Where did verses come from

Iyov has been posting on the Geneva Bible. This is the first English Bible to divide the text into the present versification. However, Iyov then writes,

But even if the verse division was more of a hindrance than a help, a main achievement of the Geneva was translating from the original, for the first time in English, the major poetic books of the Bible. In those books, the verse division gained more than it lost. Not only did it lend greater clarity to poetic parallelism, but it gave impetus to the English biblical tradition of resonant obscurity.

I aknowledge that Iyov is expressing the majority opinion. However, my contention is that every Bible is a translation from the text that the translators are most familiar with in their own minds. In this case, it is still the Latin text that the translators of the Geneva Bible were most familiar with and depended on. The image shows the Robert Etienne 1551 text which was widely used by translators. (Click on the image to enlarge.) The Greek is flanked by the Vulgate and Erasmus Latin translation.

This is the book to which we are indebted for our custom of quoting the Bible by chapter and verse. It is the first division of the Bible into verses.

The reason for the development is probably an accident of the format. This book has three separate texts of the Bible: the Greek is set in the middle of each page, next to Erasmus’s Latin and the Vulgate Latin. It appears that the need to provide a basis for cross-references and comparison gave birth to the idea.

Printing three columns in such small format may very well have influenced the development of verse divisions. The tiny format of this book, which is in sextodecimo, may have suggested the idea of setting off each sentence as an indented paragraph. Indenting each sentence in small format—a style we see in some newspaper articles—is aesthetically compatible with narrow columns since it breaks up the rectangularity of the textblocks. This system of indentation may have suggested, as well, the enumeration. The numbers are much less forbidding at the beginning of indentations than they would be if they were set in relatively rapid succession throughout solid textblocks.

One earlier book that may have inspired the insertion of verse markings was the Psalterium Quincuplex, printed by Robert Estienne in 1509. The Psalms had traditional verse divisions, but in this version Estienne numbered them, no doubt in order to make cross-references between the five versions of the text easier. Santi Pagnini’s Bible translation of 1528 also had numerical markers throughout the text, but his divisions did not catch on. He divided the first chapter of Matthew, for example, into forty-nine units.

This is one of the first books that Estienne printed in Geneva after fleeing Paris in fear of censure from the Sorbonne. Geneva had become an intellectual haven for biblical philology under the inspiration of John Calvin. Estienne did become a Calvinist. In a controversial, eleventh-hour codicil to his will, he even bequeathed a tidy sum to support the efforts of the Geneva Academy, an important institution in the history of the Reformed Church.

I would like to study this matter further, so my remarks on this matter are somewhat speculative, as is often noted by my cobloggers.

PS: I am still checking for more detail on versification in the OT. More here where Etienne is cited as ” Stephanus.”

Update: The 1551 edition in the image was the NT only. Stephanus published the Latin Vulgate with versification in 1555 adding numbers to the “sof pasuk” divisions of the Masoretic tradition. The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to reflect these divisions. See Iyov’s series on the Geneva Bible.

6 thoughts on “Where did verses come from

  1. Bill says:

    Thanks, Suzanne (& Iyov). I remember feeling surprised at age 18 when Plato & Aristotle had "verse numbers" like the Bible. Somehow I'd thought nothing of Shakespeare & Milton being numbered by lines, but whatever.

    I've heard different versions of the NT versification story, but to this day I've yet to research when all these other texts got "verses". For example, let's say… the entire Loeb Classical Library!?!

    Does anyone know when other (non-poetic) ancient texts besides the Bible got 'verse numbers'?

  2. Iyov says:

    The Etienne 1551 text was only a New Testament. Of course, all of the the poetic books of the Bible are in the Hebrew Bible, and the Hebrew Bible was already divided up into verses.

  3. Suzanne McCarthy says:


    You are right that 1551 was only the new testament. In 1555 Stephanus (Etienne) published the entire Vulgate with verse divisions.

    Then, in 1555, Robert Estienne (usually known as Stephanus) divided the entire Latin Vulgate Bible into verses using the Langton chapters.

    However, in 1560, the year following the death of Stephanus, the Geneva Bible became the first English translation divided into chapters and verses. Even Jewish scholars came to accept these divisions and followed suit by dividing the Hebrew Scriptures accordingly. However, the Jewish order was preserved, as always. Even though these divisions into chapters and verses provide much convenience for those who study and reference the Scriptures, as a rule of thumb, one should ignore these when studying the Bible as these artificial divisions sometimes interfere with the sense of continuity in understanding certain scriptural accounts.

    As my second link explains,

    It was Robert Stephanus, a Parisian book printer, whose versification of the Bible has prevailed to the present. He took over the verse divisions already indicated in the Hebrew Bible by the soph pasuq and assigned numbers to them within the chapter divisions already assigned by Stephan Langton.

    So the first quote seems to have it wrong. Stephanus only added numbers to the divisions marked already by the soph pasuq.

    I am just trying to show that the translators into English were usually working with the support of Latin in some way.

    I will edit my post but does this make sense now?

  4. Iyov says:

    I understand what you are trying to say.

    But the direction of my post was quite different, talking about the literary qualities of the Geneva as a work in English. My point was (in brief) that the Geneva was the first work to translate poetic books from the original (which is true in any case): Tyndale didn’t translate the poetic books and Coverdale translated them from Latin. The Geneva translated them Hebrew, but more to the point, by using versification, they translated them as poetry. This was a watershed development in Bible translation, one that we take for granted today.

  5. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    Yes, I agree that I took your discussion in a different direction to serve my own interests and therefore distracted from your main point. I went off on a tangent of my own. My apologies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s