The Case Against Verse-By-Verse

Back in the day, if you'd been writing, say, the book of Hebrews, and you came to a particular point in the argument where an Old Testament quotation would really do the trick, the result would have looked something like this:

So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you"; as he says also in another place, "You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek."

Try that now and you'll get into trouble. While teaching a few years back, I went through a phase where I self-consciously cited Scripture the way Scripture cites itself. The result? People would come up afterward and says things like, "That was really good, but I would have appreciated more Scripture." But I used lots of it, I'd protest, pointing out the many instances. "Well … you should cite your references, then."

What they wanted was something like this:

So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him in Psalm 2:7, "You are my Son, today I have begotten you"; as he says also in another place, namely Psalm 110:4, "You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek."

It's absurd, of course, to dock the author of Hebrews for not having given the proper "address" for his quotations, since versification didn't come along until the sixteenth century. Now that it's here, though, most of us think we can't do without it. After all, without verse numbers, how are we supposed to look stuff up?

Don't worry. I'm not going to try and take your verse numbers away. I think versification, unlike the nineteenth century innovation called red letters, actually serves a worthwhile purpose. But something detrimental came along with it, namely the verse-per-line or verse-by-verse format. This is the format familiar from old school King James text settings, where every verse starts on a fresh line, no matter where the sentences or paragraphs happen to break.

In a taste of things to come, here's a photo of Hendrickson's facsimile edition of Tyndale's 1526 New Testament, printed in cooperation with the British Library. Notice anything interesting?


This is the "first English Bible translated from the original languages," and yes, it's a single column, paragraphed edition. No verse numbers, because Stephanus hadn't gotten around to that yet. One step forward, two steps back, as they say. We got verse numbers, which in my opinion is a good thing, but we lost paragraphs, which is tragic.

Most translations today include a numbered, paragraphed text. This is a Good Thing. But I know there are traditionalists out there who miss the old verse-per-line format. Occasionally, they even get their way, as they did when the unfortunate Single Column Reference ESV was published. (Unfortunate because it reverted to the old format, then compounded its problems by stretching those newly severed phrases across a single, broad column, resulting in an unintentional tundra of white space.) In most areas of life, I'm willing to live and let live. Here, though, I'd at least like to explain why seeing people hold onto the verse-per-line format makes me cringe.

Hack suspense writers illustrate the effectiveness of punctuation all the time. Chop up your sentences into incomplete phrases, leave a start series of words alone on the page, a one-line paragraph, and the result (at least in theory) is a breathless, heart-stopping pace. Because it's not just the words that communicate, it's the way they look on the page.

When an author does this, at least he's in control of the result. What happens, though, when a later editor intervenes? In the case of the Bible, people start reading the entire text as if it was originally written in a series of cryptic, standalone utterances. Reading the epistle to the Romans like it's written in the same format as the Proverbs. Or, to put it another way:

1. When an author does this, 
2. At least he's in control of the result.
3. What happens, though, when a later editor intervenes?
4. In the case of the Bible, people start reading the entire text as if it was originally written in a series of cryptic, standalone utterances.
5. Reading the epistle to the Romans like it's written in the same format as the Proverbs.

Readability decreases, sure, but in addition there's an unwarranted emphasis on the sentence (or the phrase) over the paragraph, encouraging a zoomed-in pattern of reading. People who don't track well with Shakespeare get the gist of it when the lines are spoken, because the speaker keeps going and the larger context communicates itself. The same thing happens with Scripture (or any reading, for that matter). Chop things up, read just a line or two, and the greater trajectory is lost. But at least you can more easily cite the part of my paragraph you most disagree with.

Even if you're convinced, you might wonder about the benefits of the format. Aren't we losing something by sticking with a paragraphed text? Well, I'm not so sure. The two main benefits I've heard people ascribe to verse-per-line settings are these: (1) Verse-per-line format makes it easier to find one's place when preaching, and (2) Verse-per-line format makes passages easier to memorize.

Let's start with the specialized needs of the pulpit. If you're an exegetical preacher, referring again and again to the text, I can see where having each verse on a new line could be helpful, a bit like having every point in your outline on its own. You work through the verses the way you would a list, getting closer and closer to the finish. But it seems to me that, where exegesis is concerned, the paragraph is the prime unit, and anything that encourages a congregation (or an individual reader) to think in paragraph-by-paragraph terms is worth the sacrifice.

