Doubtless the large majority of the present generation of thoughtful Bible readers are in favor of printing the Bible without the present breaks into chapters and verses. Chapters and verses, indeed, are far too useful to be entirely dispensed with, and the present system is too firmly fixed and widely extended to give place to any other. But a division into paragraphs according to the sense, with the chapters and verses sufficiently indicated in the margin, would best suit the convenience of most readers, and give them a deeper insight into the spirit of the Bible.
Who can deny that this is according to common sense? And who can say that the extreme convenience of reference afforded by the chapters and verses has not' on the whole, been purchased at too great a cost? The mere disputant, with his verbal references (too often utterly misleading) may not think so; but the sincere student knows it. The "very common but erroneous impression that the Bible is rather a collection of apothegms or disconnected sentences, than composed of regular histories and treatises on religion, which have their separate topics and connections"- is only a part of that heavy cost.
Yet, for over three hundred years, the great mass of common readers of the English Bible have submitted to having their Bibles thus printed. Until the present century, it is true that there was very little room for choice left to the common reader; nor were the common readers a very numerous body. But for the greater part of this century paragraph Bibles have existed; they are issued today by the great privileged publishers of England; and yet their circulation has been very small.
Into the reasons - some of them obvious - for this general failure to adopt paragraph Bibles, the writer does not care to go. But a look into the past will show that the age of printing the Bible in verse-paragraphs is not altogether unique, except in exaggeration. It has indulged to excess in a thing really good, whose need in moderation has been felt in all the ages. Future generations, perhaps, will recognize in this style of printing only the excessive clumsiness which attaches to most new machines, which commonly gives place to greater simplicity and effectiveness after some experience. The present style is the very burdensome accessory of two useful inventions: first, a way of easy, accurate citation, such as had been altogether rare before; and second, the modern concordance, on a plan somewhat near perfection, with all its uses and benefits. These ends once attained, there seems no reason why that part of the invention which appears in the Bible text should not be simplified as much as possible, and rid of all imperfections not inveterate.
The Bible, first and last, has appeared in nearly every shape which writing and printing could devise; taking in turn the styles of many an age and many a culture. The shapes which printing gives it are more permanent, yet various enough; but, in proportion to the number of copies furnished, vastly fewer than the varieties given by independent scribes and editors in manuscript. In any look at the past, therefore, the investigator must expect to find the terms chapter, verse and paragraph bearing respectively several (if not many) different meanings. He must not suppose that the history of the present division into chapters and verses exhausts the subject.
Unless, however, he has the printed books or manuscripts before him, he needs to be extremely careful to what authorities he listens, in studying up the subject. To say nothing of the faults of transient essays in the periodicals, it is notorious how full of errors are almost all the histories and treatises. It will not do to trust to such authorities as Brunet and Dibdin; for books on general bibliography, not altogether correct in the matter of secular books, are particularly defective with respect to the sacred Scriptures. Nor are the sacred bibliographies altogether to be trusted. Even so careful and competent a writer as the author of the catalogue of the library of the Duke of Sussex, with his eyes wide open and the book before him, committed the error of saying that the second edition of Erasmus's Greek Testament (1519) "contains the verse relating to the Three Witnesses."
It is therefore with some fear and trembling that the writer ventures to approach the subject of chapters and verses. The whole subject, indeed, is too large for a short essay, or even a small volume. But there are points of interest to be picked up all along their history, and, the writer hopes, with a tolerable share of correctness. At present, however, no more will be attempted than some matters connected with the present system of chapters and verses. Of these, the history lies partly in the light, and partly in ancient obscurity. The chapters, in both the Old and the New Testament, are commonly attributed to the contrivance of Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro2 (in English, Hugh de St. Cher), about A. D. 1240, who used them in compiling a concordance, and also in his commentary. Some, however, and probably with more correctness, attribute the invention to Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, contrived for the purpose of citation in lectures. Langton, it will be remembered, headed the baronial signers, when Magna Charta was wrested from King John. Others still suggest with some show of reason, but not much probability, that Albertus Magnus, and perhaps Alexander Alensis, had a hand in it. Subdivisions of each chapter were marked by letters in the margin, A, B, C, D, E, F, G; and reference (in the concordance or otherwise) to the passage was made by the number of the chapter and the letter of the subdivision. These divisions are sometimes called paragraphs by the older writers; though they are not generally such in the modern sense. This style of division can be seen in many, if not in most, of the Latin Bibles printed before the middle of the sixteenth century. Similar ones are familiar to students of the Greek classics of this day.
