Why You Need a Bible Without Chapters and Verses

Update: The Institute for Bible Reading has created Immerse, a Bible without any chapters, verses, or other modern additives. Click here to learn more.


When it comes to reading and studying the Bible, chapters and verses feel about as essential as the steering wheel of a car. We wouldn’t quite know what to do without them. They give our Bibles a structure we can grasp. They make things easy to find and they break down long passages into manageable, relatively uniform chunks. It’s hard to imagine a Bible without chapters and verses inside.

But where did they come from? Surely the Apostle Paul didn’t write his letters with chapters and verses. Why were they added? And what unnoticed impact are they having on how we read the Bible?

A Recent Innovation

Many people are unaware that chapter and verse numbers are only about 500 years old. Archbishop Stephen Langton created the chapter system we’re familiar with in the 13th century, simply because he was writing a Bible commentary and needed a way to reference more specific portions of Scripture. Similarly, French printer and scholar Robert Estienne added verse numbers in the 16th century. His reason? He was creating a Bible concordance, so he needed a way to reference even smaller portions of passages – a sentence or two at a time.

Shortly after these numbering systems were conceived, somebody made the decision that they should be a standard feature in all Bibles. Thus, a book made for reading was turned into a book made for referencing. One of the first Bibles produced on the printing press, the Geneva Bible, turned each verse into a separate paragraph, obliterating any sense of continuity within the literature and setting the table for the volleys of verses hurled back and forth during the theological debates of the Reformation.

An Unhelpful Innovation

It would be unfair to claim that chapters and verses are 100% harmful. They can certainly be helpful in many ways, especially in helping us reference specific portions of Scripture. But because every Bible we’ve ever had since the 1500’s is a chapter and verse Bible, many of us don’t realize the ways in which the format actually makes reading harder.

Because every Bible we've ever had since the 1500's is a chapter and verse Bible, many of us don't realize the ways in which the format actually makes reading harder.Click To Tweet

For starters, many of the biblical authors intentionally conveyed meaning through how they structured books, and we miss that natural structuring with a uniform chapter-based scheme. Matthew’s gospel, for example, does not have 28 chapters. It has 5 natural sections, which Matthew intentionally crafted to show his Jewish audience that the gospel of Jesus was a new Torah. The Torah of course has 5 books.

The book of Acts has 6 natural sections, each of which ends with some iteration of the phrase, “…and the word of the Lord continued to spread and flourish.” The number 6 in the Bible represents incompleteness or imperfection, and is always in striving toward 7, the number of completeness. The book is crafted with 6 sections to signify that the work of spreading the gospel is incomplete. It is the responsibility of those following the acts of the apostles – followers of Jesus in future generations – to be the 7th “section” of Acts.

Chapters and verses also make it much more difficult to follow an author’s thought process. Many of us see chapter breaks as good stopping points in our reading. It makes sense – when we read a biography or a novel the end of a chapter often signals a good place to stop. Bible chapters, however, are often totally ignorant of the story’s plot or the author’s thought process. In fact, the very first chapter break in the Bible at Genesis 2 comes three verses before the end of the opening song of Creation!

Finally, chapters and verses make it all too easy to grasp onto tiny Scripture nuggets and use them for our own purposes without considering the wider context. How often do we see Philippians 4:13, Jeremiah 29:11, and many others displayed in cute social media memes, completely misused and out of context? Many people craft entire theologies and worldviews around a set of verses that seem to support what they believe.

Moving Forward, Looking Backward

Chapter and verse reference Bibles can still play an important role in helping people engage Scripture, but they need to be accompanied by a new genre: Reading Bibles. These additive-free editions of Scripture are a return to what the Bible used to be, made for at-length reading and using the natural book structures the authors originally included.

Having a Bible created for reading rather than reference will not only make reading the Bible more enjoyable, it’ll uncover things you’ve never seen before and allow you to experience the Bible in a different way. Many people report getting “lost in the story” when they are able to just read without interruption.

