We’re going to talk about the most dangerous feature of the modern bible. Yes, that sounds overly dramatic, I totally agree. And no, it’s not the super thin paper that might give you a paper cut, and no it’s not the weight of many of these of bibles that may make your arm hurt or give you a backache carrying around.
Actually, what we’re talking about today, is the verse number. Now, that probably sounds rather innocent and innocuous, doesn’t it? Verse numbers, what could possibly be wrong with verse numbers besides the actual amount of pages they end up adding to your bible after we get through all 31,102 verses in the bible. All of those numbers kind of add up, but no that’s not what we’re talking about today either.
I do wanna talk about some positives of verse numbers before I go on to talk about some concerns that we should have and how we think about them.
The first positive is that they allow us to get to the same spot in our bibles. It’s really helpful when the pastor gets up to speak on Sunday and he says, “Let’s turn to the 15th verse of First Corinthians, chapter 15.” We all can start reading at the same place. We know what he’s talking about. I can reference a verse to you in conversation and I could say, “You know what John 3:16 says.” And because of that, I can go on and make a point, I don’t have to quote the verse, because you know what I’m talking about because of the verse reference, which involves not just a verse number, also a chapter number, but at least a verse number.
They’re helpful in that way. They allow us to reference different works when we write and when we speak and they allow us to all get on the same page. And that’s a good thing. I don’t want to take away from that.
But there are some downsides to them too. Now, spoiler alert, I’m not saying we should get rid of them. I’m simply saying we need to be aware of the limitations they actually bring, so we can work to fight those. And I’m gonna give you these considerations in order of importance. Starting from least important to slightly more important.
1. Verse Numbers Clutter the Text
The first consideration is that when you’re reading the bible, often you’re quite aware of the verse numbers, especially if you’re doing some sort of bible reading plan and you know that you’re reading a chapter at a time, you’ll be like, “Oh my gosh, I’m already on verse 30, when is this chapter going to end?” Maybe that’s just me sometimes, and maybe that’s just me in the book of Numbers, but nonetheless, they give us this marker of passage and we kind of see the amount we’ve been reading pile up in what can be an unhelpful way. It’s kind of like if you’re watching the temperature on a pot of water, right, and you’re seeing it’s getting warmer and warmer and warmer, that whole idea that a watched pot never boils. I think we can kinda have that with our bible reading where the numbers actually unduly and inappropriately break up the text, instead of allowing us just to continue reading through what the original author was most likely writing as a single thought or train of thought, the numbers can break that up.
Is that a huge deal? No. It’s something to be aware of though. And, there are actually bibles today that don’t have these verse numbers. Often they’re called Reader’s Bibles, and they’ll have a chapter number in a book, but after that it’s just nicely formatted, laid out text, without verse numbers cluttering the page. Verse numbers were not original, I should have said that when we started this episode. When Paul wrote his letters and when the Evangelists wrote their gospels, there were no verse numbers, there were no chapter numbers. And in fact, the person who’s credited with dividing the bible into chapters, is Stephen Langton and that only happened in the 13th century.
So, for the first 13 centuries there were no chapter divisions. And verse divisions come even later on when Robert Stephanus in about the mid 16th century, breaks the bible up and prints the bible for the first time with verse divisions. So, these are relatively new. The vast majority of Christian history did not have verse numbers. And in some ways I think they may have been better off for it.
But there are options today if you don’t want them. There are Reader’s Bibles that are just basically bible text and no verses, and often your bible app allows you to turn off the verse numbers. I actually do this. So, if I’m getting prepared to teach something where I’m gonna be jumping back and forth through different passages and I need to quickly put my finger on a specific verse, I’ll either use a print bible or I’ll turn the display of the verse numbers on in my bible app. But when I’m just doing my daily bible reading, I turn them off. I don’t wanna think about what verse I’m on. I don’t want to think about how some guy named Robert Stephanus thought the text should be broken up, I want to read it as the original author wrote it, without these divisions. Which as we’ll see when we get to my third point, can actually hinder our understanding.
