Stephen Langton, who died on this day (July 9) in 1228, is the man most responsible for putting the chapter divisions into the Bible.
Langton was one of the most prominent churchman of the thirteenth century, famous in his own time and chronicled by biographers such as Matthew Paris. He rose from being a popular teacher to become the Archbishop of Canterbury and then a Cardinal in the Roman church. As a schoolboy, he was friends with the man who would become Pope Innocent III.
But before he achieved these high ranks, he was a teacher of the Bible and theology. Reflecting on contemporary reports of Langton’s work, one historian has said that
We get a glimpse of a long life of theological teaching; of a little scola with a glossed Bible set on a stand in the middle of the room, of the master’s library, containing the chief fathers in full, the works of the Lombard, and some of the writings of his contemporaries, of the master lecturing in course of time on the Scholastic History… the whole of the Bible, and the Lombard on St. Paul, and repeating or extending courses of lectures on theological problems which arose out of this exegesis, and permitted of discussion. By the end of his career as a teacher he was able to rearrange the books of the Bible and to divide them into new chapters. In addition he was a poet and historian and then, as later, an indefatigable preacher. (F. M. Powicke)
At some point late in his teaching career (the date usually given is 1205, but I haven’t been able to find out what Langton was supposed to have done, said, or published in that year), Langton had the great, simple idea of breaking the text of the Latin translation of the Bible into manageable sections about the size of long paragraphs. A “chapter” is, literally and etymologically, a “head” or “a little heading.” We get the English word via old French chapitre from the Latin capitulum, a diminutive of caput, head. When you come to a chapter marking, you know you’re at the head of a new division. Langton broke the uniform text of Scripture into a series of chapters. He did this for the entire Vulgate, and his system of chapter division was immediately recognized as a great help for Bible study.
Chapter-division was apparently the right idea at the right time, and one of the remarkable things about the Langtonian chapter divisions is how they were adopted and propagated by different scholarly communities. Jewish scholars (who had worked with other methods of division previously) soon began observing Langtonian chapter divisions, and the churches of the Christian East took the same divisions over in their biblical studies. So Langton’s Latin-Bible system made the jump to Hebrew and Greek.
Since Langton established the chapter system at the very beginning of the thirteenth century, his influence also spread into all the vernacular translations of the Bible that began appearing in the next centuries. In fact, the chapter system became increasingly important with the proliferation of translations, enabling scholars to move quickly and precisely between versions. And with the advent of printing, Langton’s chapters became still more important.
The sixteenth-century printer Robert Estienne (usually called Stephanus) took over those chapter divisions when he introduced a consistent system of verse numbering into the Bible. He adopted an older Jewish system of assigning verses to the Old Testament, and collated those verse divisions with Langton’s chapters. Where the rabbis had assigned Hebrew letters to the verses, Stephanus assigned numbers, and re-started the number sequences at each of Langton’s chapters. This is what put into place the chapter-and-verse citation system that has become the standard way of locating Bible passages down to our own time.
Stephanus, by the way, had to make up his own verse divisions for the New Testament, not having Jewish models to follow. Though I haven’t been able to find the primary sources for this story, it is widely reported that he invented these NT verse divisions in a hurry to beat a publishing deadline, while traveling from Paris to Lyons (here comes the punchline), on horseback, in the rain. This story is usually cited as a warning to Bible students not to take the verse divisions too seriously, as if they embodied any particular insight into units of meaning. Seminarians are sometimes told that Stephanus marked a verse division whenever his horse took a step, and a chapter division every time his horse stumbled a bit. Funny but untrue. That would be a horse who was stumbling pretty often, and it ignores the fact that Langton’s chapters were already well established.
So, as one early chronicler says of Langton, “he toted the Bible at Parys and marked the chapitres;” that is, taught the Bible at Paris and marked the chapters. The Langtonian chapter divisions have been such a great boon to later students, and seem to be so commonsensical, that it would be ungrateful to dwell very long on their deficiencies. Nevertheless, the fact is that some of the chapter breaks in the Bible fall at misleading and unhelpful places, breaking the flow of argument or cutting a story just before its conclusion.
When doing a close study of any passage of Scripture, it is always worth asking yourself if Langton divided the chapter rightly; that is, if the most significant unit of actual meaning corresponds to the chapter unit he assigned. New Testament scholar A. T. Robertson advised, “The first step in interpretation is to ignore the modern chapters and verses” (Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament, p. 101; cited in Daniel Fuller, The Unity of the Bible, p. 102). Some of the chapter breaks are in fact very poorly placed.
Take, for example, the very first one in the Bible, where Genesis begins its second chapter. Genesis 2:1 is continuing the story of Genesis 1, summarizing it by saying “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them,” and telling what God did on the seventh day. It would be nice to have day 7 in the same chapter with days 1-6, especially since it only takes three more verses to round off the sequence of thought. Furthermore, Genesis 1 consistently calls the creator Elohim, and this name (the ordinary Hebrew word for god, just as deus is the Latin word, gott is the German, and dios is the Spanish) continues to be used for three more verses. Where should the chapter break be? The second chapter of Genesis should start at 2:4, where the formula “these are the generations” (an important structural marker through the remainder of the book) occurs, where the 7-day sequence is done with, where the narrator flashes back to the creation of humanity, and where the word Elohim is set aside and God begins to be referred to as the LORD God. Notice that criticizing the chapter break is not criticizing the word of God; it is pointing out a lapse in judgment on the part of Stephen Langton, whose work was very recent– not even a thousand years ago!– compared to the antiquity of Genesis.
But the Genesis 1-2 break is an exception to Langton’s usual high standards. The vast majority of Langton’s chapter breaks are more organic than artificial; they are not arbitrary, but are based on good insight into the flow of the text. Above all, they are handy and universally used. Even if we were to make a list of 250 places where the Langtonian chapters could be improved by better break points, it would be madness to try to impose a new, improved re-chaptering of Scripture on a global community of Bible readers who have used a standardized system for centuries. Less draconian solutions are possible: good Bible publishers can downplay the chapter breaks typographically, insert sub-headings that direct readers to more natural units of meaning, and leave the old system in place.
Langton has several other claims to fame. He is probably the author of the song Veni Sancte Spiritus (“Come Holy Spirit”), which has been sung ever since as part of the Pentecost Sunday liturgy in the West and has been set to music by composers like Palestrina and Byrd. He was also an innovative teacher. Once he took a love song that was popular among his students in Paris and turned it into a theological treatise by adding devotional commentary to each of the amorous lines.
Langton has an important place in the history of political thought, as he was involved in negotiating the famous dispute between the despotic King John (old Lack-Land Soft-Sword) and his aggrieved noblemen. The deal they finally brokered, securing the rights of the noblemen and limiting the powers of the King, was sealed by the drafting and signing of the Magna Carta. Between this and his biography of Richard the Lion-Hearted, Langton was not popular with King John, and even found himself under a ban from Pope Innocent III for several years. But his office and reputation were restored late in his life.
In a movie version of Langton’s life, the director would no doubt show him hanging out in the forest with Robin Hood, dividing the Bible into chapters with one hand and signing the Magna Carta with the other. And why not? He was a remarkable 13th-century English churchman.