The Holy Bible is the world’s most well-known book, read by billions throughout history and reaching far and wide to every corner of the world. It is also the number one best seller, with five billion plus copies sold and distributed. As Catholics, it is ubiquitous in our daily lives. We read it often at home and in Mass, hold Bible studies, and likely own more than one. Being as commonplace as it is, it’s strange that we probably never even thought of the question. How did the Bible become divided into its chapters and verses?
The Bible and New Testament we have all come to know and love was not always the same as we read today. During the infancy of the Church, the New Testament was gradually developed as early Church fathers agreed upon which texts to include during the canonization process. However, during that process, they decided which books were to be included, but not a standardized division of them into chapters. The Bible would not be divided into chapters until the 13th century. Prior to that, raw scrolls of the Bible were divided simply with a blank space either in the middle or end of the text to demarcate the end of a specific portion of it.
In the 13th century, both Archbishop Langton and Cardinal Hugh of Saint-Cher independently developed systematic divisions of the Latin Vulgate of the Bible. Their systems were based on the blank spaces in the Hebrew text, called petuhoth or setumoth, Hebrew for “open portion” and “closed portion.” Langton’s system eventually became more widespread and incorporated into newly scribed Bibles, giving us the chapters we see today.
In the early years of the sixteenth century, the first person to include verses in printings of the Bible was Dominican biblical scholar Santes Pagnino, a sacred orator for Pope Leo X. However, his system failed to gain widespread adoption. In the year 1551, Robert Estienne, a printer and biblical scholar, created a different system of verses in his publication of the Greek New Testament. Two years later, he used the same system in his printing of a French translation of the Bible. Originally, the verses were written into the margins. However, in 1555 he was the first to produce a printing of the Latin Vulgate with the verses directly in the text.
Five years later, the Geneva Bible, the first complete English Bible was produced with verses. Today, we still use the very same system of chapters and verses as created over 400 years ago.