If you're really having trouble, my advice is to print the necessary pages out on a separate sheet, scaled up to the type size of your preference. Format it any way you like. This serves your need in a more specialized way without encouraging bad habits in the congregation.

As far as memorization goes, I'm not sure there is any benefit. Did a seventeenth century reader of the Geneva Bible or the KJV enjoy an advantage in memorizing compared to his brother of a hundred years before, relying on Tyndale's paragraphed, unversed text? Perhaps so. But I worry that memorization programs are part of the "problem," in the sense that they encourage us to treasure the verse over the sentence or paragraph. 

The real issue for me is the hermeneutic disaster known as "proof texting," in which isolated verses spar with one another, cancel one another out, and take on an almost magical significance divorced from their original context. Proof texting is like racism. Just because everybody says it's wrong doesn't mean nobody's doing it. 

I was talking recently with a pastor friend, who confided his frustration in trying to correct a parishioner's faulty grasp of doctrine. "You have your proof texts," he'd been told, "and they have theirs. People can make the Bible say whatever they want." This opinion was offered as a statement of incontrovertible fact. 

The thing is, you can't make the Bible say whatever you want, not if you take it as a whole, or if you focus on larger context. It's only the tangled legacy of proof texting that makes it seem so, where phrases are twisted and repurposed to address most anything under the sun but what they originally addressed. In my view, verse-per-line formatting, like red letter editions, has had unintended (and detrimental) consequences. Paragraphed text is hardly a panacea. After all, proof texting didn't originate in the sixteenth century along with versification. But you know what? I think paragraphing helps. It certainly doesn't hurt.

Now I don't expect everyone to agree. And I realize there's a danger of exaggerating the effect of typographical conventions. That's a line I'm often in danger of crossing. But if you're one of those people who can't stand all these new-fangled paragraphed editions and want nothing more than to see new translations in the familiar verse-per-line format, at least take a moment to reflect. 

And don't be surprised, when you e-mail me asking for recommendations on verse-per-line formats, if I recommend that you avoid them entirely! 

56 Comments on “The Case Against Verse-By-Verse

  1. I received a copy of that Tyndale a couple of weeks ago, and have spent some time glancing through it, but I didn’t notice that it was “Bertrand approved” until this blog post.

  2. Every edition of the Bible is “Bertrand approved,” even the lowliest. But there are some more approved than others…! I suppose I could criticize the Tyndale for using such a bizarre, calligraphy-looking typeface. (I’m joking, of course.)

  3. I agree! And anything that could help to eliminate proof textin’ (lol) should be welcomed with open arms. This is my first time commenting but I have been reading the blog for over a year now. Thanks for all your hard work J. Mark Bertrand. Have a great Thanksgiving next week!

  4. Preach it, Mark! I agree with you 100 percent about the problems of the verse-by-verse format. I just hope the publishers are listening. Meanwhile, I’ll keep waiting for Cambridge to re-issue the Cambridge Paragraph Bible in leather.
    I love the old legend that Stephanus did his work of adding the verse numbers while travelling on horseback. It seems to be the only reasonable explanation for a great many of his choices.

  5. Mark, why do I have this inclination that you’ve held off on your review of the Tyndale 1526 NT Facsimile because you’ve been waiting for it’s return with a new goatskin wrapper? I’ve patiently been waiting for your review of this Hendrickson facsimile for over two months, and the timing seems to fit perfectly. Looking forward to being stunned with what you get!

