try. I read the Bible daily, but I was blown away by the difference. I was able to read entire books of the Bible in one sitting. My reading speed improved dramatically because my reading was not disrupted by artificial divisions.

Learning the history of Bible chapters and verses certainly helps shed light on why Christians might be struggling to read their Bibles.

Choosing a Reader’s Bible

Thinking you want to try out a Reader’s Bible? There are plenty to choose from in different translation versions, so you’re sure to find the one that fits you best. If you want to try the Reader’s Bible I now use, you can download a free sample of the Reader’s Bible (NASB) to check it out.

By the way, if you’re not sure which Bible version you should read we’ve got a handy quick guide for you.

Which Reader’s Bible is right for you?

Reader’s Bibles are the new trendy thing in Bible publishing and reading, so we have a few options to choose from.

NKJV (New Kinjg James Version)

If the NKJV is your jam be careful as many of the “Reader’s Bibles” I’ve found are not true Reader’s Bibles. They still introduce paratext into the text, whether chapter numbering off to the side or within the text, and headings.

The one NKJV Reader’s Bible we were able to find is produced by Holman Bible Publishers and comes in a black/brown tooled and bonded leather-touch binding.

Available: Amazon Christianbook BetterWorld Books

CSB (Christian Standard Bible)

The CSB version is a very reliable translation, holding to fidelity to literal word translation as much as possible without sacrificing clarity and intent. Holman Bible Publishers produces several different CSB Reader’s Bibles to suit different preferences. You can get one in ebook (Amazon, Christianbook), hardcover (Amazon, Christianbook), or genuine leather (Amazon, Christianbook).

In November 2019 they will be releasing a 5 volume set with case. I can’t wait to see what that one looks like!

NIV (New International Version)

If your preferred version is the NIV, you have several options when it comes to Reader’s Bibles. Zondervan produces quality Bibles in both single volume and multi-volume editions.

You can get either hardcover or imitation leather in a single book. The Sola Scriptura Bible Project multi-volume set with a case is their grandaddy offering and is gorgeous.

Gold & Gray Hardcover: Amazon, Christianbook, BetterWorld Books

Imitation Leather (brown or brown and gold): Amazon, Christianbook

Sola Scriptura Bible Project: Amazon, Christianbook, BetterWorld Books

ESV (English Standard Version)

Crossway Publishers has joined the Reader’s Bible trend and has several offerings in both single volume and multi-volume sets. It this is your version you can get it in paperback, hardcover (Timeless and Summer Garden), and varying multi-volume sets.

Paperback: Amazon Christianbook BetterWorld Books

Hardcover: Amazon Christianbook BetterWorld Books

The Six-Volume Set with Slipcase comes in paperback, cloth-over-board hardcover, and cowhide-over-board hardcover. (They are also releasing in August 2019 a goatskin-over-board with walnut slipcase six-volume set)

I’d love to hear what you think

What surprised you the most about the history of the Bible’s chapters and verses? Do you think if more people read the Bible without them they would read the Bible more? Did you notice a difference when you read the same passage with the paratext divisions and without?

If you struggle with a lack of desire to read the Bible, you are not alone. According to the studies, you are in the same boat as many Christians. If reading the Bible isn’t an enjoyable experience, chances are you’re just not going to do it. Maybe it’s not you. Maybe it’s your Bible.

Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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[1]”paratext.” Definitions.net. STANDS4 LLC, 2018. Web. 9 Jul 2018.