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:
- They tend to interrupt larger units of discourse, introducing discontinuity where there wasn’t any.
- 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.
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.