Monday, April 14, 2008

On the Origins of Verse and Chapter Divisions

Scroll Jar for the Qumran Biblical Texts

In the last few months I've received emails asking about the origins and reasonings behind the Bible's verse and chapter divisions. Sometimes these divisions make little sense, e.g., chapter 2 of Genesis sure seems to start a bit too early. For one good link introducing verse and chapter divisions and enumerations as "latecomers" in the manuscripts of Scripture, click here (PDF file). [Note: Most scholarly discussions are not really clear on why Jewish Bible and Christian Bible chapter divisions sometimes differ, usually by about one verse. The answer seems to be that when Salomon ben Ishmael took over the divisions from Stephen Langton's Vulgate system in 1330 he made some adjustments, perhaps sometimes accidently and sometimes with good reason.] The bottom line: don't place much weight at all on verse and chapter divisions in interpreting the Bible.


The copies of Scripture from BCE times had no verse enumerations. Scholars keep their places in such texts by numbering the lines of text and referring to line numbers. If you have a moment follow this link (click here) to an image of the great Isaiah scroll of Qumran, showing Isaiah 43-44 (give the image a few moments to load). You'll notice numbers in the far margins (1, 5, 10, etc.) added by the modern commentator to help keep track of lines. Interestingly, sometimes spaces in the text set apart lines of poetry (bicola) and verses. But, if you look at line 9, verse 44:3 and 44:4 clearly seem to run together. In line 10 as well, v. 4 and v. 5 appear to run together. However, some natural strophe (i.e. stanza) divisions of the poem do appear marked by extra space between lines. Thus, in line 11 a lot of extra space is left after v. 5 ends, so that Isaiah 44:6 (which begins a new strophe, or a new poem) starts on its own new line. This sort of information is interesting, as it gives us a window into how ancient interpreters at Qumran understood the poetic structure of this text!

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