The physical format of our modern Bible is often taken for granted. But where did chapters and verses come from? How did we go from stories, letters, and song lyrics to something resembling an encyclopedia? And what are the implications of a Bible that invites us to use it like a reference manual?
We’ve been making the case over the last few months for rediscovering the power of Bible reading. In many ways, simple and straightforward reading has been the forgotten practice in the modern era of the Bible. We contend that reading whole books remains the first and most natural thing to do with the Bible.
But what about all the other things we do with the Bible? What about Bible study? Should we still be taking closer looks at smaller parts of the Bible? And does this “read first” approach have any implications for how we preach and teach the Bible? We’ll start this new mini-series of articles by taking a closer look at what it means to study the Bible.
Reimagining Bible Study
Our approach to modern Bible study grew out of the form the Bible was given in modernity and the understanding it encouraged of what the Bible is. Often this has meant pursuing topical studies based on looking up a string of Bible references and then trying to add them together to find their meaning. The very real danger is that this approach doesn’t allow for due diligence to be done on the meaning of all these Bible verses in their full and natural literary context within the Bible’s various books.
Further, even when our Bible studies stay focused on a single book, the numbered verses still imply that each individual statement can stand alone as a self-sufficient unit of meaning. At the popular level, “study” in this case often means a closer look at a verse along with the question of how it applies to my life today. Even in the more serious approach of a preacher or professor, “study” can too easily devolve into the dissection of a verse to the microscopic level of isolated words and finer grammatical points.
Of course, such detailed study has its place. But too often the core point has been forgotten that the meaning of words is found in sentences, and that of sentences in larger units like prose paragraphs or poetic stanzas. These in turn are joined together to create bigger sections which build the messages of whole books.
The place to begin with the meaning of the Bible is at the top, with the overall messages of its biggest building blocks: books.
So read first, study second.
Our definition of “Bible study” should be: consider the parts of a biblical book closely and carefully to understand their place within the book as a whole.
By adopting this definition of study we commit to first reading the largest appropriate level — the letter, the song (psalm), the gospel, the collected prophecies, or the book. Then, within that context, we can now profitably focus in on smaller units to see how they contribute to the bigger overall meaning. We keep working down this way to the smallest units we want to or are qualified to examine (aleph, anyone?) But following this course will prevent us from taking little pieces of the Bible out of context.
Consider the analogy of how we typically engage a film. Is there a difference between watching a film and studying it? Yes, of course. We all begin by simply watching a complete film to take in its overall impression on us. Then, we (or some of us) will slow down and examine smaller parts of the film in a second or third viewing to consider the individual elements (transitions, lighting, dialogue, symbols, etc.) that contribute to the larger experience of meaning.
But nobody starts by dissecting the film before watching it. Same with the Bible. We should begin by taking in the overall story, song, gospel, or letter. What is it doing as a whole book? What’s the big message? How does it work? Only then are we in a good position to take a closer look at the individual parts that make up that whole.Nobody starts by dissecting a film before watching it. Same with the Bible.Click To Tweet
This is why a fresh format of the Bible like Immerse: The Reading Bible is also a terrific study Bible. The best reader’s Bibles not only take out the modern reference numbers, they also display the natural literary forms of the Bible’s books. Our Bible study should be based on these literary units placed there by the Bible’s first authors and editors. These are the original units of meaning, the actual building blocks of the books. Studying the Bible means understanding how these natural units are doing their work in the whole book.
Also, beware an overreliance on “study helps.” Of course, none of us knows everything about the background, history, and culture of the Bible, not to mention all the fine points of the Bible’s original languages, Hebrew and Greek. So yes, getting help from the experts can greatly contribute to our understanding.
But consider this: consulting the “helps” too quickly can shut down our own reading and prayerful reflection on the text. Study notes and commentaries can be show-stoppers, ending conversation and further exploration. Reading them can tempt us to quit because we’ve just been told the right answer. When our communities gather around the Bible it’s crucial to give our own reading and dialogue ample time to marinate and mature.
So read first and read big. Feast on the sacred writings. Engage the Bible with others-reading, talking, and exploring together.