  6. I would love to have a Bible without verses and chapter divisions. I can generally recognize my place from the opening words of the passage. Medieval and early printed Bibles are often more pleasant to read (once one gets past the Gothic script, one area where the innovations of the Geneva Bible were definitely beneficial), as the chapter divisions tend to be much less intrusive (sometimes just marked in the margin) and the only thing dividing the chapter itself are letters denoting (generally four) sections in the margin.
    My main gripe with verses (and to a lesser extent chapters) is to do with the way that they shape our understanding of our ‘place’ within the text and, more broadly, what the text itself actually is. Seeing the Bible through the lens of chapters and verses encourages us to think of it as if it were a map, viewed from a position of detachment, or as something that ‘contains’ a large set of discrete statements. It seems to me that Scripture is best approached as an itinerary, which needs to be participated in and worked through (or like the way in which talking about one’s ‘place’ in a piece of music or a play, while related to marks on a musical score or a line in a script, is seen to significantly exceed this).
    Chapters and verses encourage the ‘spatializing’ of the concept of the text and marginalize the concept of the text as a temporal passage that we must participate in. The focus on chapters and verses accompanies the shift in our conception of the text from something primarily engaged with aurally and orally in the context of the liturgy, to something engaged with primarily by the eyes, reading off the printed page of the privately owned, mass produced text. This shift in the dominating forms of bodily relationship to Scriptural textuality has all sorts of unhelpful consequences that I don’t think that we have yet taken sufficient account of.
    In moderation verses could be helpful, but for most of our forms of engagement with the Bible, I don’t believe that they should play a mediating role at all. They make ‘finding one’s place’ in the Scripture deceptively easy. For instance, I don’t believe that preachers should give chapter and verse numbers when they are preaching. For one, people shouldn’t be reading along in their Bibles in church meetings, but should be listening to the Word (it is much the same as someone reading through the script while attending a theatrical production). People also need to learn to think of their locatedness within the text in different ways and an over-dependence on verses gets in the way of this. For instance, one’s ‘place in the text’ could be a ‘place’ determined by the itinerary of the lectionary and the Church calendar, a ‘place’ determined by the context of the story itself, or a ‘place’ determined by other typological bonds relating the life that they live with the narrative of the text that they are called to inhabit.

  7. For bibles where intense bible study is the purpose, my favorite layout is found in the translation called TransLine. It is in outline format so you can easily see the main concepts and all sub-concepts (and sub-sub-concepts etc). It has many tricks which are unique to it, such as bold text for words which are emphasized in Greek, hyphenated phrases to represent single Greek words, and the big idea of the biblical text on the left page with the notes on the opposing right side.
    For bibles where the main purpose is just sitting to read and “take it in”, my favorite is the God’s Word translation. It is single column, paragraph style, with a generous easy to read font. The interspersed section headings are extra large and bold so you can find the section you are looking for quickly. While the translation leaves some things to be desired, the formatting should be used as a gold standard.

  8. Thanks Mark–amen. I just received my Allan PSR and love the single column, paragraph format–I just wish the font was a little bigger. I think part of the appeal of the SCR is the larger font size. Based on some of the comments here and at, Crossway would have a best-seller if they came out with a PSR with a larger font–maybe the size of the Classic Ref. What do you think? Can we petition Crossway (or Allan’s) for a “Deluxe Personal Reference” ESV?

  9. Great post Mark. Also, please put my name on A. J.’s petition to have a Bible the size of the PSR with a larger font. Do not have Allans do the work. I am still upset with them for doing the PSR in red. I knew the print was too small to suit my liking because I already have a PSR. No way was I buying another one! Anyway, this red PSR sure is beautiful and I am enjoying everything about it — except the straining to read!

    Great post JMARK! I agree that numbering can cause one to stop reading and miss important context or important conclusions to the thoughts of the writer. There have been many cases of this problem in discussion where someone I was talking to misunderstood a passage because they halted reading. I also know that I have gotten the most out of scripture when I have read whole books at time without stopping! This has been the best way for me to read, and the paragraph format definitely makes that easier. I have really enjoyed by Personal Size Reference edition for this reason. And do love those cross references inside the spine! I know there are many bibles that do this, but I love being able to only open the text block enough to see the text and then I can crack it open more almost like I’m clicking a hyperlink in Blue Letter Bible to open up more info.
    While sometimes annoying, the numbering can be helpful, for the individual or the bigger group looking at the same portion of scripture. It can be good for finding your way around. But now that I think about it, I can find my way around Mere Christianity and it has no reference helps other than page numbers and chapter titles. So maybe one way is to put the portion of scripture the page covers in the corner of the page along with a chapter title or description, like many Bibles do already, and take out the numbering within the text. Or to put small outlines at the beginning of the book to help navigate.
    Also, one of the things that I have done when formatting my own text for teaching or for stealth reading in public spaces is to make all of the numbers small and gray. This way the info is there, but like the references in the spine, you have to work a little to see it and it is less intrusive. I know I’ve seen publishers used grayed out stuff, and they obviously use red ink as well, so why not GRAY! I think this is a decent solution, or have the numbering on the outer edge like the Message remix that JMARK did a post on.

