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When were the Chapters and Verses added to the New Testament?

Letters (emails?) written today are not divided into different sections; the same was true of letters in the first century A.D. When Paul wrote his letters, he used the standard format: a greeting, the body of the letter, and an ending. So why do New Testaments of today divide Paul’s letters—and all the New Testament—into things called "chapters" and "verses"? And when were they added?

The Story

Christians early on realized that the New Testament books needed some type of division. Think about their dilemma: someone quotes a sentence from Romans and you ask, "Where is that?" "Oh, about 1/3 of the way through," is the reply.

In one of the earliest known copies of the New Testament, the Vaticanus from the fourth century, Matthew is divided into 170 sections, Mark into sixty-two, Luke into 152, and John into fifty. Acts has two sets of divisions, both written in the margins and done after the book was copied: one divides Acts into thirty-six sections, the other into sixty-nine sections. Other letters are divided into numerous sections as well.

In Alexandrinus, a copy of the New Testament from the fifth century, Matthew is divided into sixty-eight sections, Mark into forty-eight, Luke into eighty-three, and John into eighteen. In addition, both Vaticanus and Alexandrinus do not begin the division with the first sentence, instead leaving the first number of sentences as the preface and beginning the first division a short way into each letter. For instance, the first section of Mark begins with Mark 1:23 in the Vaticanus. So add another "section" to each book.

Revelation caused special consideration. For example, Archbishop Andrew of Caesarea, writing in the sixth century, divided it into twenty-four sections, because of the twenty-four elders mentioned in Revelation. He further divided each of the twenty-four sections into three subsections, reflecting the three parts of the human: soul, spirit, and body.

The Answer

Other systems developed, and, while some probably gained a following, none were popular enough to set a standard. That changed in 1205. In that year (give or take several years) Stephen Langton divided the New Testament into the chapter system which is used today; he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1207 and was one of the signers of the Magna Carta.

The verses were not added for 350 years. In the year 1551, a printer from Paris named Robert Stephanus included verses in the copy of the New Testament that he printed. His son said that he divided the chapters into verses while traveling from Paris to Lyons and while riding his horse.

So, while many people have devised different partitioning systems for the New Testament, the current chapter division of the New Testament did not appear until the early 1200s, with the verse division appearing in the mid-1500s.

©2004, 2017 Mark Nickens