After Chapters and Verses

After Chapters and Verses January 9, 2014

Christopher R. Smith’s After Chapters & Versesis a systematic critique of the current format of the Bible, its division into chapters and verses, its book divisions, and its ordering of books within the canon. He wants to erase the chapter and verse markings, and put the books into a different order.

Current chapter and verse divisions obscure meaning because they often break up the units on which meaning relies. It doesn’t take a Bible reader long to realize that the chapter divisions can be nonsensical – why is the seventh day of the creation week in chapter 2 of Genesis? Why is the flood story, clearly a connected narrative, split up over several chapters, beginning in the middle of chapter 6? Why divide the call of Abraham in chapter 12 from the prologue to Abraham’s story in chapter 11?

Book divisions can be equally exasperating:

Saul dies at the end of 1 Samuel, so that make some sense, but that cuts off the death of Saul from the immediate aftermath – as if David’s reaction to the Amalekite’s report of Saul’s death, or David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (both in 2 Samuel 1) aren’t part of the same book as the story of Saul’s death. Don’t get me started with the division between 1 and 2 Kings.

The power of Smith’s book is to move beyond these sorts of fairly obvious problems to the deeper questions of why we have Bibles divided into chapters and verses to begin with and what kinds of habits of reading chapters and verses trains us into.

Bibles didn’t always have chapters and verses. Stephen Langton added chapter divisions in the 13th century, and verse divisions were even later. Even the earliest printed Bibles didn’t have these divisions, except in the margins.

Chapters and verses make it easy to locate particular sentences, but that benefit comes, Smith argues, at considerable cost. We are trained to read the Bible in snippets. We treat the end of a chapter as a “stop sign” in reading and teaching, even if that chapter end doesn’t mark the end of a narrative arc or a subsection of the book. We treat verses as discrete units without considering their context; we often debate by throwing verses at each other. We have to force ourselves to keep reading. Our Bibles are not formatted in such a way that we feel we can lose ourselves in the book, as we do with most reading. Our Bibles mimic and reinforce modern habits of reading – the scientific habit of breaking down larger wholes into their constituent parts.

Smith also proposes that the canon should be reformatted to reflect the sequence of the Bible’s history. Ezra-Nehemiah should be put back at the end of Chronicles, the letters of Paul – arranged, apparently, by recipients and length – should be reorganized to reflect the sequence of Paul’s life, the prophets should be reorganized in chronological order.

Smith points to Zondervan’s The Books of the Bible, NIV, for which he served as a consultant, as an example of the kind of Bible we need, and spends several chapters explaining how changes in the Bible’s format should affect practices of reading, studying, teaching, and preaching.

I resonate with almost everything Smith writes. I disagree about a few details (authorship of Matthew or of Revelation, for instance), but I have only one larger rejoinder. Let me come at the point somewhat obliquely: He complains that traditional lectionaries divide up Scripture into teeny units and then push together several units for public reading. True, but good lectionaries can actually be quite illuminating. By pairing a reading from Jeremiah with one from Corinthians and another from Luke, we might discern a pattern that would have been hidden from us if we had only read each book on its own. We’d miss the echoes that reverberate across the canon.

My larger point is that while Smith is right to insist on the importance of reading individual books as units, and larger chunks as units, he doesn’t place sufficient emphasis on the Bible as a whole. He is correct that the Bible is made up of literary compositions; but he doesn’t factor in the reality that the Bible is a literary composition. So, while Smith is right to object to the divisions of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, his explanation of the division (matching “after the death of Saul” in 2 Samuel 1 with “after the death of Ahab” in 2 Kings 1) shows that some thought went into the division. Saul and Ahab are parallel characters, with similar careers and somewhat similar roles in their respective books. The arrangement of the Book of the Twelve is certainly not chronological, but I’m inclined to think it’s deliberate and artful. Similarly, the arrangement of the gospels breaks up Luke-Acts, but at the same time it highlights links between the gospels, including important sequential connections between Luke and John (on which see Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Fruit of Lips or Why Four Gospels).

This is not a brief for retaining the current order of the canon. As Smith points out, the order of books was quite various prior to the homogenization that took place after the invention of printing. I’m all for exploring alternative canonical structures. But if we do so we should acknowledge, and even sometimes admire, the artistic and aesthetic rationale of the current arrangement. And we should question whether a strictly chronological order is the only or even the best. Does a purely linear chronological arrangement perhaps itself betray a modern bias?

This “rejoinder” has gotten longer than I intended, and shouldn’t be allowed to negate my positive assessment of Smith’s book. It is a wise and important volume. If Smith’s advice were heeded, it would, as he hopes, virtually revolutionize the way the Bible is read and studied, and all to the good.

So get out that eraser and get to work.

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