    Great post JMARK! I agree that numbering can cause one to stop reading and miss important context or important conclusions to the thoughts of the writer. There have been many cases of this problem in discussion where someone I was talking to misunderstood a passage because they halted reading. I also know that I have gotten the most out of scripture when I have read whole books at time without stopping! This has been the best way for me to read, and the paragraph format definitely makes that easier. I have really enjoyed by Personal Size Reference edition for this reason. And do love those cross references inside the spine! I know there are many bibles that do this, but I love being able to only open the text block enough to see the text and then I can crack it open more almost like I’m clicking a hyperlink in Blue Letter Bible to open up more info.
    While sometimes annoying, the numbering can be helpful, for the individual or the bigger group looking at the same portion of scripture. It can be good for finding your way around. But now that I think about it, I can find my way around Mere Christianity and it has no reference helps other than page numbers and chapter titles. So maybe one way is to put the portion of scripture the page covers in the corner of the page along with a chapter title or description, like many Bibles do already, and take out the numbering within the text. Or to put small outlines at the beginning of the book to help navigate.
    Also, one of the things that I have done when formatting my own text for teaching or for stealth reading in public spaces is to make all of the numbers small and gray. This way the info is there, but like the references in the spine, you have to work a little to see it and it is less intrusive. I know I’ve seen publishers used grayed out stuff, and they obviously use red ink as well, so why not GRAY! I think this is a decent solution, or have the numbering on the outer edge like the Message remix that JMARK did a post on.

  12. Mark’s done a great job of stating his case, and I’d have to say that I agree about 90% or so. However, I do think that there’s a limited place for the “one-verse-per-line” approach.
    One of the biggest hindrances to good Bible reading is the tendency to rush through the text, especially when it’s paragraphed and looks like a modern-day text. (People tend to think, ‘It looks like a regular book, so I’ll read it at regular speed.’) The audience of this article wants to oppose atomized proof texting (which I agree with). However, a line-per-verse format can help some people slow down and consider each verse more closely sometimes (notice “some” and “sometimes” in that last line). This can be especially helpful in non-confessional environments where one is encountering readers who are just baffled by all features of the text and are just not getting anything out of it at all.

  13. A related aspect is the formatting of text poetically when we believe it may be a hymn or credal formula. Some cases are clear and others are debatable, but the layout of the text is a form of interpretation. Undoubtedly the reader’s interpretation is affected when the text switches from paragraph to poem form. To be fair, formatting everything in paragraphs (or sans paragraph) is also an interpretative choice but it seems more neutral.

  14. @Al: I don’t agree that people SHOULDN’T read along in their Bibles during church meetings. Yes, hearing the Word is important, but if you hear the word AND see it with your eyes as you are hearing it, you are using more of your senses, and thus it is making a deeper impression in your mind. Now, you may choose to simply hear the Word for the reasons you stated, and that is fine. But to make it apply to everyone by saying that people SHOULDN’T read along in their Bibles, I think, is simply throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
    The way I try to avoid the “verse-by-verse curse” when I preach is by reading the entire passage on which I am preaching at the beginning of the sermon, followed by a few remarks on the literary and historical contexts. That way, the congregation has a picture of the whole before we look at the parts.
    @ Todd, I agree with you that most people, when they read any book, have a tendency to rush through the text. That is not always NECESSARILY a bad thing; it has its place. One way I’ve discovered I can grasp the wider context of scripture is by “rushing through it” and reading it over and over and over, for long periods of time, and not worrying about the details at first. The key is not to stop there, though. We need to teach people how to slow themselves down long enough in order to see the details. Eugene Peterson’s book “Eat This Book,” which deals with how to read the Bible, has been very helpful for me. He talks about how we need to understand both the Story (the big picture) and the Sentence (the exegesis), and one without the other will hurt our understanding of Scripture.
    Yes, the verse-by-verse format can help some people slow down when reading, in theory. The problem is that in practice, the verse and chapter division don’t always make sense! ( I ignore chapter divisions completely when I get to the last part of Acts!).

