The earliest need to divide up the long and continuous text in scrolls or books, came through liturgy. The Jewish synagogues, meeting every sabbath, needed to divide the whole of the law (the first five scrolls) into 54 readings for the year.
A small ‘p’ (parashat = divisions) marked the weekly readings. Selections from the prophets (haftarah), to end the readings, also numbered 54, and Jesus chose one of these in Luke 4:16-19.
The early Christians added the books of the New Testament to these readings. Early on, Matthew had 68 chapters, Mark had 48, Luke had 83, and John had 18.
As time went on, liturgical division was no longer enough for reading, studying and explaining the bible. A more precise method was needed to locate words or phrases and to comment on them.
Chapters came in 13th century
The division of the bible into chapters was the work of a future Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, in 1220. He decided, while teaching at the Sorbonne in Paris, to create a division of the bible into chapters that were more or less the same length, using a new and recently corrected Latin version, the Parisian Bible.
The division was so successful that the whole University of Paris adopted it. Its acceptability was so great that Jewish scholars followed suit and accepted the divisions for their own Hebrew Bible in 1525.
Verses in the 16th
Biblical studies required even more precision, beyond chapters and into verses, in order to locate with more rapidity and exactness, desired words and phrases. An Italian Dominican, Santos Pagnino, in Lyons in 1528, began the attempt. But the glory of being the author of today’s divisions belongs to Robert Stefano, a Protestant publisher. His son tells us that his father did this work while on horseback riding from Paris to Lyons. The New Testament version came out in 1551; the whole bible in 1555.
But it didn’t all come out perfect. A curious example is Genesis 2:4 where one creation story ends (the priestly account of creation from the sixth century BCE) and another (the Yahwist account from 400 years earlier) begins.
You may find this reference being even further divided in 2:4a and 2:4b. In Isaiah 22 we have the first part of verse 8 belonging to an oracle of the prophet, while the second part is made up of a different style and tenor from 200 years later. Perhaps we can blame it on the fractious horse!
Chapters numbering 1,328 with 40,030 verses, and in original Hebrew and Greek, 773,692 words and 3,566,480 letters. Computerised, analysed to the last detail, carefully numbered, all possible studies have been done on the bible. What is lacking is that, with the same zeal, we commit ourselves to live what it teaches, and to believe what it promises.