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History of the Bible

If someone asked you where to find the Bible verse that begins, “For God so loved the world…you’d probably know he was asking about John 3:16. If you had a Bible, you could find it for him in no time. But there was a time when no one could find a single verse in the whole Bible. There was no John 3:16, Genesis l:l or any other verse because the Bible wasn’t divided into verses or even chapters. Worse yet, there were hundreds of years when there weren’t even any word divisions. Punctuation marks, capital letters and even vowels were omitted. In those days, if Genesis had been written in English, it would have started: NTHBGNNNGGDCRTDTHHVNSNDTHRTH.” You would have had to spend hours or days just to find your favorite verse.

Words were divided by Jesus’ time, but vowels weren’t used in Hebrew Old Testaments until the sixth century A. D. Gradually, capitalizations, punctuation and paragraphing worked their way into the Old and New Testaments. But Bible chapters such as we have today didn’t come into being until the 13th century. They were the work of Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

For the next 200 years, the Bible, now divided into chapters, continued to be copied by hand. Then in 1448, Rabbi Nathan startled the world by breaking the Old Testament into verses. The New Testament wasn’t divided into numbered verses until 1551 when a French printer, Robert Estienne did the job. He was planning a study Bible that would have side-by-side columns in three translations when he got the idea. He was so rushed for time he decided to do the dividing on a trip from Paris to Lyons. Some people have suggested he did the work on horseback and his sometimes awkward divisions resulted when his “jogging horse bumped his pen in the wrong places.” Yet, with a few exceptions, Estienne’s divisions provide us with the verses we have today.

So just as number of people were used in writing of the Bible over a period of centuries, it was the contribution of countless scribes, hundreds of years, and three men in particular—a Catholic archbishop, a Jewish rabbi and a Protestant printer—who turned “NTHBGNNNGGDCRTDTHHVNSNDTHRTH” into Genesis l:l.

Campus Life, March, 198l, p. 40, Miller Clarke