This subdivision of chapters was employed by Robert Stephens in his famous concordance to the Vulgate, printed in 1555; though he also gives the numbers of the verses. As erroneous statements are often made respecting this concordance in that particular, it is as well to give his own words on the subject. In the preface he says: "Moreover, in the novelty of the work, this part also deserves some praise; that besides those accustomed marginal letters, A, B, C, D, E, F, G, into which that former author of concordances divided the several chapters, you will have, written after those letters, the numbers of the verses of each chapter according to the method of the Hebrew; that is, as the Hebrews number their verses; which we have added so that you may more readily and quickly find what you seek, and that they may more fitly aid the most beautiful and splendid work which we print." He says nothing else whatever about the New Testament verses, though he uses them also. But of those, more farther on.
It must not be understood that these chapters exactly tally in all the different versions of the Bible, though they do in the main. In the Hebrew Bible, where they appear to have been adopted by Jews themselves, they differ in not a few places from those of our English Bible. In the Bible Society's Arabic Bible, to take one example, the chapters vary somewhat from both the Latin (and English) and the Hebrew. The variations in different versions are not perhaps an endless subject, but far too nearly so to outline here. They cause a good deal of inconvenience to the student who uses many versions.
Respecting the modern verses, the case differs in the two Testaments. In the Old Testament the verses are those of the Hebrew Bible. Though not as old as the Jewish reading lessons and other ancient divisions of larger size, in all probability they date back to the introduction of vowel points and accents, and to the beginning of that body of notes called the Masora. This cannot be later than the ninth century of our era. We have no Hebrew manuscripts so old by several centuries as those we have of the New Testament; for the Jewish custom has been to bury or destroy their biblical manuscripts as soon as age or wear made them defective. We have, therefore, no direct testimony from the monuments themselves to show when the Hebrew division into verses began. The end of the verse was marked with its distinctive accent (soph pasuk), like a colon; but though thus marked, the verses were not numbered for a long time. A concordance of Rabbi Nathan's (about 1450) appears to have been constructed with the expedient of a numeral attached to each verse.
The older authors, however, attributed a much earlier origin to the Hebrew verses. Thus Leusden, in a passage worth quoting for its other information, says: "Perhaps someone will ask, Is not the division of verses of the Old Testament from the authors themselves of the books? Answer: Indeed the division of verses of the Old Testament is by the authors themselves, for the accent Sillūk, which is expressed everywhere at the end of a verse, marks off the verses. But formerly in Hebrew Bibles the Hebrew letters which denote the verse-divisions were not usually expressed in the margin, as is to be seen in the old Hebrew Bibles of Bomberg, Munster, and others. Afterwards, about the middle of the last century [sixteenth], every fifth verse was noted in the margin by the Hebrew letters, aleph, he, yod, teth-waw, caph, etc. At length, in the year 1660, each verse (except every fifth verse, whose number was expressed in Hebrew letters after the ancient manner) was marked with Latin [Arabic] numerals in the Hebrew Bible of the Amsterdam edition, by Joseph Athias, at my suggestion and instigation, for the public good; which numerals had never before been used with any Hebrew text. And because we saw that those Bibles, of which a great abundance were printed, were scattered and sold within three or four years, therefore in the year 1667 we issued a second edition, far more correct than the first, together with Latin notes in the margin."
The Old Testament verses, in the main, therefore, even in those places in the Psalms where no punctuation occurs at the end of the verse in our version, appear to be the result of a division marked off at least a thousand years ago by the Jews.
But in the numbering of the Old Testament verses, besides the disturbance which followed every change in the chapters, our English Bible differs from the Hebrew, especially in the Psalms. In the Hebrew the titles to the Psalms are numbered as one or more verses or parts of verses.
The modern New Testament verses, except the few changes here and there, made in different versions, are well known to have originated in the Greek and Latin Testament of Robert Stephens, published in 1551. This contained the Greek text, the Vulgate, and the Latin version of Erasmus, in parallel columns; the Greek in the centre, the Vulgate on the inner, and :Erasmus on the outer side. It was also furnished with parallel references, with Osiander's harmony of the Gospels (compiled in 1537), and a copious index. Though the contrary is sometimes asserted, the verses were printed in separate paragraphs, like our present Bibles; not merely marked in the margin. What Stephens himself then said about his division into verses is as follows: "But whereas we have divided the work into certain verses (versiculos) as they call them, that we have done following the most ancient Greek and Latin copies (exemplaria) of the New Testament itself. But we have the more willingly imitated them therein, because by this method each translation could3 completely and directly be cited in correspondence with the Greek text (quod hac ratione utraque translatio posset omnino e regione gręco textui respondere)" That is, it was to serve as a perfect means of comparing the two translations with the original, and as a ready means of reference throughout.