  15. The verse-by-verse format of the ESV SCR was my biggest disappointment with that Bible. If they had made it paragraph format, like the PSR, it would’ve been perfect!
    Mark, could you please use your awesome influence at Crossway to lobby for a Bible with the font size and wider margins of the SCR but the single-column, paragraphed format of the PSR? 🙂

  16. Two quick points to consider:
    1) This issue is largely about preference not about doctrine or dogma in Bible publishing. Some people actually prefer verse format and they have good reasons for doing so.
    2) The case against verse format because people take it out of context is largely a red herring. People can, and do, easily do this with or without paragraphs. Verse formating does not create this. Proof texting is a problem that is not dependant on verse format. One should not tie them together.
    For my part I like both depending on what I am using it for. For simple reading paragraph format is good. For study and cross-referencing the verse format is good.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I have just ordered a verse-by-verse because I want to do a serious reading of the Bible. I have read the Bible quiet a few times, and what I noticed is that now that I am quite familiar with the text (esp. the NT that I read at least a dozen time), I tend to rush faster than normal without even realizing it.

      The verse-by-verse format will help me slow down and reflect on certain collection of verses automatically. Of course, this is not to say that without a verse-by-verse format in your hands, a serious study of the Bible is not possible – but to say that it IS possible at least for some of us.

      To draw a blanket conclusion on helps like these as necessarily bad is not wise, IMHO. I dealt with apologetic, and the format that Muslim apologetics used to twist verse/passage meanings were in the paragraph form (I know because they quote them). So is it being suggested here that they would have done a better job at twisting scripture with a verse-by-verse format? Go figure!

  17. @Fernando. There are many reasons why I don’t believe that people should have their Bibles open in church services. First off, research suggests that receiving verbal information visually and aurally simultaneously decreases rather than increases comprehension (images and words simultaneously is different, as one is not using the same part of one’s brain). One is better off doing one or the other, rather than both at the same time.
    More importantly, the act of listening is a very different sort of act to the act of reading off the page. The manner of one’s bodily engagement with something can have a significant effect on the nature of that relationship, as our senses, like all media, are weighted in particular ways and are not interchangeable.
    The ear is the organ of submission. ‘Giving ear’ to something is a way of coming under its authority. The eye, however, is the organ of judgment. God sees and judges. The eye is the organ of command. We have far more control over what we see than we do over what we hear. The eye enables us to retain a greater degree of detachment from the object of our sense; hearing is a sense that renders us subject more to a world beyond our direct control.
    The eye is the master of space and controls its field of vision in a way that the ear cannot. The eye is an organ of greater detachment between object and seeing subject and it primarily relates to things. To relate to something primarily through the eye is to put oneself in a position of judgment in relation to it. In contrast, persons relate to us primarily through the ear. Dead beings and lifeless objects can be touched, tasted, smelled and seen; generally only life and the living can be heard. Imagine living in a world without sound and then imagine living in a world without sight and you might get a better sense of some of the things that I am referring to.
    If the eye operates with objects within a spatialized realm, the ear receives input in a manner where time is far more of a factor. The trained ear can perceive things about a text that the eye cannot easily perceive. For the one hearing rather than seeing the text, the text is not in his control in the same manner, but he subjects himself to it by giving it ear.
    There are other important differences to note. When a group of people hear something together, they are, by that word, formed into an audience. The spoken word has the power to unite those who hear it in a powerful way. The act of reading, by contrast, is a powerfully individualizing activity. It is no accident that the rise of modern notions of individuality and interiority are closely associated with the spread of literacy and the printed word. When someone reads they are detached from others in a way that they are not by the spoken word.
    Even if these were our only considerations, these should be enough to persuade us of the need to focus on the public reading of Scripture and the need to discourage the presence of private Bibles in meetings of the church. Hearing the word and not reading along is a way of going with the grain of our bodies in adopting an appropriate posture and relationship to the Word of God.
    However, there is also the more serious concern that the Word of God addresses itself chiefly to the ear (it would be superfluous to provide biblical evidence for this statement – it is throughout the Scriptures). We need to respect this fact, by stressing that the Bible as a printed text must never play more than a supporting role to our primary engagement with the Scripture which is through the ear. We need to learn how to become good hearers and bringing one’s Bible to church does not help in this respect. The Word of God is a living and powerful pronouncement that acts upon us. We do not dissect and judge it, but are dissected and judged by it. If we recognize this, we will seek to address the loss of the art of the public reading of Scripture and will firmly discourage the use of Bibles in church meetings.