2. Verse Numbers Don’t Match the Origional Writings
So first, I think they just clutter the text and they make us a little more aware of reading through the text than we should be. And here’s the second and a slightly more important consideration. The verse numbers we have are largely the same as the verse numbers from the KJV. And, the problem with this is, the KJV actually has several verses in it that are not original, that were not in the oldest and best manuscripts. And so, modern translations do not include these verses that were added later on. They haven’t removed the verses, they haven’t omitted the verses, they were never there in the original documents to start with, and so, we know that now. But, they didn’t necessarily know that when the Stephanus bible was made or when the KJV was made. And so, our verse numbers actually reflect certain verses that are not authentic. They’re not original.
For instance, there are several of these and we’ve talked about it on the podcast before. One would be John 5:4. That verse is simply not in the original letter that John wrote. It’s in the KJV, the verse numbers we have are based on it, and so, if you’re reading along in John in any type of more modern translation, it’s gonna go verse 1, 2, 3, and then 5. It’s gonna skip verse 4 it seems. There’s not even gonna be a 4 in the text most likely. It’s just gonna go from 3 to 5, because verse 4 is not original, but we’re stuck with the numbers from verses that aren’t even in the original manuscripts.
That’s another downside often to having verse numbers, is that they’re based on verses that don’t exist, that aren’t really in scripture. But here’s the biggest point and this is the most important one, we could quibble over the previous ones and that would be fine, but here’s the largest concern with verse numbers, and once again I’m not saying we should get rid of them or you should only read a Reader’s Bible, that’s not what I’m saying, I’m simply saying we need to know the limitations so that we can address them and work through them and not fall into the traps they bring.
3. Verse Numbers Lead to Decreased Comprehension
The largest consideration for why verse numbers are a downside, are that they allow us to forget context. Remember, the original documents were not written with our current chapter divisions or with our current verse divisions. So, someone has broken up the text for us and obviously the breaks for both chapters and verses affect how we read. How often do we say, “Well, I’m gonna start my bible reading and I’m gonna read a chapter a day.” That letter, that book, that ancient historical document may not have originally been written with those chapter divisions in mind. In fact, several of them aren’t, where the thought actually continues verses into the next chapter, in order to understand the full thought. You might stop prematurely if you only read based on chapter divisions. You might stop prematurely in a thought or even go too far in a thought if you read based on that verse division.
Sometimes verses span multiple sentences. Sometimes multiple sentences have multiple verses in them. And so, we need to be aware of this. But, here’s what often happens. Just like a legal code, where you can cite, paragraph five, subsection C, and go straight to that and read that sentence and think you understand a very specific law, people take that approach with scripture to their detriment. So, it’s very easy to say, “Well, this thing has number, it’s its own statement, that can stand on its own.” We often think, even implicitly and that’s the danger, we make the assumption that it’s got a number, we can just pull this sentence out and it’s almost like an absolute truth. And that’s false.
So, for instance, a very popular verse might be verse 11 of a certain chapter in Jeremiah, that says, “The Lord says, I am preparing to bring disaster on you, I’m preparing to punish you.” No wait, that’s probably not the verse 11 in Jeremiah you thought I was gonna talk about. You probably thought I was gonna talk about Jeremiah 29:11, not Jeremiah 18:11. And Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know what I have planned for you says the Lord. I’ve plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope.” Now, why do we pick that verse out and put it on mugs and shirts and mission statements and cling to it in tough times, but not the other verse? They’re both verses, they’re both sentences in our bible, or multiple sentences in our bible, why do we pick one and not the other?
And, what I would say to you, and we should spend a lot more time on this than we are, but is we like the first one. And the fact that it’s a verse makes it think that we can do that. We totally forget the fact that without the verse numbers we’d be much less likely to pull that out and hold on to that, bleeding and dying outside of its context. Because if we go back just a few verses in chapter 29, we see that the Lord of heaven, the God of Israel is saying this to those who were sent into exile to Babylon from Jerusalem. The you in verse 29:11, the plans I have for you, that you refers to the people that were sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. That is not you and that is not me. We are not Jews, we are not under the old covenant, we were not sent into captivity, so that verse was not spoken to us.
