Chapters and verses are appealing because 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. They allow us to do things like find our go-to “life verse.” It’s hard to imagine a Bible without chapters and verses inside.
What many people are unaware of is that chapters and verses are only about 500 years old. They were originally added to Bibles so that people writing commentaries and concordances could specifically reference a sentence or group of sentences in the Bible for their notes and commentary.
This foreign numbering system is well-suited for the niche purpose of referencing specific passages. But shortly after the chapter-and-verse system was conceived, somebody made the decision that they should be a standard feature in all Bibles. This was around the time the printing press was invented, so consequently the only Bible that’s ever been available to the masses is the chapter-and-verse reference Bible.
So chapters and verses aren’t original. So what? They can still be helpful. It’s true, chapters and verses are helpful for some things. But in many ways they actually hinder our Bible reading.
For starters, chapters and verses hide the natural structures of books, which the authors designed to convey meaning through how they were structured. 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 the number 7, the number of completeness. The author of Acts intentionally created it 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 and bring it to completion. If we read Acts in a chapter-and-verse Bible, these natural sections and the powerful meaning behind them are covered up by an artificial structure imposed on the text.
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 any other book the end of a chapter often signals a good place to stop. Bible chapters, however, often begin and end before the author has finished his thought. In fact, the very first chapter break in the Bible at Genesis 2 comes three verses before the finish 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 of those nuggets. Philippians 4:13, for example, is less about us accomplishing all things and more about us enduring whatever setbacks and failures we may experience. We only understand this if we read what Paul has written around that verse. Many people also craft entire theologies and worldviews around a set of verses that seem to support what they believe. Yet often those verses mean something very different when read in context.
Hopefully you don’t get the idea that I’m advocating for the abolition of chapter-and-verse Bibles. I’m not. Chapters and verses can still play a helpful role in referencing Scripture, but only once we’ve read and understand the big picture.
When it comes to simply reading the Bible and taking in the story, chapters and verses set up all sorts of unnecessary roadblocks that hinder us. That’s why I encourage all of you to have a Bible created for reading, not reference. Not only will it make reading the Bible more enjoyable, it’ll uncover things you’ve never seen before. The Bible will start to become beautiful again.
There are a couple reading Bibles I know of that can get you started. My top recommendation is Immerse: The Reading Bible, which the Institute for Bible Reading 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: if you join our mailing list you get the first chapter of Glenn’s book for free)