Why does the Bible have verse numbers?

Continuing the discussion from How do you understand the census in Luke 2?:

According to Peter Williams’ research, published by Tyndale House,

It was around 1440, shortly before Johannes Gutenberg began printing his Latin Bible — the first printed book in history — that Rabbi Isaac Nathan ben Kalonymus completed a concordance of the Old Testament with verse numbers every fifth verse. This is probably the first use of verse numbers.

Robert Estienne (also known as Robertus Stephanus) was the first to introduce something like our current verse number system into the New Testament…It was probably there, in 1551, that he published a Greek New Testament which for the first time contained verse divisions like ours today.

Estienne appears to be the person who most shaped the use of verse numbers:

After first appearing in his Greek and Latin New Testament in 1551, the verse numbers were then included in Estienne’s Latin and French New Testament in 1552. In 1553 he printed a complete French Bible with verse numbers and in 1555 a whole Latin Bible with verse numbers. Verse numbers were then taken up in the English translations, the Geneva New Testament of 1557 and the Geneva Bible of 1560, which became the Bible of the English Puritans, including the early Puritan settlers in America. From then on verse divisions have been present in nearly every translation, whether in English or any other modern language.

However, their original function was different than how we use them today:

Estienne produced a three-column edition with the Greek text set in the middle of two Latin translations…Verse numbers were first used to aid comparison between these different texts , not to help read a single text.

One point Dr. Williams makes is that the absence of numbered verses does not mean the absence of structure. He points out that the various sections of Psalm 119 are structured according to the Hebrew alphabet.

If I can attempt an analogy, the absence of clocks does not mean the absence of time. Even if we can’t say “11 am in the morning” because no clocks exist to give us the notion of “11 am” we can still say “in the morning” or “a little bit before lunch” and so on.

As we read the Scriptures, what’s important is that we discern the logical and grammatical structure of the original text. To do so, I often find removing the chapter and verse references helpful when studying a particular passage. At the same time, I will reference those markers to make it easier for others to know what passage I am discussing. So I might say, “Let’s look at John 3:1-20” but then shy away from referencing verse numbers in discussing the passage.

To the degree that these artificial divisions bring clarity, I think they’re helpful. It’d be awful to try and get everyone to Psalm 56 if we couldn’t number them! But when they get in the way of reading the text on its own terms, I recommend ignoring them.

I’m curious to learn from others. What do you think about chapter and verse references in the Bible?

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