Have We Ruined The Bible?

At the beginning of each year I have my students read Chapter 3 (“Inkblots and Puzzles”) of Scot McKnight’s The Blue Parakeet.  Without fail, the following quote provokes an interesting dialogue:

“When publishers provide a Bible where the only divisions are chapters and verses, as if each verse were a new paragraph, reading the Bible as a story is much more difficult.  Take your favorite novel or book, photocopy a page, cut out each sentence, number each sentence, and then paste them back onto a page with each number beginning at the left margin, and you’ll see the problem.  It’s much harder to read a book that way.  One has to wonder what got into the head of the publishers who started doing this.  It’s a colossal mistake.” [pg. 45-46]

McKnight’s point is that the Bible should be read as a story, despite the fact that we have often created the following “shortcuts” to reading the Bible:
Shortcut 1: Morsels of Law (reading the Bible as a rule book)
Shortcut 2: Morsels of Blessings and Promises (reading the Bible as a devotional)
Shortcut 3: Mirrors and Inkblots (reading the Bible to see our own opinions reinforced)
Shortcut 4: Puzzling Together the Pieces to Map God’s Mind (reading the Bible through a pre-determined systematic theology)
Shortcut 5: Maestros (reading the Bible with a ‘canon within a canon’ such as reading the Gospels through Pauline categories)

Along the way, McKnight makes the point that chapters and verses were added to the Bible well after it was compiled as a canon and that this decision often goes unquestioned.  He claims that this has had a negative influence on the average person’s ability to comprehend the Bible, going as far as calling it a “colossal mistake.”  For McKnight, dividing the text into verses tempts readers (and preachers) to divide the Bible up into small soundbites and lose sight of the larger literary and narrative context.  Do you agree?

How is one’s reading influenced by the addition of (sometimes arbitrary) verses & chapters?  Are there any good reasons to include verses & chapters besides making it easier to locate specific texts?  Should we get rid of the chapters & verses in our Bibles?

24 thoughts on “Have We Ruined The Bible?

  1. I agree, headings, chapters, and verses have definitely transformed our reading. Sometimes in my personal use I remove all verse and chapters and just read the text and I definitely approach it differently. For one, I find myself reading more because I don’t feel as if I completed something. Also, it helps form my own units on the text in my mind while reading. Having chapters and verses makes it very difficult to see unity in broader passages, especially the Gospels.

    Headings also have a big influence. I noticed this when I started reading my NA27, which doesn’t have headings.

    Not sure we should do without them but it would be great to have this option for the majority of reading. If it was one or the other I would probably vote for no chapters/verses


    1. Thanks for the comment, Brian. That’s a good point about headings – those play an especially important role for the younger readers I work with. I think you described one of the advantages of reading w/out these divisions well – what constitutes the feeling of completeness. I’d be fascinated to read any kind of study over the cognitive processes in play with and without all of it.

      I’m pretty sure that The Message (Peterson) doesn’t use verses. I think it does have chapters, and I’m not sure about headings. I also thought of the new “The Voice” translation which is written in an almost script-like manner (broken into narrator and speakers of dialogue – but keeps chapters and verses and headings). Do you know of any other attempts to change up the standard English publishing?


      1. That would definitely be an interesting study.

        I do not know of any publishers that have printed anything without verses or chapters. I would imagine it would be difficult for publishers to sell(?). But then again they have about every “kind” of Bible out there so it may be a possibility.


  2. I like the point Mike is making here. This is what happens when the bible is ushered into a western society that has no concern for the original context and form our canon was written in. We as Americans need to be more in tune with the way we read ancient texts,and not just the bible. I agree with Brian that if we read the bible without headings that it would defiantly change our outlook on the reading. I also like the point Mike makes about the inkblots. People interpret the bible many different ways and in many cases use it as justification to do very evil things. I don’t think that the people who are publishing the bible in English are helping this problem either. They are leaving the bible too open to interpretation. Not to say that there isn’t wisdom to be found in interpreting and discussing some of the scripture that is obscure but in many cases publishers play the role of the priests who withheld valuable information from the common people, those people being us. These publishing companies have the power to word things the way they would like people to read it. This is what happens when you mix corporate greed and the bible. Somewhere along the way it gets messed up. But that’s my take on things.
    Thanks for the post Mike,
    John Calvin
    Dinero Dinero