    • Thanks, Mark, for a thought-provoking article. As a 50-year veteran of verse-by-verse KJV, it has made me think…

      @Al. I have to respectfully disagree with you, I’m afraid. Acknowledging the interference that comes about when trying to listen and read at the same time (PowerPoint users, take note!), I don’t really think people in the congregation spend much time actually reading while you are preaching – at least not to any great extent – so your argument is moot. Having my own bible in my lap allows me to check that it really does say what the preacher says it says. (I long ago abandoned the idea that the preacher was always right!) It also allows the preacher to point out connections between words and phrases as he/she expounds. So I’m afraid your approach sounds to me rather like the “sage on the stage” who tells people what to think and brooks little in the way of independent thought.
      One of the great expository preachers of the 20th century, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, made great efforts to encourage his audience to “think along with him” while he was preaching, and this included following along in the text. Of course, it was easier in the days when he could assume that 90% of his audience were using the same version as himself – sadly no longer true, with today’s multiplicity of versions.
      There is, of course, great merit in not being bound by chapter and verse divisions, and I for one would teach people to ignore them when reading. G. Campbell Morgan, another great expository preacher, used for study a bible that had neither verse numbers nor chapter numbers. I’ve never seen such a bible, but these days one can print long passages in that form using freely available software (eSword, for example). And then there is the story of the Anglican minister who read his second lesson of the service (always a complete chapter in the church calendar), Acts 21, ending “He spake unto them in the Hebrew tongue, saying, Here endeth the second lesson.”

  18. @Mark, all good points, as usual. I’d only note that your example is a New Testament. There are several modern 8vo-sized NT’s in single-column paragraph format that are easily readable and comfortably held. So when will some publisher give us a modern mult-volume Bible that recognizes what the ancients did, namely, that somethin’s gotta’ give when squeezing the whole Bible into a single volume?
    @Al, you my friend, have rendered us poetry. In addition to your comments about taking the script to a play, or the score to the symphony, I’d say it’s maybe a sign of knowing the work in question so well that…you don’t know the work at all. He that hath ears to hear…

  19. Al,
    Wonderful points for not reading along (and a a read along type) but the only thing it does not address is what if they are using a translation one does not agree with?
    I think I’ll give the listening only idea a try and see if it helps me feel the Word more than when I read my own translation along with it. I can always mark the passages and read them alone, later in the translation I prefer.
    This does give me a nice idea for our Bible study though. Why not a group discussion after service on the scripture that was used in the service rather than following a programmed course of study. We have several groups each Sunday and this would be a good time for each of us using different translations to compare what we received from what we have read ( and heard ).
    Now, back on to the topic at hand. I like verse headings when I am studying but for general reading I like plain text, paragraphs, etc…. I also fully agree with needing to understand the big picture (overall story) as well as each separate verse. I will often use a modern translation to glean the basic message and then go back to my favorite translations (Geneva and KJV)to study verse by verse.

  20. Tony,
    In that case, I would suggest consulting a different translation when you return home. I can be pretty picky when it comes to translations of particular passages and there is no single translation that gets it all correct. Better to bear with the weaknesses and slight inaccuracies of the lesser translation than to lose all experience of attentive listening to the text altogether.
    Besides, if you are frequently reading along in your preferred translation while a translation of the Bible that you do not agree with is being read in Church, I think that you need to ask yourself some questions. Simultaneously processing slightly differing information (aural and visual, and of slightly differing verbal content), will reduce comprehension. You are also at risk of losing the primary form of engagement with the Scriptures. You need to ask yourself whether reading along in your preferred translation or attending a Church that uses a terrible translation is really worth that sacrifice.
    One way that learning to hear the Bible has helped me in my personal study is in the way that it has taught me that my primary task is that of being attentive to the text rather than that of understanding it. In personal devotions I read the text aloud to myself a half dozen times or more, or listen to the Bible on audio. As I start to be attentive to the text, I find that I begin to ‘hear’ things in the text and encounter things within the text that I might never have seen, had I started out trying to understand it. Perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, I find that I understand the text when I don’t set out trying to understand it. Rather than my categories and question dominating the text, the text is giving more of an opportunity to surprise me and present me with its categories and questions.
    Another thing that I like about engaging with the Scripture in a way that isn’t mediated primarily by the form of the modern Bible is that the multiformity of the text is more apparent. An epistle is a very different sort of text from a gospel, a psalm is a very different sort of text from a prophetic book, and historical literature is a very different sort of thing from wisdom literature. The modern Bible tends to dull these distinctions. I would like to see ways in which we could learn different forms of engagement, appropriate to the forms that we are working with.