And by all means study! But study well, in context, in light of the whole, following the Bible’s own indications of its literary structure. Learn how the Bible’s books build their messages from these natural units. Examine closely how the meaning grows.
This is Bible study in the new paradigm.
Pray. Read. Study.
*Adapted from After Chapters & Verses: Engaging the Bible in the Coming Generations by Christopher R. Smith, InterVarsity Press, 2012. Rev. Dr. Smith is a Fellow at the Institute for Bible Reading. Our thanks to him for his genesis of these proposals for rethinking our use of the Bible today.
In 1508, Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The project – if we can reduce this massive undertaking to a word as small as “project” – took four years and, as we all know, resulted in one of Michelangelo’s most famous works, as well as one of the most stunning and revered works of art in the world.
The painted area of the ceiling measures approximately 131 feet long by 43 feet wide, which means Michelangelo painted over 5000 square feet of frescoes. Nine scenes from Genesis run down the middle, including the famous The Creation of Adam. The border contains depictions of Israel’s prophets, including Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel. The scale of Michelangelo’s work is truly monumental.
Of course, Michelangelo didn’t paint these stunning frescoes inside a climate-controlled museum, but inside a functioning chapel. This meant that they were exposed to many harsh elements that made it difficult for the paintings to survive, and practical measures had to be taken to ensure the paintings could be enjoyed by future generations. Linseed oil was applied to the paintings in 1547 to counteract some of the effects of water penetrating through the floor above. Then, in 1713 a layer of varnish was applied to protect them from the soot and grime accumulating from the candles below.
As the years, decades, and centuries passed, the smoke & wax from burning candles and smut from car exhaust fumes built up and made the frescoes so uniformly dark that critics accused the great sculptor of being insensitive to color.
Then, in 1980, a major restoration project was undertaken using modern technology and preservation techniques. They discovered that the layers of varnish and glue that had been applied over the years had hardened and become opaque. Animal fat and vegetable oil had been applied to counteract salination, but had also created a sticky layer that accumulated even more dirt.
So the restorers got scrubbing. They used a variety of different solvents to wash away the layers of dirt, grime, grease, soot, varnish, and exhaust that had accumulated on the original paintings, and what they found was stunning.
When the Sistine Chapel reopened after the restoration, people were shocked at the vividness of the artwork. Michelangelo hadn’t been “insensitive to color” after all. His incredible original work had simply been covered up by years and years of accumulation.
Why am I telling you all of this? Well, it’s a pretty good metaphor for the Bible.
Beginning around the year 1200 when Stephen Langton introduced chapter numbers to the text, and followed by the addition of verse numbers in the mid-1550s by Robert Estienne, modern additives have been accumulating inside our Bibles. Fast forward to today and you’ll see most Bibles come complete with chapters, verses, section headings, footnotes, red-letters, callouts, and cross-references, and all squeezed into two columns so that more information can fit on a single page.
These modern additives, of course, were all put into our Bibles with the best of intentions. Chapters and verses were both added so that referencing small pieces of Scripture became easier (for writing a commentary or concordance, for example). Footnotes undoubtedly showed up because publishers wanted to help people grasp more of the context around what they were reading.
But what has it all amounted to? Information overload. The Bible’s text almost seems hidden, overpowered by all of the extra “helps” we’ve included. Chapters and verses have papered over the natural structures of ancient literature, hiding them behind a uniform numbering system. Two-column formats make it much more difficult to see the parallel structures of Hebrew poetry that we find in the Psalms.
There’s a natural beauty to the Bible that is waiting to be uncovered. If we scrub away the years of varnish and soot, we’ll be surprised and awestruck by what we find. The encouraging trend of “reading Bibles” entering the marketplace shows us that the Bible can indeed be beautiful, and that we can actually have a more authentic, transformative experience with God’s Word if we get rid of all the modern additives and just let the text breathe.
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-verse system is 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.
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.
To learn more about the history of chapters and verses and their impact on reading, listen to Chapters, Verses, and the Impact of the Modern Bible
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 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.
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.