    1. Thanks for your comment John Calvin!

      You bring up another interesting train of thought which I have wrestled with – the form of the canon. I’ve always been interested in the order found in the Bible and it’s effect on our understanding/reading. It’s an interesting question of why the Christian canon makes such significant changes to the order of the Old Testament found in the Hebrew Canon (and more than just the question of motive, but the question of effectiveness… Has it been good to change it?). Same with certain NT questions (is it good to separate Luke & Acts so that most average readers would never realize they are part 1 & 2??).

      I agree that McKnight’s “Shortcut 3” (Inkblots) is common. I have my students actually do this inkblot activity as a group to make this point. I also see a lot of Shortcut 1 (Laws) and 2 (Blessings/Promises) in my context. Have you read McKnight’s book (Blue Parakeet)? You might like it!


  3. Apparently, you can remove the chapters and verses in Logos software using the Bible text only option. But I don’t know of a printed Bible that does without.

    Would you mind if I reprinted this blog post on my blog next Thursday for Thoughtful Thursday (a day designed to get us to think about theology!) in my little blogging part of the world.

    Thanks for your consideration.

    Rev. Stewart


    1. Rev. Stewart,
      Thanks for the comment. I’ve got Accordance and have never used the feature, so I’m going to try it out soon.

      Feel free to reprint next Thursday! Will you send me a link to your blog?



  4. Interesting perspective. The verse setup never got in my way, but I can see how it could get quite annoying. Just a thought, I wonder how the New Testament would read if Jesus’s words were in the same color, or if there was nothing but his words? Imagine how a book would read if the protagonist’s words were the only ones there. I have no answer, but it would be an interesting thing to do.



  5. I do believe that that the chapter and verse system was put in place by Biblical scholars, especifically translators to help organize their their work as well as reference books. (They have to have an easy point of reference). It is really a question of how one goes about reading the Bible. I like to read it as a story and do not pay much attention to the divisions.


    1. It’s my understanding that Stephen Langton added chapter divisions to the Latin Vulgate in the 12th century and Stephanus added verses to his 4th greek edition in 1551. This strikes me as particularly late. It also raises questions in my mind of how earlier theologians referenced verses… Hmm…

      In any case, it does seem to me that there would be other ways of organizing the Bible and enabling easy reference. There are books that are bigger than the Bible that get by without verses by just using page numbers to reference. Then again, one could always place paragraph markers in the margins (as in some translations of other ancient texts).

      Thanks for your comment!


  6. I would say that the phrase “reading the bible as a story” needs some evaluation before we start taking the headings and verses out of the bible. I’m not saying that I am against it I am only saying that we need to clarify what reading the bible as a story is. Many Christians would say that the bible is a group of stories. In which case removing the headings and verses wouldn’t do any good. Not only do we as Christians need to read the story of Israel as such but we also need to look at history and how it plays into our reading of the bible. The bible is NOT a collection of stories about God saving his people. It is ONE story about God’s redemption.


    1. Johnny B,
      Thanks for your comment. You make a good observation – “reading the bible as a story” is a pretty ambiguous statement to be the basis for wholesale changes.

      I might argue that the Bible is BOTH a collection of stories (and law texts, prophecies, poetry, etc) AND one story of God’s redemption. Thoughts?

      Thanks again for commenting! Mike


      1. I guess I could go for that. The only thing I have a problem is taking verses, which like you said were added later to the bible, and applying them to our lives. What some people call “life verses” or verses to live by. While a good moral reminder it takes away from our understanding of the story of Israel and Yahweh’s mercy.
        I would counter argue and say that this collection of stories MAKE UP the story of God’s redemption. In that they all serve a purpose or to prove a point. To reveal who God is.


  7. “When publishers provide a Bible where the only divisions are chapters and verses, as if each verse were a new paragraph, reading the Bible as a story is much more difficult.”

    Instead, you get a grimoire of single-verse proof-text incantations, single-verse verbal-component magic spells.

    “ABRACADABRA” — slurred Aramaic for “I Speak and It Is So.”


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