The Bible might be conveniently divided into six main parts; the Old Testament into three, and the New Testament into three. The Old Testament Scriptures are familiarly spoken of as "Moses and the Prophets" (Luke 16:29; Matt. 11:13); but a fuller division of the 39 sacred books of the former revelation will be found contained in Luke 24:44 — "The law of Moses, the prophets, the psalms." The first comprises the books from Genesis to Deuteronomy; the second embraces the historical books from Joshua to Esther, and the more direct prophetic section from Isaiah to Malachi; the third, the remaining five books from Job to Song of Solomon.
The New Testament naturally divides into three parts. First, the four Gospels as laying the foundation of Christianity in the revelation of the person and work of the Lord. Second, the Acts, in which are detailed the historical annals of Christianity for about 34 years — marvellous record of primitive missionary enterprise. In the former section the Lord is witnessed as acting on earth, and the Holy Ghost from heaven; while in the latter the Lord is regarded as the object of faith as present at God's right hand, and the Holy Ghost present on earth the efficient power of all Church and Gospel testimony. Third, the Epistles embrace the whole circle of Christian truth and doctrine, and the regulation of Christian life and service.
The necessity of dividing the sacred books into chapters or sections was early recognised. To read right through a whole book without a single break was too great a strain upon the memory; hence, in the third century, earlier attempts were set aside, and a system adopted by Ammonius, a learned Christian of Alexandria. But the Ammonian sections, as they are termed, were but partially applied, being confined to the four Gospels, or the Gospel by four, so called by Eusebius; nor was it at all a complete or satisfactory system. He divided Matthew into 355 sections; Mark into 234; Luke into 342; and John into 231. This was the fullest attempt yet made to present the contents of the Gospels in parallel order. Eusebius in the fourth century, the father of ecclesiastical history, in his Harmony of the Four Gospels, greatly improved upon the system of Ammonius. Adopting his "sections," he also added ten canons to the parallel sections of Ammonius. The improved system of paragraphing the Gospels, so as to assist in comparing the parallel portions, is very fully given in Wordsworth's Greek Testament, besides other particulars, and are spoken of as "The Eusebian Canons." Ere the century closed an unknown hand divided into sections the Epistles of Paul.
Next century, about 458, Euthalius, an Alexandrian deacon, some say bishop, prepared an edition of Paul's Epistles in which he adopted the divisions introduced 60 years previously, and which he ascribed to "one of the wisest and most Christ-loving of our fathers." In 490 A.D. he broke up the Acts and general Epistles into readable and convenient sections, now known as "The Euthalian Sections." He further improved the text by arranging as many words in a line as would complete the sense. Probably this was the earliest, and certainly the most successful, attempt yet made to simplify the reading of unpunctuated MSS. He also introduced those summaries of the contents of the chapters in our English New Testament, and which really disfigure them. The summaries were altered by Dr. Blayney in 1769.
The introduction of points or stops, so as to mark the sense, is assigned to the era of Jerome. In the beginning of the fourth century, and through the progress of several centuries, the system of punctuation was gradually improved, as was also the style of writing. The earliest MSS., and up to about the 10th century, are termed Uncials (Latin, inch), so called from the size of the letters, and which were all capitals. Afterwards the cursive or small running hand was employed, as the word cursive, from the Latin, denotes. Hence Biblical and other MSS. are spoken of as "uncials" or "cursives" according to the style of writing which they present; an important factor too in helping to determine the probable age of a MS.
But the division of the sacred books into chapters as in our English and all other Western Bibles is comparatively a modern one, and the introduction of verses still more so.
In the 13th century, and about the year 1244 or 1248, there lived a Dominican named Hugo de Sancto Caro, a very clever, learned, and ingenious man and who was made a Cardinal, the first of his order who was advanced to such a dignity. Cardinal Hugo conceived the happy idea of preparing a concordance to the Scriptures — the Vulgate or Latin Bible. We may just say in passing, as an interesting circumstance to Bible readers, that this was the first concordance of the kind ever produced, and the Latin Bible the first ever printed. It ought to be borne in mind that Latin and other copies of the Bible were only marked according to the divisions already referred to, and some in fact had no divisions at all, hence in order to facilitate an easy reference of the concordance to the Bible, he divided the latter into chapters, and these again into smaller sections of equal length, marked on the margin of the MS. by the letters A, B, C, D, E, F, G. Hugo's chapters were in course transferred to the Hebrew and Greek originals and to all English and other Bibles. The earliest editions of the Scriptures in the vernacular, as Wycliffe's and Tyndale's, were sectioned off according to the Cardinal's chapters at the top and letters on the margin of the page (see specimen pages).
