Nelson Hsieh explores how the Bible came to have chapter divisions and how they influence our reading of the text.
Can you imagine reading your Bible without chapter divisions?
The original authors of Scripture probably used some punctuation and paragraph divisions, but they almost certainly did not use chapter divisions and numbers. Yet chapters permeate editions of the Bible today and they influence how we read Scripture, often unconsciously.
Think about how modern chapter numbering tends to determine sermon texts, yearly Bible reading plans, and classroom assignments. For example, in my seminary Bible survey classes, I had to write a one-sentence summary of every chapter in the Bible. But what if the chapter numbers don’t indicate a shift or division in the biblical text itself, or what if the chapter breaks are in bad places?
The story of how our modern chapter system arose is an interesting one, and it has implications for our Bible reading today.
Why were standardised chapters needed?
Modern chapter divisions arose in the early thirteenth century AD in the midst of an intellectual climate that needed navigational aids for studying the Bible. New study tools like concordances listed all the uses of a given word in the entire Bible. Chapter references helped users find the exact place in their Bible, so that they could read the fuller context. We take for granted that we can easily find Romans 12:6, but such was not the case prior to the thirteenth century.
With the rise of universities, the study of the Bible moved from monasteries and churches into classrooms. Students and teachers literally needed to be on the same page to discuss Scripture. But most Bibles of the time did not use page numbers and there was not yet a standardised chapter/verse system.
The Latin Bibles used in Europe had a multitude of chapter systems. These chapter systems were inherited from the Old Latin tradition and various revisions to Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. New Testament scholar Hugh Houghton has identified 16 different chapter systems in Old Latin manuscripts of John’s Gospel, containing between 13 to 68 chapters. This lack of standardisation was a problem if people wanted to easily navigate to the same passage of Scripture.
How did the modern chapter system arise?
The modern chapter system is closely linked to so-called ‘Paris Bibles’ of the thirteenth century. These Latin Bibles were originally produced in Paris, but eventually found their way to other parts of Europe. Paris Bibles popularised a new kind of Bible, a portable, single-volume, standardised format that still characterises Bibles used today.
Nowadays, people take for granted that everyone can have their own personal copy of the Bible, which they can easily take to church or school. But such was rare throughout most of church history because a copy of the entire Bible would span multiple volumes or be one very large book. A portable, one-volume Bible was made possible through technological advancements with thinner parchment and new scribal practices of writing in smaller script and with more abbreviations. The Paris Bible’s new portable format was especially popular with Dominican and Franciscan friars who were travelling preachers and needed a Bible they could easily carry.
We can also easily take for granted that Ruth comes after Judges, or that 1 and 2 Chronicles comes after 1 and 2 Kings. But different manuscripts had variations among themselves regarding the order in which the books of the Bible appeared. And when a Bible spans several volumes, one can reshelve the individual volumes in different orders. Once the Paris Bibles popularised having the entire Bible in one volume, the order of books mattered more. There were already some common ordering principles, but the Paris Bibles helped to standardise an order similar to what we find in modern Bibles today.