Sunday, 24 January 2010

A Bible Without Verses?

From time to time I blog about Christianity from a secularist perspective...

One can become accustomed to certain features of modern Christianity.

For example, take bible verses.

One sees them on garish posters:

And also, it would seem, on gun sights:

Indeed, sometimes with the very same verse.

Bible verses, however, are relatively new: the versification of the New Testament, in particular, dates back only to the 1500s. For one and a half millennia, the Christian churches managed happily without any such organising method to their sacred texts.

Of course, the priests and the pious would know various passages, often by heart, just as we can quote Shakespeare without any express regard to the scene and line number.

But there was not this - in effect - deification of the convenient quotation.

Versification may have accompanied the rise of printing and Protestantism; but, as with all human cultural developments, it was not inevitable.

We could, even today, have Christianity and the bible without verses, or chapters.

I suspect that Protestantism may have taken a markedly different form; but there was no necessity that versification would catch on.

And without versification, then that other relatively recent (as well as intellectually absurd) phenomenon - the literal interpretation of the bible - may not have become so popular.

There would then be a bias in favour of treating all the constituent books of the bible (themselves an arbitrary selection of the texts available) as the literary narratives and brilliant stories which they really are.

A lack of versification would also tend to undermine the idiotic wrenching out of context by many Evangelicals of certain passages in Leviticus and elsewhere.

Christian fundamentalists would probably be at a loss without this (artificial) versification: they would actually have to take the books of the bible seriously, and not just their favourite sentences.

The bible is a wonderful collection of ancient texts, each with significant literary and historical value.

The pick-and-mix approach of many Christians to various verses does the bible a great disservice.

An ambitious publisher would do well to commission an edition of the bible without verses, or even chapters: a retelling of the stories without the straight-jacket imposed by having to sequence all the sentences by the usual numbers.

And then the stories of the bible can take their rightful place along Homer and Gilgamesh.

"By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established; through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures."

-Proverbs 24:3-4


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


Swiv said...

You should have a look at The Message bible, which is a modern English translation of the bible and which dispenses with verse numbers (though it does identify chapters).

Euridice said...

Let us also not forget that the very insertion of chapter divisions (and, to a certain extent, verse numbers as well) constitutes an interpretive act. When a story is cut into pieces, the one who does the cutting must have a sense of the flow of the narrative as he (we can assume a male hand in the case of this particular text) does so. Even typographical things like paragraph breaks are the work of redactors. And it can make a difference to the way a text is read, if a story is taken to end, and another to begin, either side of a chapter number, when in fact this may not have been the author’s intent.

splinteredsunrise said...

It's a very Protestant thing. And a complete break with the views of both Catholics and Orthodox that Scripture is only authoritative insofar as it's interpreted by Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church. Biblical literalism, IMO, has a lot to answer for. Not entirely convinced that versification is to blame, but it's worth thinking over.

Richard Hurst said...

While I agree with your sentiment, I'm not sure this is really to do with versification.

In the NT itself, the Pharisees are depicted as arguing over ever 'jot and tittle' of the law - was the Torah of the time versified? I would be surprised, if it's such a late addition to the Bible. Decontextualisation goes back a lot further than the 1500s.

Euridice said...

@Richard Hurst: The ‘jot and tittle’ quote is actually attributed to Jesus in the NT:

‘“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”’ (Matt 5:17-18)

You’re right though that Jesus accuses the Pharisees of obeying the letter rather than the spirit of the law, particularly in Mark.

JdeP said...

Most Bibles in the West had chapter divisions by the 12th century, and one of the achievements of the University of Paris in the early 13th century was to standardise the many different existing series of chapter-division. It may be true that *numbers* were not added to verses until later, but punctuation and page-layout had divided the text into verses well before the arrival of printing, Protestantism, etc.

ivan said...

The versification of the Psalms is authentic, also other bits of poetry in the OT, as Hebrew poetry has this verse form, though sometimes it's gone a bit astray over the years. In fact I think we have a bit of poetry in the Proverbs verses you quote. The first verse you quote is in precisely the form of many verses of the Psalms. It says the same thing twice, with two items of correspondence: we see wisdom/understanding then built/established. A quick look though the Psalms and you'll see this pattern frequently repeated.

You talk about "the usual numbers", but there are disagreements. Catholic materials have 149 Psalms and Protestant ones have 150.

Sarah said...

You make some really interesting points about how we are influenced by layout as well as content, however, I'd like to add a few things.

First of all, the four gospel texts have been divided into chunks since about the third century, largely for the purposes of being able to draw up tables to illustrate concordance within them. They're known as [url=] Eusebian Canons[/url] or tables, and you frequently find them in the front of lavish gospel books from Anglo-Saxon England. Wikipedia has a fairly good article on them, and provides a few images as well - they often became highly decorated and elaborate, occasionally to their detriment as they would become quite difficult to use.

Also, the 'literal interpretation' of the bible has been going on since the third or fourth century as well, a lot of the great patristic authors are known for their biblical exegesis as much as their discussion of doctrine. The two main types of exegesis are Antiochine, which often tends to take a VERY literal approach and comment on syntax and rhetoric, and Alexandrine which tends to be a slightly more philosophical discussion - you'll frequently find exegetical texts that mix both styles.

Sarah said...

Argh, remembered something else (sorry I'm an Anglo-Saxon historian and I've done a lot of biblical codicology as part of my degree).

A lot of biblical manuscripts were copied out per cola et commata,which mean they were laid out roughly in 'sense units' or phrases, with line breaks at the end of the phrase, it looks a lot like modern verse breaks, and partly served the same purpose, namely to make the text easier to read and navigate through. I think Jerome's Latin Vulgate version of the bible used this layout, and after that it became popular across Western Europe. Per cola et commata is a type of punctuation, but it does follow the 'sense' of the biblical text as well.

I agree that I think a bible laid out as a modern prose text would be a very interesting idea, but the layout and interpretation practices which you take issue with have in some cases been going on since before the bible was regularly being copied out/printed in English.

Greg said...

Apart from paraphrases such as The Message which omit verse numbers, you can get more standard biblical translations that either don't have verse numbers or have them in the margin to the side of the text, either as separate edition or as standard, the New English Bible translation, for instance, was always (I think) printed with numbers down the side and the main text untouched.

Otherwise, you can just go online to or and untick the verse numbers option.

splinteredsunrise said...

The other thing is that versification is technologically determined via the printing press. It's always said that there would be no Luther without Gutenberg. Perhaps there would be no (or rather less) biblical literalism without Gutenberg.

Enslaver said...

Apart from the bible, I wonder if any other great works of fiction could be grouped together and versified in a similar way. The Harry Potter novels pehaps.

Stephen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.