Chapters, verses and titles in the Bible

Chapters, verses and titles in the Bible

For a new believer, the way the Bible is laid out is a little confusing. Many expect that it is like a novel, that you start at the beginning and read through to the end. There are, however, all kinds of numbers and divisions in the Bible that need a little explaining.

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The Bible has 66 different books in it, 39 in the Old Testament (the bit leading up to Jesus coming to earth as a man) and 27 in the New Testament (the bit covering Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection and what followed in the time of the apostles). These are made up of books written at different times by different people, though all of it is the Word of God.

Historically, sometimes the books were arranged in different orders, such as the Hebrew Bible having three main sections, including the law, the prophets and the writings. This meant that the Hebrew Bible has some books in different orders to our modern Bibles, but the actual content is the same. The Old Testament that Christians value is the same, word for word, as the Scriptures which our Jewish friends value.

There are some books that are numbered 1 and 2 in the Old Testament, such as 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings. These were likely originally the same book, but because they were so long, they needed more than one scroll to hold them. Books numbered 1 or 2 or 3 in the New Testament refer to different letters written by the same person, such as Paul to the Corinthians or the letters of the apostle John.

The chapter divisions in the books of the Bible

When the original writers wrote their books that ended up being part of the Bible, they didn’t use chapter divisions. They were solid text from beginning to end, often not even using punctuation as we use today. (In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures didn’t include vowels either, with competent readers simply inserting them as they read the Bible aloud).

It is easier, however, for groups of people referring to the same Bible to know where to turn to. To that end, each Bible book was divided into chapters by Stephen Langton, an archbishop of Canterbury, in around 1227AD. Sometimes the divisions seem to be in the wrong place, with a single verse that belongs with the previous section starting a new chapter, for example. Remember that these chapters were not in the original and were intended to be something to help us locate passages quickly; they are not perfect.

The verse divisions within the chapters

Dividing into chapters was useful, but it became clear that some chapters were also quite long. The Old Testament was divided into verses in 1448AD by a Jewish rabbi named Nathan. The New Testament was divided into standard verses in 1555AD by Robert Estienne.

The editorial headings above different sections

Most Bible translations use the same chapter and verse divisions, but what is different is the headings provided for different sections. Often a chapter will have a heading inserted above it that gives a sense of what it is about; in places like the gospels, there are commonly several headings per chapter. These are provided by whoever publishes that particular Bible. They are intended to be guidelines, but sometimes they are misleading, and sometimes they give the reader the idea that a new heading means a new thought or section. Remember that these headings are not part of the inspired word of God.

Personally, when I prepare sermons or read the Bible for myself, I use a version that has no headings at all included. This means I am not directed to think a certain section is about ‘this’ when it might be about ‘that’.

Tips for the public reading of the Bible

When reading the Bible in public, make use of the chapters and verses to direct your listeners to the starting point. If there is a standard church Bible, use the page numbers too. But don’t read the headings out when you read; just skip them as if they were not there, for in the original they were absent.