But it’s really easy to forget that, when we just look at verse numbers or individual verses and just pull them out. Like of course I can pull it out, it’s got a number. Like a book on a shelf with the Dewey Decimal system or an ISBN number. Anything that’s individually addressed today, we think can stand on its own. And that’s not the case. Verses find life and meaning in their context. And, when we only think in terms of verse numbers we’re likely to miss that.
Now, there are far too many examples to spend time just listing them all today. Seriously, if you start about thinking about reading contextually and trying to ignore verse numbers or chapter markers, you’ll be surprised at how much you actually start to understand more than you did before.
But here’s another one. Historically, in the history of the church, the sin of Sodom has been sexual immorality, specifically homosexuality. That has been the historical understanding of the church with regards to why Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. But now, some revisionists want to say that the actual sin of Sodom was inhospitality. Now, you could take a moment and say, “Okay, would God really destroy two cities for not being hospitable?” I mean, inhospitality would be a sin, but really two cities? Now, I mean he’s God, and he can punish sin if he wants to, but how do they base that? Well, they go to Ezekiel 16:49. Once again, a verse number.
And, they’re gonna say, “This is what 16:49 says about Sodom and Gomorrah.” And he’s what the verse says, “See here, this was the inequity, the sin of your sister Sodom. She and her daughters had majesty, abundance of food and enjoyed carefree ease, but they did not help the poor and needy.” See? That was why Sodom was destroyed they would say. And they quoted a verse. It’s a verse and we think, “Oh, they quoted that verse, that must be why verses stand on their own, they’re self-contained thoughts.” We implicitly believe, but that’s not true. Because let’s keep reading. Remember, there’s no actual verse division there that should lead us to stop.
The next “verse” says, “They were haughty and practiced abominable deeds before me. Therefore, when I saw it, I removed them.” Now, we could go on and talk about other reasons to believe that the sin of Sodom was sexual immorality, specifically homosexuality. Jude, reflecting on Sodom and Gomorrah says, “That they were judged because of their sexual immorality and the pursuit of strange flesh,” in other words, flesh that was against God’s design in nature, but we immediately see here when we read just a sentence further, and we don’t stop at a verse division, that the sin of Sodom was more than just inhospitality, they practiced abominable deeds. Now you might ask, “Well, what is an abomination in God’s eyes?” Well, thankfully the old testament log tells us that. There’s several things that are said to be abominations. One of which is when a man lies with another man as he would with a woman. But you see here, we might not understand the point being made and how it’s incorrect if we only read a single verse.
Instead of realizing that there was no original division there, we should just keep reading to see how the author makes his point. This happens all the time. This happens so many times, even in the new testament. We’ll talk about how, “Oh well Jesus loved the whole world,” some people will say, so he’s not gonna judge anyone quoting maybe John 3:16, and they don’t realize that if they just read a verse or two later, it would already say that everyone is already under condemnation because they haven’t believed in Christ. Jesus didn’t come to condemn them, he came to save them because they’re already under condemnation. And if they don’t place their faith in him they will remain under condemnation.
So, verses allow us to miss out on the context. Now, once again, they’re very helpful, but we need to know of those liabilities. We need to learn to think contextually and in the literary flow and not allow ourselves to have our understanding kind of hijacked or cut short by only stopping at verse and chapter divisions. If you’re doing your daily bible reading, and it’s chapter based, read a little into the next chapter to see if you shouldn’t in fact stop where the chapter ended. Maybe the thought continues. And, even if the thought did somewhat stop at the end of the chapter you read, still, start reading that chapter a little bit towards to end to pick up before your next reading the next day, because chapter two in a book relies on chapter one. And, chapter three relies on chapter two. We must learn to think contextually and not just stop and allow our understanding to be interrupted by verse numbers.
So, I hope this has been helpful, I hope it helps you think about the bible differently, and when anyone tells you, “Hey, well that’s what this verse says,” don’t think you understand a verse unless you’ve read it in its context.
As Greg Koukl, who’s kind of been like a long-distance mentor of mine likes to say, “Don’t read a bible verse.” Read the verse in its context if you want to understand what a verse means, read at least a paragraph, likely at least a chapter, but you might need to read a whole book to understand what the author’s point is and how he uses those terms. You can’t take shortcuts to understanding God’s word. Understanding how verse numbers play into that is certainly a part of it.