  21. Dearest Al,
    I am in complete agreement with all that you have written. God bless you for sharing this with such eloquence.

  22. Both the verse-by-verse format and the paragraph format have their place, I believe. Agree directly with Knight that it depends upon how you are using the text. If I was stranded on a desert island and could only have one setting, however, it would be the single paragraph format that J. Mark recommends, with mattrosser’s gray superscript verse numbering. Sometimes one needs to look at the forest, other times the trees, sometimes the bark on the trees. Most of the time I would rather zoom in myself (from the paragraph format), rather than have the tree view (verse-by-verse) as the primary. Save the forest and you can still get to the trees and the bark yourself.
    Personally, I think it is very helpful when certain blocks of text are presented as a joined whole, since often the sum of the pieces (grove) holds a further meaning that goes beyond the verses (trees). Take Luke 8:22-25 as an example. This is a single section and single paragraph in the ESV PSR. Read it verse by verse and (in my opinion) you are only likely to get the surface meaning — an account of the power and person of Jesus. As a paragraph, you get a visual cue that this is a cohesive account, these trees belong together in a grove. So you might then assemble some symbols — boat (ark, flood), sleep (death, but not final as when Jesus talks of Lazarus), great danger followed by calm and marveling. Now in addition to an eyewitness account you have an end-times parable. If possible, I don’t read through using v-b-v, but I will readily admit one needs the Holy Spirit involved more than the proper text setting or translation. We’re blind until God takes away our blindness. Given a choice though, wouldn’t you rather remove any snag or stumbling block from your path? J. Mark ended his entry on this topic well: “take a moment to reflect.” I think paragraph is the best way to go in general, certainly for recommendation to others.

  23. Al,
    I am going to try your method for a few weeks and see how that goes for me. I can’t just change churches to find a different translation, I would have to change denominations! An observation I made was that when I attended a conservative Mennonite church everyone brought a bible with them, filled with notes and all read along, 10 year olds on up. At my current church, the Church of the Brethren only one or two of use even bring a bible with us, whether to read along or even for Sunday school.
    Your post sums up my own feeling that at times paragraphs are the way to go, others it is verse by verse. Almost like being on a journey, sometimes it is nice to sit at the scenic overlook and enjoy the view of the forest but other times one needs get their hiking boots on and walk amidst the trees themselves. Once relaxed from being in the forest I often stop to take a break and only then do I see the tiny details, and hidden mysteries in the bark and ground cover around me. That is when the Holy Spirit has truely taken over.
    Any chance of a separate forum where we can discuss bible related topic that are not specific to a certian bible edition or a topical post from you? So many times we do get off track but on a subject many of us wish to share and learn from. I hate straying off topic but Al presented some ideas I had to go with.
    Thanks, Tony

  24. I think this is preatty neat, Never saw anything like it befor…Thanks for shareing!

  25. I totally disagree,I prefer verse by verse hands down. When I read,I run alot of references so I need the numbers.Even when Iam just reading, the verse by verse helps me to slow down, and think about what I am reading.I have paragraph bibles of course,thats the only way alot of bibles come,but it is really nerving to keep track of the numbers.My favorite bible is a nelson NKJV verse by verse ref. bible.It has a sewn textblock, so I rebound it in lambskin.In fact my next purchace will be the ESV scr. bible. Thanks Drew.