The history of our modern verses is on this wise. A celebrated Jewish Rabbi, Mordecai Nathan, about 1430 was engaged in frequent disputes with the Christians, and as they could readily find any word or passage in the Bible by the help of Hugo's concordance — the former being sectioned off into chapters, and smaller divisions noted by letters — it occurred to the Rabbi to prepare a similar work for Jewish use to the Hebrew Scriptures. He completed his task in seven years — from 1438-1445 — about the era of the invention of printing.
But Nathan, while adopting Hugo's chapters, rejected his smaller divisions, and instead of letters, substituted Hebrew numeral figures, placing them at every fifth verse on the margin.
But the Rabbi, while availing himself of the Cardinal's labours in the division of the sacred books into chapters, improved in the arrangement of the smaller sections. Hugo, we have already remarked, divided his chapters into seven equal portions where they were long, and the shorter ones into a fewer number of parts, noting them on the margin by letters. But Nathan substituted Hebrew numeral figures, not letters, placing them in the margin at a distance equal to every fifth verse. Hebrew Bibles have both chapters and verses marked in the margin, and the text broken into sections for their synagogue lessons.
The plan of the Rabbi was still further improved by a member of the Hebrew persuasion. Athias, an Amsterdam Jew and printer, produced two editions of the Hebrew Bible, the first in 1661 and the second in 1667. Athias introduced numeral letters in those places omitted by Nathan. All the Latin, Greek, English, and other Bibles now in use throughout the known world, save in a very few exceptions, have the chapters of Hugo and the verses of Athias.
But we have not yet accounted for the verses in our New Testament. This was the work of Robert Stephens, a celebrated French printer, and a man of considerable scholastic attainments. Stephens in preparing a fourth edition of his Greek Testament — published in 1551 — found that the chapters of Hugo were too long for easy reference, and so subdivided them to assist him in compiling a concordance for his Testament, afterward printed by his son Henry. Stephens divided the chapters of the New Testament into verses while travelling from Paris to Lyons, and from him they have been copied into all English and other editions of the sacred Scriptures. Can any one reasonably suppose that a man on horseback, or even resting in the inconvenient inns in these days, was competent, under such circumstances, to break up the text of Scripture into 7959 verses? How much better were the Bible sectioned off into paragraphs, according to the evident sense of the Spirit in the respective portions. Yet the present arrangement is not without its merits. Our English Bibles thus have Hugo's chapters throughout, the Jew's arrangement of verses for the Old Testament, and Stephens' verses for the New Testament. The first of English Bibles thus chaptered and versed is the Bishop's Bible, that immediately preceding our authorised version.
The titles or inscriptions prefixed to the sacred books are of great antiquity. The authors of them are unknown. "The Book of Psalms" is a divine title (Acts 1:20). The names of the separate books of the Pentateuch come to us from the titles found in the LXX.; the Hebrew titles are from the opening word or sentence in the various books. "Chronicles" from the Vulgate of Jerome. The word "general" is not found in any of the so-called Catholic Epistles of earliest date, nor is the name of "Paul" introduced in the earliest MSS. of the "Hebrews." The more ancient the MSS. of the New Testament, the more brief and simple are the titles. Not only are the titles prefixed to the books of the Bible (with perhaps an exception or so) destitute of Divine authority, but they present considerable diversity in the form in which they occur in the MSS. — notably so those of the New Testament, but in substance they are much the same.
It will be observed that these subscriptions are only attached to the Pauline Epistles, and are utterly destitute of Divine authority. They are of more recent date than the titles, being introduced by Euthalius of Alexandria, already referred to. Euthalius, about 458, edited an edition of Paul's 14 Epistles, and appended those subscriptions found in our English New Testament. It would have been better had the good presbyter left the Epistles to tell their own story where written, as some of the postscripts are positively incorrect, being contradicted by the very text of the Epistles to which they are attached. Horne in his Introduction, after citing various instances in which they contradict history and chronology, says: — "The author of these subscriptions, it is evident, was either grossly ignorant, or grossly inattentive."
No divisions whatever of the inspired text are of God; they are all human in their origin. Certainly the best way of reading Scripture is to read it as originally penned without any external divisions whatever. Where time allows, read a book right through, or pause where the Spirit has clearly indicated a break.
May God's presence be the place; the Holy Ghost, the teacher; and the book, the inspired Scriptures of the Old and New Testament — where, by whom, and from which our souls are taught for time and for eternity.