John Chapter 1

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)

7 replies
  1. Marsha Thorson
    Marsha Thorson says:

    I use The Books of the Bible as my reading Bible. What you are saying in this article is exactly right. Rarely do I remember reading whole books with my chapter and verse Bible. Now however, when I open up a book to start reading it, unless it is very long and can’t be read in one sitting, I naturally want to read until the end. Reading this way also helps me to engage with the cultural setting and who the book was actually written to, which I have found is extremely important. Now that I have switched over to a reading Bible, I find it’s difficult to go back to reading a Bible that’s “chopped up”. (I call it my salad Bible, lol) I love reading this “new” (old) way and I encourage everyone to give it a try. In addition to The Books of the Bible, another Bible I like to read is The Message Bible by Eugene Peterson. I don’t know if The Message is considered a translation or a version of the Bible. It does have chapter numbers and chapter titles, but no verse markings. It’s very story like and easy to engage with, for sure. Thanks for your great post!

    Another

  2. jae joe
    jae joe says:

    i’s looking for this!
    good idea thought of checking if someone’d done this before, as i’s taking the daunting task of doing it myself, lol
    thanx, sirs

  3. Daniel Chase
    Daniel Chase says:

    It sure would be nice if we could get rid of capitalism in distributing God’s word. That God that the apostles weren’t interested in royalties. In this day and age, this should be nearly free and available online

  4. james
    james says:

    I really like the idea, I don’t know why they are more then one volume. I was publishers would offer a single volume readers version. From what I know of, only the ESV has one.

    • Alex Goodwin
      Alex Goodwin says:

      Hey James, thanks for reading. For Immerse: The Reading Bible (mentioned above the post), we went with a multi-volume approach because it allowed us to incorporate all of the reading-friendly features we wanted. Generous margins and line spacing, nice font size, single-column, thick paper, etc. To do a single-volume edition we would have had to compromise on some of those. In addition to the ESV, we also know of NKJV and CSB Readers editions available.

  5. Jeff Jabben
    Jeff Jabben says:

    Check out this guys work his Smooth reading or “Flat-Bible”. He converted a WE Bible with no chapters or verses, the format is incredibly beautiful and readable. It is also free and has the ability to make your own edits. http://raylcross.net/flatBible/

    What would be interesting is if the Church today or individual believers would take a Bible like you were speaking of or this one and input their own ‘bookmarks’ or sections such as: Creation, Adam and Eve, The Eight Woes of Jesus, The Crucifixion, Peter’s Vision. Instead of Numeric quotes. I believe this would help believers tone it down or simplify what has become complicated. The world we live in today and the Church is turning systematic, black and white, and with no emotion. While I like the idea of being able to pinpoint a specific sentence, no one is hardly ever able to remember: First Timothy chapter 5 verse 4 on the fly while in a conversation. Thanks for the Article and information, enjoyed it.

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