High Fructose Scripture
Is verse-by-verse bible teaching nutritious?

There are many dangers in ministry. Jesus warned about the yeast of the Pharisees. Paul warned about engaging foolish controversies. But what about enumerated chapters and verses in the Bible-are those numbers added by editors a threat to sound teaching? John Dunham from the International Bible Society addresses their unexpected impact.

What was the last thing you ate? If it came from a package, you could probably scan down the list of ingredients and find high fructose corn syrup. What is that stuff anyway? Suffice it to say, it's a readily available, cheap substance that makes food taste good. A manufacturer's dream. But is it good for you? Does it harm you? Think for a moment how ubiquitous this stuff is. We take for granted that our food will have high fructose corn syrup, so we eat it without a second thought.

You know what else is like that? The chapters and verses in the Bible. What was the last Scripture passage you read? While you were reading, you probably encountered various numbers strewn throughout. If you had seen those numbers in any other book, it would have seemed odd. But chapter and verse numbers have become part of the fabric of the Bible over the last few centuries. Are these numbers good for you? Will they harm your Bible reading? Chapter and verse markings have become ubiquitous, and people rarely stop to question the ramifications of their inclusion in the sacred text.

So why do we have them anyway? Chapter numbers were first added to the Bible in the 1200s to facilitate the process of reading Scripture publicly. The breaks were inserted to make the readings approximately the same length. Verse numbers entered in the 1500s in order to help scholars locate specific phrases as they worked in the burgeoning field of biblical commentary.

These additions to the text came from good motives, and were undoubtedly helpful to the people who used them for the reasons above. But are they helpful in all the ways we use them today? It's not like they are an inspired part of the text. There were, in fact, various number systems developed for Scripture. (Did you know that one version of Matthew had 68 chapters?) But once a particular system became standardized, we never looked back. Chapters and verses were here to stay.

Some people have recognized the deleterious effects of these numbers over the last few generations. (See for instance The Message or The Bible to Be Read as Living Literature.) Sometimes sentences are broken in unnatural places. Verse numbers cause oral readers to insert breaks where none was intended. And perhaps worst of all, the story of God and his creation becomes chopped into little bits as "God's Owner's Manual for Life" or "Bible Promises for Expectant Mothers Named Cathy." People naturally look to their favorite verses to provide comfort or instruction without regard to the author's point in the surrounding context. Similarly, chapters tell me where to stop reading, sometimes at the most inopportune times.

June 05, 2007

Displaying 1–10 of 27 comments


June 29, 2007  1:29pm

What bugs me is some of the arguments that people are making here, that go something like this: "How are pastors/preachers supposed to teach without the chapters and verses? How are people supposed to follow along? etc." What did teachers do BEFORE there were chapters and verses? What did teachers do BEFORE there was the printing press and everyone had their own copy? I think this is one of the author's points: We are SO entrenched in the way we currently read/teach scripture that we can't even fathom that it could ever have been and different. Or that it could ever be different again... THIS is the positive side to Deconstructionism, "glenn krobel", it's tearing away and exposing the things that people are unable to recognize as just that: TRADITIONS and not absolutes. You're right that when we deconstruct, there must be something else to go to. But there is always going to be that uncomfortable time (now!) in between where we were, and where we're going...

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June 22, 2007  12:19am

I also get frustrated with Ch & v numbers - why not just print them in the margin beside the text rather than within the text itself? However what bugs me more than Ch & v numbers is the added 'headings' to passages every few verses. These hinder the ability of scripture to talk to the reader by 'prescribing' the topic - but every modern translation has them. Oh for a good translation that was just the words of scripture with a really decent margin to write notes in

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Johnny Brooks

June 18, 2007  3:04am

This is why I grew to love The Message by Eugene Peterson. I was finally able to read the text without unnatural breaks in it. Though I admit I had to purchase The Message Remixed with the verse numbers included. The whole chapter and verse thing is so ingrained in me that I just cannot imagine removing it. I do try to read the whole thought at once and try to keep the "big picture" in mind when reading.

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Inyang Iboro

June 13, 2007  11:27pm

Good writeup.I'm aware that verses have a way of giving the whole message a new meaning,or cutting it short.take for example, a promise followed by a condition.most people read and memorize the promises forgetting that there's a condition attached to it. But on the other hand,i think verses make teaching easy.you cant teach someone the word from a chapter with 63or more verses and then u read the whole thing,u'll bore the person,and sometimes not everything said in a chapter will apply to u,it might just be a sentence turning out to be a verse.i understand chuck's aguement,but i dont see anything wrong with chapters and verses.

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Godwin Tom

June 08, 2007  7:56am

This is a great article! i'm loving it man. I bought a Bible calledt he message remix (its something different from the King James version-really different). It is fun to read and there are less verses. trust me u flow when u read the Bible without interuptions. Like verses. lol!

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Kelvin Lawrence

June 08, 2007  1:57am

I am just happy that this whole issue is being highlighted. Lack of mindfulness in using chap. and verse can have an adverse effect on the literary integrity of the text under consideration and its interpretation thereof. So does referring to epistles, which are in fact letters, as books. I don't know about anyone else but I read something I label a book and something I call a letter very differently. Think about the last time you eavesdropped on a tele-conversation ... Of course, let's not forget the undiscerning use of the phrase "Word of God". More often than not, when this phrase appears in the NT - your usual suspects like Ephesians (chp.6), 2 Timothy(other than chp. 3) or John 1 - it does not refer to scriptures. Nor does Psalm 119 speak about the "Bible"; it probably only refers to the Torah. The people of God should be made more aware of the lenses/assumptions(in terms of form) that we bring to the study of scriptures. It decidedly affects our interpretations ... Hopefully, such awareness will make us aware of some habitual pitfalls along with the realization that this is an ongoing battle. As for a pure, pristine and untainted (not to forget the more imflamatory "inerrant" and "infallible") text,... nuf' said ... God continues to remain bigger that this and every other possible/potential/actual distortion to our historical faith, and it is he who upholds us and leads us into all truth through his Spirit. And because of this, we should be aware of all infelicities/shortcomings and depend on GOd as never before ...

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glenn krobel

June 07, 2007  11:06am

This article is typical of the deconstructionist mindset so prevalent amongst many Christians today. No responsible preacher is ignorant of the limitations of the chapter and verse divisions in the Scriptures. We understand context and the importance of telling the whole story as the biblical authors and the Holy Spirit intended. The problem with this type of critique is that it fails to propose a better alternative. Criticizing traditional exegetical/devotional helps (such as Bible chapter and verse divisions) without proposing a more accurate way is not helpful. There are too many Christians in ministry today who thrive off attacking our heritage without offering a solutions to problems they address.

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June 07, 2007  11:05am

Is the division of verses and chapters really the reason for people not gaining an understanding of the bible? My experience is that people have been taught that 10 minutes a day will make the devil go away. This is much more detrimental to biblical understanding. My experiences is that the vast majority of believers in Christ spend little if any time reading the bible at all. My experiences is that we have conditioned people to come to church to be fed instead of teaching them to feed themselves. I don't think this is much if any issue at all.

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Tami Martin

June 06, 2007  4:25pm

Centuries of fruitful ministries would suggest that your thinking is erroneous.

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Mark Goodyear

June 06, 2007  4:17pm

Like John M. I try to memorize passages in context rather than just individual verses. It helps prevent me from using Scriptures like bits of fortune cookie wisdom. Or worse, little magical sayings that I use to ward off evil. Not that I think memory verses work this way for everyone! I like the chapter/verse system overall, though I think it often gets used to "proof text."

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