His claim to have followed the most ancient Greek and Latin patterns is not altogether devoid of truth, as may be seen on some future occasion. Meanwhile the following remark of Masch is in point, with a little allowance: "Stephens, indeed, maintains that he divided the Sacred Text into verses in imitation of manuscripts; but it is well enough known that this was said only for the sake of the favor of those who used to beat Stephens black and blue in every possible way. The method of the ancient divisions is far otherwise. It was truly a most useful invention, [and one] which the printers of Geneva followed immediately, but those of Leipsic too late; in which, nevertheless, it is to be regretted that Stephens often erred from the true interpunction."
Something here should be added about the story of the time and manner of making this division, since the popular accounts vary so much. The original source is the words of Robert Stephens's son Henry, in the preface to his concordance to the Greek Testament. Speaking of the great benefit which his father conferred by dividing the chapters into verses, he says: "I will mention first two things of which you will doubt at whether of the two you ought to wonder more. One is that going from Paris to Lyons he accomplished this division of each chapter, of which I am speaking, and indeed a great part of it in the midst of horseback riding (inter equitandum); the other is that while he was thinking it over, a little before, almost everybody remarked that he was meditating something very like putting time and labor into a matter that would surely turn out to be worthless; and so would not only attain no praise, but even come to scorn. But, lo, contrary to their condemnatory opinion of my father's undertaking, as soon as the contrivance came to the light, it met with favor from all, and at once acquired such influence that any other New Testaments, whether Greek, or Latin, or French, or German, or editions in any other vernacular tongue, which did not follow that contrivance, were, so to speak, cashiered." It would seem from the context that Henry Stephens intends the words "inter equitandum"4 to mean the actual time on horseback; and not, as is often thought, while resting at the inns on the road, in the intervals between the rides. It seems also that Mill must be incorrect in saying, "This division, which had come by chance into his mind when he was going on horseback from Paris to Lyons, Robert now perfected, and put in this edition [of I551]."
Henry Stephens mentions the matter again in a dedication of his Greek Testament of 1576 to Philip Sidney-. He there says:
"Indeed, when my father had so many times expended labor and study upon those various editions of the Greek New Testament, and at last had thought out that division of each of the chapters of this book into a certain number of verses, I would be ashamed of seeming to degenerate from him, unless I myself also could add my own contribution. But that the great labor of my father, that is, of that whether distribution or division thought out by him, is a means of usefulness, the agreement of almost the entire Christian world in adopting it, in whatever language the New Testament is printed, testifies enough and abundantly." (Henry's "own contribution" we need not here inquire into.)
In the light of these facts, it does not seem proper to condemn utterly the verses of Robert Stephens. Used for reference only, as he intended, they are convenient and not objectionable. Used as logical divisions of the text, which they never pretended to be, they are quite another thing. Stephens is scarcely to be blamed for not foreseeing the perversion which was almost sure to follow at the hands of unthinking readers or printers. The pity rather is that some revision of that division could not have been accomplished before it came to be everywhere adopted. Reuss' brief remark is perhaps the truest comment. of this "separation into verses," he says that "here for the first time our editor obtruded it upon the Greek text; a sad light, and one not thereafter to be extinguished."
We often hear quoted the remark which Scrivener attributes to Mr. Kelly: "I think it would have been better done on one's knees in the closet" [than inter equitandum]. But that sentence had been much more severely passed long before. In the preface to Schoettgen's Greek Testament (1744) are these words: "But worst of all concerning the New Testament has Robert Stephens merited, a printer most celebrated, and who otherwise on account of his great merits in literary matters deserves distinguished praise. He, when he was planning a new edition of the New Testament, undertook the design of dividing it into verses, or smaller sections, a thing which I do not disapprove, but esteem a noble and praiseworthy thing. Yet this I am unable to justify, that he handled the matter with so light a hand, and on a journey which he made from Paris to Lyons, on horseback, took upon himself this labor, which he ought rather to perform in his study, with many prayers and meditation. For from this it happened that other printers thereupon so separated the verses as to make each begin with a new line. Others succeeded, who put a full stop at the end of every verse, and in a measure foully depraved the mind of the Holy Spirit:"
It only remains to be added that the verse-divisions came into English with the first Genevan New Testament, in 1557. But the chapters were already- in the first printed English New Testament. The first French Bible divided into verses appeared in 1553; the first Italian New Testament probably in 1555 (the writer has one such of 1558); the first Latin Bible in 1555; the first Italian Bible probably in 1562; and the first German Bible probably in 1568.