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Chapters and Verses (pt. 2)

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In our last post we noted that chapters and verses were not original to the biblical books.  There were structures in place like acrostics (in Psalms and Lamentations) and there were superscriptions (in Psalms) which clearly indicated breaks but most books of the Bible were written without them.  Chapters and verses were added in the late middle ages to make it easier for people to find a particular passage.  It is much easier to say, “turn to John 3:16” than to say “find the passage where the Scripture talks about God’s love for the world leading to everlasting life for all who believe.” papyrus rolls

Many of the chapter and verse breaks are useful but some seem to get in the way, break the flow of thought, and can cause us to misread the text.  We will consider a couple of those in the next post.

First, let me tell what we did in the Voice project.  Since the chapter and verse divisions are not original, rather than let artificial divisions dictate the structure we removed the chapter and verse numbers in many books as we were translating the text.  We didn’t want artificial structures to influence our retelling.  Once the translation was done we went back and put them in to make public reading possible.  In some cases that decision meant that the verse numbers are not always consecutive.  For example, in Matthew 2 verse fifteen follows verse eighteen:

14 So Joseph got up in the middle of the night; he bundled up Mary and Jesus, and they left for Egypt.

16 After a few months had passed, Herod realized he’d been tricked. The wise men were not coming back. Herod, of course, was furious. He simply ordered that all boys who lived in or near Bethlehem and were two years of age and younger be killed. He knew the baby King was this age because of what the wise men told him.

17 This sad event had long been foretold by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 A voice will be heard in Ramah,
weeping and wailing and mourning out loud all day and night.
The voice is Rachel’s, weeping for her children,
her children who have been killed;
she weeps, and she will not be comforted.[b]

15 Joseph, Mary, and Jesus stayed in Egypt until Herod died. This fulfilled yet another prophecy. The prophet Hosea once wrote, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”

When verses are out of sequence, we put a footnote in to tell why.   It doesn’t happen often but it does happen a few times.

More often, it means that we combine certain verses because the content of those verses go together in a way that does not disrupt the narrative flow.  For example, Act 27:33 and 37 are combined into the same paragraph.

33, 37 We wait. Just before dawn, Paul again gathers everyone on the ship—all 276 of us. He urges everyone to eat and encourages us not to lose hope.

Well, I can hear someone ask: why didn’t we retain the original chapters and verses?  Because, they aren’t original.  They were added in the 13th to the 16th centuries—more than 1000 years after the Scriptures were written–by well meaning scholars and publishers.

Today most translation committees attempt to structure the biblical materials in paragraph form like other modern books.  Paragraphs are sense units that set out a distinct section of a writing usually around a single theme or subject.  We show paragraphs by indenting the first by 3 or 4 spaces.  Visually that sets the paragraph apart.  Some translations, like the New American Standard, format every verse into a paragraph.  But since that practice makes it hard for readers to understand the sense units and since chapters and verses are artificial divisions, most modern translations have abandoned that kind of approach.

In the end every translation is an interpretation.  Every chapter number, every verse number, every paragraph is an interpretive decision made by someone when the translation is being prepared.  Next time we’ll consider how chapters and verses can cause us to misread a text.

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