Immerse: The Reading Bible / Photo: Bible Buying Guide

There are a couple reading Bibles that can get you started. Our top recommendation is Immerse: The Reading Bible, which we created in partnership with Tyndale House Publishers. The Books of the Bible from Biblica and Zondervan and the ESV Readers Bible from Crossway are also good options. If you know of any others, leave a comment below!

To read more on the idea of Bibles without chapters and verses, check out “After Chapters and Verses” by Christopher Smith and “Saving the Bible From Ourselves” by Glenn Paauw. (Hint: you can download the first chapter of Saving the Bible From Ourselves for free)

3 Questions You Should Ask Whenever You Read the Bible

It’s true that the Bible is God’s inspired Word to us. It’s also true that the Bible didn’t simply fall from heaven typed out and leather-bound. In the same way that Jesus, the living Word of God, is fully human and fully divine, God chose to communicate his divine written Word through human channels.

This means that the holy writings of the Bible are fully and completely human words, written by authors in their natural languages and using common forms of writing, reflecting their ancient cultural and historical settings. In order to fully understand what the Bible is saying to us today, we have to understand the different levels of context around what we read. Here are three questions to keep in mind that will help you do that.

1. What would this have meant to the original audience?

While the Bible was written for us, it was not originally written to us. Reading the Bible through an Ancient Near East lens rather than our modern Western lens is the first step to understanding the Bible in context.

As we all know, ancient societies were very different from our modern Western societies. Social structures were different, political power structures were different, their understanding of science and technology were of course very different. It’s easy to bring our modern assumptions to the text, but in doing that we risk misinterpreting the text or missing the point completely.

Once we pass the Bible through the “filter” of what it meant for its first audience, only then can we gain wisdom and understanding for our lives today. As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart put it in their book How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, “A text can never mean what it never meant. Or to put that in a positive way, the true meaning of the biblical text for us is what God originally intended it to mean when it was first spoken. This is the starting point.”

2. What type of literature is this?

From prophetic oracles to song lyrics to letters the Bible contains a collection of different types of literature, each with their own function in the ancient world. People that received these kinds of writing understood that when they engaged with them, they were entering into an unspoken agreement with the author to treat it the way the author intended.

We do this all the time today without even thinking about it. If we pick up a newspaper, we understand that we will be reading factual accounts of world events until we turn to, say, the Opinion section or Comics page. When we receive a restaurant menu, we understand what we’re supposed to do with it. Same with a textbook, a recipe, etc.

It’s very important that we avoid reading the Bible flatly, as one type of literature. We need to learn what genre each book is and engage with it on the author’s terms. Some of the Bible’s genres are completely unfamiliar to us, like apocalyptic literature or prophetic oracles. Some are more familiar, like the poetry in the Psalms, but have traits like Hebrew parallelism that we don’t see today. The good news is there are tons of resources out there to help us understand the ins and outs of the Bible’s different literary genres. And once we have a better grasp of them we’ll be able to see the Bible in a whole new light.

3. Where does this passage take place within the Bible’s overall story?

The story of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is the story of God restoring his creation to its original intention. God is the author of this story as well as the primary actor, hero, and Savior. Even when the story we’re reading doesn’t primarily feature God – it may be a story about David or Daniel or Paul – we have to ask ourselves what is God doing here?  How is he acting through these people?

The Bible can also be thought of as a six-act drama. You can read more about the Bible’s six acts here. Whenever we read the Bible, we need to consider which “act” the story takes place within. There is a trajectory to the story as God brings his creation along, ushering it toward his final goal of redemption. The actions God takes and what he tells his people to do in Act 3 are very different from Act 5 because there is movement in the story. Reading with this storyline in mind is critical to understanding the Bible well.

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Paying attention to these three levels of context — original interpretation, literature, and story — will put the Bible within the right framework to interpret it for ourselves today. If you’re interested in resources that will help you understand these different elements of context, leave a comment below and we will point you to some of our favorites.