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.
What many people are unaware of is that chapters and verses are only about 500 years old, originally added so that people writing Bible commentaries and concordances could specifically reference a sentence or group of sentences for their notes and commentary.
Shortly after the 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 type of 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 literary 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 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. 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 a biography or a novel the end of a chapter often signals a good place to stop. Bible chapters, however, are often incongruent with 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 of those nuggets. Many people 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 their fuller context.
Chapters-and-verse reference Bibles can still play a very important role in helping people navigate Scripture, but they need to be accompanied by a new genre: Reading Bibles. These are additive-free editions of Scripture made for at-length reading, 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. The Bible will start to become beautiful again.
There are a couple reading Bibles 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: you can download the first chapter of Saving the Bible From Ourselves for free)