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Luther Seminary's Bible Q & A

Bible Reading Tip

Bible Reading Tip: Why are there chapter and verse numbers?

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Genesis 1: In the beginning (Creative Commons image by Lizzie Pridmore on Flickr)4First, a Little Exercise

5Think of a favorite Bible verse (for example, my theme verse is Psalm 94:8: Understand, O dullest of the people). 6Add the numbers together (example: 94+8=102). 7Multiply them by two, for the two testaments in the Bible (102x2 =204). 8Substract 66 for the number of books in the Bible (204-66=138). 9Take the square root, just because it is fun (11.74). 10You know what it means?

11ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!!

12This little exercise is, like my high-school attempts at romance, an exercise in futility. 13The chapter and verse numbers in the Bible were put there for one reason: To make it easy to find stuff. 14The chapter and verse numbers were not put there by the biblical authors (more on this below). 15Nobody writes like that (so I will stop with the numbers now).

The Chapter and Verse Numbers Help You Find Stuff

Think of it like this:

You say to your mom, “Hey, Mom, where are the Ten Commandments written in the Bible, because I don’t really believe that God says I have to honor my father and mother.”

Which response will make your mom’s life easier?

  • Option A: “It is in the second scroll of Moses. Unroll the scroll about 65 centimeters, then look about halfway down on the left side of the column. I think your father spilled some egg salad there—they start right next to the stain.”
  • Option B: “Exodus, chapter 20. The honoring parents commandment is verse 12.”
  • Option C: “Go to your room. You can come out when you are ready to be respectful or when you get really, really hungry—whichever comes first.”

OK, we would all go with “C,” but you have to admit that “B” is easier than “A.”

And that is why the chapter and verse numbers were put in the Bible. To make it more convenient for mothers to shut up their kids. And to help people locate passages that they want to keep track of and read.

But How Did Those Numbers Get There?

The present chapter and verse numbers were added many, many centuries after the biblical documents were written.

The system of chapter numbers that is found in most Bibles today was devised by Archbishop Stephen Langton about the year 1200. He inserted these chapter numbers into a Latin translation of the Bible, and these numbers eventually made it into almost all translations of the Bible.

For the most part, the verse numbers that we use today tries to have one sentence per verse. So, the verse numbers are someone’s interpretation of where sentences start and end. The Hebrew and Greek languages in which the Bible was originally written did not have any punctuation, so it was a matter of interpretation as to where a sentence starts and stops. The current system of verse numbers in the New Testament was devised by Robert Stephens in 1551. The current system of verse numbers in the Old Testament was devised by Joseph Athias in 1661.

Careful Scholarly Hedging Concerning the Old Testament—You may want to skip this paragraph. Because I am a scholar, I now have to go back and hedge my bets just a little bit. When it comes to the Old Testament, even before Jesus was born, Jewish rabbis were working on dividing the Old Testament writings into sections. These sections were not numbered and they do not correspond to the present chapter and verse numbers. In Hebrew, the larger sections are called parashiyyot (basically meaning “paragraphs”). These paragraphs came in two sizes. Larger sections are called parashah petuchah (“open paragraph”) and smaller sections are called parashah setumah (“closed paragraph”). The Jewish tradition also divided the text at the level of the individual verse (Hebrew: pasuq). At the end of each sentence an accent mark called a silluq was added that indicated the end of a sentence. Again, these “verses” were not numbered and they do not correspond exactly to the present system of numbering. But we should be aware that before the current numbers were added, somebody was working to organize the biblical text so that it could be more easily comprehended.[1]

The Chapter and Verse Numbers Are Not Inspired, Authoritative, or Part of God’s Word

Aside from all of this information being incredibly thrilling trivia, which will make you the hit of the next party you attend, there is also an important theological point here—the chapter and verse numbers are not even really part of the Bible, just like the page numbers aren’t. This means two things. First, they are not authoritative. Second, there is no meaning in them.

First, the numbers are not authoritative! Here is a lame joke: The person who added the verse numbers to the text was riding in a carriage when doing so. Sometimes the horse would jump just as the person was about to write, with the result that the numbers at times are in poorly chosen places. Consider Genesis 2:1-5, as these verses are laid out in most translations:

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. 4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground;

Notice two things. First, a new story starts right in the middle of verse 4. That is, verses 1-4a (the “4a” means the first half of the verse, “4b” refers to the second half of the verse) is actually part of the story that is told in Genesis 1. But the person who added the chapter numbers made a dumb decision. And the person who added the verse numbers 700 years later made another one, not realizing that “These are the generations. . .” is the last phrase of the story told in Genesis 1:1-2:4a, and that a new story starts in Genesis 2:4b: “In the day. . . .”

By the way, we assume both people are in heaven. God forgives boo-boos, great and small.

Second, the chapter and verse numbers have no meaning. Has any ever forwarded you that stupid e-mail that is entitled “Center Peace”? It says something like this:

  • Psalm 118 is the “center” chapter of the Bible.
  • And the center verse in the entire Bible is Psalm 118:8: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals.”
  • Memorize this and you will have “center peace.”

To be clear: We are all for the very true teaching that “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in mortals.” But not because it is (or isn’t[2]) the central verse of the Bible. The assumption behind this is that the chapter and verse numbers hold some sort of secret code that we should unlock, by adding, dividing, squaring, and then multiplying by unreal numbers such as the square root of negative-one. Just get this through your head: The numbers don’t “mean” anything. There is no secret code. They are only there so you can look stuff up.

The Bible has only one center: Jesus Christ. (Although the Psalms are pretty cool, too.)    


[1] Here is a great bit of wisdom from the Jewish tradition. According to the Talmud, “He that reads in the Torah may not read less than three verses” (m. Meg. 4.4). This shows that the rabbis whose thoughts went into the Talmud in the centuries after Jesus were thinking of the Bible in terms of verses. It also offers a wise warning—do not pull one verse out of context because you are likely to misinterpret it.

[2] People argue about whether the center chapter really is Psalm 118 and the central verse really is 118:8. We won’t get into the argument, because it doesn’t matter. The numbers are there to help find stuff; there is no secret code!

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Image credit: 
Genesis 1: In the beginning
(Creative Commons image by Lizzie Pridmore on Flickr)

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