The New Testament: When Did Chapters and Verses Appear?

The New Testament consists of four Gospels, a history of the first thirty years or so of the early church (Acts), twenty-one letters, and a book of prophecy (Revelation). That is right, most of the New Testament books are actually letters. Letters (perhaps I should say emails?) written today are not divided into different sections; the same was true of letters in the first century A.D. When Paul wrote to the church in Corinth or to Timothy or anyone else, he used the standard format: a greeting, the body of the letter, and an ending. So why do New Testaments of today divide Paul’s letters—and all the New Testament—into things called "chapters" and "verses"? And when were they added? Believe it or not, the chapter and verse system used today originated over 1000 years after the New Testament was completed.

Yet although the current system took that long to develop, Christians early on realized that the New Testament books needed some type of division. Think about their dilemma: someone quotes a sentence from Romans and you ask, "Where is that?" "Oh, about 1/3 of the way through," is the reply.

In the earliest known copy of the New Testament, the Vaticanus from the fourth century, Matthew is divided into 170 sections, Mark into sixty-two, Luke into 152, and John into fifty. Acts has two sets of divisions, both written in the margins and done after the book was copied: one divides Acts into thirty-six sections, the other into sixty-nine sections. Other letters are divided into numerous sections as well.

In Alexandrinus, a copy of the New Testament from the fifth century, Matthew is divided into sixty-eight sections, Mark into forty-eight, Luke into eighty-three, and John into eighteen. In addition, both Vaticanus and Alexandrinus do not begin the division with the first sentence, instead leaving the first number of sentences as the preface and beginning the first division a short way into each letter. For instance, the first section of Mark begins with Mark 1:23 in the Vaticanus. So add another "section" to each book.

Revelation caused special consideration. For example, Archbishop Andrew of Caesarea, writing in the sixth century, divided it into twenty-four sections, because of the twenty-four elders mentioned in Revelation. He further divided each of the twenty-four sections into three subsections, reflecting the three parts of the human: soul, spirit, and body.

Other systems were developed, and while some probably gained a following, none were popular enough to set a standard. That changed in 1205.

In that year (it is believed) Stephen Langton divided the New Testament into the chapter system which we use today; he would become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1207 and was one of the signers of the Magna Carta.

The verses were not added for 350 years. In the year 1551, a printer from Paris named Robert Stephanus included verses in the copy of the New Testament that he printed. His son said that he divided the chapters into verses while traveling from Paris to Lyons, and while riding his horse.

So, while many people have devised different partitioning systems for the New Testament, the current chapter division of the New Testament did not appear until the early 1200s, with the verse division appearing in the mid-1500s.

©2004 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved

Questions/comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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