Dissection Headings

I started a discussion on my Lingamish blog about “those nefarious section titles in your bible.” The topic has been picked up by Tim Bulkeley and also Henry Neufeld. John Hobbins goes so far as to say he despises all section headings in Bibles.

What’s the big deal? Why do people get so upset about these helpful titles?

I think there are two main reasons:

  1. They tend to interrupt larger units of discourse, introducing discontinuity where there wasn’t any.
  2. They tend to misidentify what a passage is really about.

Here is a sure sign that you have a “dissection” problem: If the paragraph after the title begins with a connecting word like, so, therefore, or then, you can be certain that this passage is meant to be read with the previous one.

Now back in the good old days of English Bibles the verse numbers were in the margins. And the section titles were in the header. Here’s a picture of my nice old pocket Bible published in 1861 by the American Bible Society. Each verse begins a new paragraph which is not ideal. But I do like the titles in the header. Also, this Bible has a summary at the beginning of each chapter of the contents. If you’re familiar with novels from this era you’ll know that this was a common practice at the time.

1861 bible detail

Notice the summaries under each chapter heading. They even give verse references for the various sections. There is an important difference between the Bible and Tom Jones or Three Men in a Boat. The authors of these novels chose the chapter divisions in their books and even chose the section titles or summaries. Not so with the Bible. As Tim notes, with the exception of the titles given for Psalms we have few if any examples of section titles in the Bible. This makes me think about the lowly comma. And the period. And even the dreadful semicolon (for those that can’t decide). The ancients manuscripts had no punctuation. Sometimes there weren’t even spaces between the words. But there existed other means of signaling relations between clauses in a sentence and also in beginning and ending stories or sections of an epistle. They are there if you know what to look for but they very seldom match up with the section, chapter and verse indications.

Here’s something for you to try. Open your Bible at random. Find the first section title on the page. In the comments share the section title and verse reference and then let’s discuss whether it is a section or a dissection. And for those of you responding, make use of the “Reply” link at the bottom of each comment so that we can use threaded comments to keep things organized. I’ve started things out with this page from Song of Solomon.

18 thoughts on “Dissection Headings

  1. David Ker says:

    “The beloved setteth forth the graces of the bride”
    Solomon’s Song 4:1
    There’s definitely a break here. The previous section was addressed to the daughters of Zion while 4:1 begins a section with the beloved speaking to the bride.

    If you want to comment on this section heading hit the reply button. Otherwise, use the box at the bottom to start a new thread. (Yeah, I know I’m being geeky, but just humor me)

  2. Tiffany says:

    “Nehemiah’s Final Reforms”
    Nehemiah 13:1 (NIV)
    I don’t think there is a break here. The first three words are “On that day”. The previous section is about the dedication of the wall in Jerusalem and this section in ch. 13 keeps on talking about it.

  3. David Ker says:

    Excellent.

    That “so” in 12:47 makes me think that a section is being closed or summarized. So(!) there is a change of topic here from what was being talked about in 12. Maybe like Bob’s comment above we’re seeing valid sections but within larger blocks of text.

  4. brianfulthorp says:

    Well, if one doesn’t like section headings there are plenty of Bibles out there that don’t have them – get one of those. For the Greek NT – the NA27 doesn’t have them either.

  5. Brant says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with not only section headings, but even chapter and verse divisions. These things make the Bible much easier to navigate, but, by artificially dividing the discourse, they often obscure the meaning of the text.

    How often do readers miss the startling connection between Jesus’ words in John 13:38 and 14:1?

    Jesus answered, “Die for me? I tell you the truth, Peter—before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know me. Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me….” (NLT)

  6. Paul Shaddick says:

    “The End of Joash’s Reign”
    2 Chr 24:23
    Clearly the judgement against Joash is the fulfillment of Zechariah son of Jehoidah’s prophetic curse. I wonder how many Sunday School teachers skip through this chapter and miss Joash’s involvement in his own downfall.

  7. Mike Sangrey says:

    Brant wrote:
    How often do readers miss the startling connection between Jesus’ words in John 13:38 and 14:1?

    Another is Luke 20:47 and 21:1-4. She taught the law better than those who had devoured her house.

    Given the connection to the previous paragraph, the NIV’s section heading at the beginning of the bad chapter break misses the entire point, too.

  8. David Ker says:

    Man, I can really use these examples in my exegesis class! Fantastic.

    And I think brian might be right maybe I need an edition without headings. 😉

  9. Rick Ritchie says:

    “Jesus goes to Judea” applies to Matthew 19:1-2
    “Jesus’ teaching on marriage” is then given for vss. 3-12

    This is in the Harper Study Bible (RSV) I was given for confirmation.

    I’ve been especially frustrated with section headings for Romans 13. This Bible has “Christian conduct in relation to the state.” State? I see persons mentioned, but no state. Can we abstract the teaching to that level? Perhaps. But it needs to be argued. My NIV Study Bible has “Submission to Authorities.” Better. At least more concrete. But I can still wonder how differently it might be read if the section heading were put at Romans 12:17. Perhaps “Overcoming Evil” or “Living in Peace.”

  10. Adryanna says:

    i have a bible its in italian and its from 1861…..i want to sell it…..is someone interested?

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