One question I get a lot: where did the Bible’s chapters and verses came from. Here’s a quick answer taken from my textbook on the NT (The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Oxford University Press; 7th ed., 2020. Since the answer is so brief, I’ll attach another couple of paragraphs drawn from a nearby page in the book, dealing with another somewhat related and even more important (for many people) problem: when did scholars start to think that the differences in our manuscripts were a VERY big deal?
About the numbers of the verses, who put them? Who divided the text in verses and chapters, and when?
RESPONSE: (from my book)
Given the fact that ancient manuscripts did not use punctuation, paragraph divisions, or even spaces to separate words, it will come as no surprise to learn that the chapter and verse divisions found in modern translations of the New Testament are not original (as if Paul, when writing Romans, would think to number his sentences and call them verses!). In order to facilitate the reading of these books—especially in public—scribes began to make chapter-like divisions as early as the fourth century. But the chapters in translations of the New Testament used today go back just to the beginning of the thirteenth century, when a lecturer at the University of Paris, named Stephen Langton, introduced major divisions into the Latin Bible.
Verse divisions were not to come along for another three centuries. In 1551, a Parisian printer named Robert Stephanus published a Greek and Latin edition of the New Testament in which each chapter was divided into separate verses. These are the verse divisions still in use today. They first appeared in an English translation in the 1560 Geneva Version.
An interesting anecdote: Stephanus’s son indicated that his father made these verse divisions while “on horseback” (i.e., on a journey) from Paris to Lyons. Presumably he meant that his father took the text along with him and worked on it at night during his layovers at inns along the way. Some wry observers have noticed, though, that in places our verse divisions make little sense (sometimes they occur right in the middle of a sentence), and have suggested that Stephanus literally worked “on horseback,” so that whenever his steed hit a pothole, it caused an inadvertent slip of the pen.
AND ANOTHER THING: WHEN SCHOLARS REALIZED THE MANUSCRIPTS DIDN’T FULLY AGREE
Here now is a second big issue that most people simply would have no clue about: when did experts on the Bible begin to recognize the enormity of the problem of the variations in our surviving manuscripts? And is it really that big of a problem? Again, from the same book:
Throughout the Middle Ages, scribes did not realize just how different the manuscripts they were copying were from one another. It was not until 1707 that scholars began to realize the enormity of the problem. That was the year that an Oxford scholar named John Mill (no relation to the Victorian John Stuart Mill) published an edition of the New Testament that included a list of places where there were variant readings in the manuscripts. Mill had examined about one hundred Greek manuscripts, as well as early versions of the New Testament (i.e., translations into other ancient languages) and the quotations of the New Testament in the writings of the Church Fathers. Based on his thirty years of study, Mill cited some thirty thousand places where there were differences among the manuscripts. This struck most of the reading public as an enormous and frightening number: How could the New Testament be trusted if we weren’t sure of what it said in so many places? Mill’s enemies claimed that he was trying to compromise the integrity of Scripture. His advocates pointed out that he hadn’t invented these thirty thousand variations; he had simply noticed they existed. And in fact many more than these existed: Mill’s list included only those variants that he thought were significant, not all the ones that he actually found.
Today we have nearly fifty-seven times as many manuscripts as Mill had. The differences that we now know number in the hundreds of thousands. It’s important to realize that the vast majority of these differences are completely unimportant and immaterial; many of them cannot even be reflected in an English translation. But it is also important to know that some of these differences are extremely important, affecting how significant passages—or even entire books—are interpreted. Obviously knowing the original text in these places is important: you can’t very well say what the New Testament means if you don’t know what it says! Unfortunately, there are dozens of passages whose original wording scholars debate, and for some passages where we will probably never know.