Back in grade school, a theology teacher of mine had a favorite expression: “Never read a Bible verse. Always read the context.”
It was our tongue-in-cheek joke at the arbitrary placement of verses and the subtle way it seemed to make each one into stand-alone text. More recently, however, I wondered if we shouldn’t take verses any more seriously than the joke implies.
It is, I think, relatively uncontroversial to say that American Christians don’t read the Bible as much as they should. While multiple factors are surely responsible for this, I think that the division of Scripture text into verses significantly contributes. This is mostly speculating, but I find it a persuasive speculation.
The posture that most contemporary Americans take to reading involves looking at the work as a continuous narrative and reading through it in anticipation of a resolution. Parts of the Bible simply aren’t narrative, and much of the narrative has, on the surface level of the plot, been “spoiled.”
Verses are nonetheless a problem because, whatever other unique traits the inspired Word of God has, one that Man has unnecessarily imposed on it is interspersing numbers through text.
No other work that men read is printed such that every two or three sentences your eye is interrupted with numbers. Line numbers clutter pages of poetry, but those editors at least have the decency to slip them into the margins rather than to stick them into the text, measuring it out as though with a meter stick.
While it is good that Scripture is unique, in this respect the difference between it and all other literature is an unnecessary stumbling block for people who are perhaps inclined to read it but not zealous. It is unfamiliar and bothers the human mind, which is fond of the familiar and comfortable.
More serious than that, though, is that verses lends their reading to segmentation. With every verse neatly partitioned off from the rest of the book, reading can be neatly limited to extraordinarily small sections of text. This is harmful, I believe, in two ways.
First, the separation obstructs the reader’s mind from seeing the book as a cohesive unit, a flowing text that is neatly interwoven and meaningful as a whole.
Second, they threaten to cut short any session spent reading the Bible by incessantly offering a sensible stopping place. Sustained reading of the text is fought by the text.
Both of these dangers come together in something that happened at my college not long ago. A class translating the letter to the Romans came to a place in chapter 7 where the paragraph division between 7:6 and 7:7 was exaggerated and “The Problem of Indwelling Sin” had been inserted by an editor.
The professor said something to the effect of, “Now, the little heading here might obscure the connection between these two paragraphs, so, when you’ve translated up to it, you might think to yourself, Here’s a good place to take a break, and then close your book and go and eat a cookie, but . . .” and he proceeded to explain the close relationship between the two paragraphs. This was about a heading rather than verses, but I think that the principle is illustrated just the same.
Segmentation, however, may be even more insidious. When I suggested the thought of some consensus to do away with verses to one friend, he mentioned how useful having verses is, “if you want to refer to something.” Right though he is, I think that this is another danger in having numbers (and arbitrary ones at that) running through our text:
Verses train us to think of the Bible as a reference book. This danger, especially, I think, for those who grew up with a Bible in their homes, leads to the Bible being used not as a real text but as a reference book where discrete entries are cited.
We pull the Bible off the shelf primarily to look up specific lines. A culture where theological differences are prevalent exacerbates this, ironically. Moreover, those who make the best use of the Bible by arguing responsibly from it seem to cultivate this attitude most.
This leaves the question of how people are to respond to this. Restandardizing a biblical reference system (say, for instance, instituting one that marks the meaningful divisions of paragraphs) would be impractical, a wish for greater ecumenism than the Church has shown in ages.
Merely being aware of the problem I consider to be an unsatisfactory solution; our minds still by force of habit fight against needing to skip our eyes over numbers in text and thinking of the compact volume, bound with the thinnest of pages, laden with double columns of small text and no margins, as another reference book.
More people should consider reading from Bibles that simply omit verse divisions. Even this simple step – a mere omission – would help people understand the Bible as an integral, cohesive work.