  26. After hacking my way through Romans in a verse per line edition of the KJV, I’m amazed that verse per line was the standard setting for so long. How was that even possible? It almost makes your head hurt, if you’re used to paragraphed text. It definitely strings out what you’re reading and has a similar effect to running it through a wood chipper – everything tends to come out the same. Isaiah looks just like Romans looks just like Joshua. That’s probably the part I can’t stand the most about verse per line – it obscures the unique genre of Scripture you’re reading. Too bad that beautiful Brevier Clarendon reviewed a while back is verse per line…too bad that so many beautifully made Bibles (Allans etc) are still verse per line. It does make you pause and consider each verse on its own, but you don’t need verse per line for that. That’s pretty much the only advantage that I can see, and you can accomplish the same thing while gaining so much more with paragraphed text (or text set as verse.)

  27. Thought about contributing to this strand for a while. Personally I like both settings. I use a Crossway ESV SCR for preaching (and love it) and at present an Allan’s ESVP (personal reference) for reading when I’m not out and about using my ESV & NASB Pitt Minions.
    My two pennyworth is simply this. Let’s not make our own reading preference into any God ordained ideal. As far as I know the earliest uncial greek texts were essentially just blocks of text without spaces between the words never mind paragraphing. As for the OT texts well lets not even go there..
    Surely the point is that whatever format we prefer to read God’s word in we must develop a hermeneutic that does take account of context. Once we have this “context 101” sorted then we can be free to read and study using whatever format floats our particular boat. Mark makes some good points for paragraphing as a help in developing this ‘sensibility’ regarding Scripture but this will not stop ‘prooftexting’ without a widespread effort to teach good practice in approaching the biblical text in terms of its genre and message.

  28. Gary – I couldn’t have said it better myself. Well done.
    By the way, you are correct on the uncial format. All caps, no spaces between words, and no punctuation. Not terribly relevant to a discussion abou an English translation but still interesting.

  29. Can some of you learned folk comment on the historical precedence for, and development of, descriptive headings in the sacred text? I suppose in some sense (such as “to the sons of Korah” in some of the Psalms) these go way back! Today, there’s the totally naked text of IBS’s The Books of the Bible, there’s the very sparse headings (like 1 every 3 chapters) that was in the early Revised English Bible, and the more modern practice of multiple headings per chapter, as in most settings of the NIV, NLT, etc.
    Quite honestly, I find they affect quite a bit the way I interact with the text. Being an orderly, Western-minded type, my initial reaction is to say I’m in favor of them compared to a bare naked text, the reading of which tends to make me feel as though I’m lost in a big city. But there’s also no denying the fact that they are in some sense commentary, and that they can actually bias our reading. And in that regard, I’d suggest that the present practice of making them quite dense in the text has probably gone too far. Now that I think about it, I’m a little surprised that the “moderate” approach of the REB didn’t win more support. I’d also wager that if we’re honest, a great deal of a translation’s “reputation” for being liberal vs. conservative or reformed vs. catholic has a lot more to do with the wording of its section headings than the actual translation of the text.
    Although, like Mark, I eschew the verse-by-verse format of the typical 100-year-old KJV setting, I’m not so sure that the practice of putting fairly generic headings in light italics across the top of the page wasn’t about the best approach. They did the important work: they helped you find a story/section of Scripture if you only knew its approximate location, they gave you some general preview of “things to come” in serial reading of the text, and they gave you some easily-recognizable “landmarks” when you opened up the volume which helped avoid that “lost in a big city” feeling. Yet at the same time, I just never sensed they were “invasive” as are typical modern headings that get bold-faced and anchored into the text. Come to think of it, you’d have a hard time convincing me they were at all sectarian either.
    I think we should recognize this as a key part of the “design” of any Bible. Anyone care to discuss?

  30. Al,
    Do not forget that there are auditory learners and visual learners. Do not prize the one at the expense of the other. Both should have the same opportunity to “hear” the Word — whether through listening or through visualizing. Thanks.

  31. I’m a visual learner and as a teacher I find more & more children are in need of ‘visual aids’ to help grasp the learning concepts these days. I attribute much of their inability to learn & hold information within their mind for analyses to the multi-media world we live in which, in my opinion, has shortened the attention span of children to an all time low – a bar that continues to amaze many of my colleagues & I as it drops further & further EACH YEAR making our job more & more difficult not to mention frustrating. I respect the notion that ‘auditory’ was a powerful learning mode years ago in the golden days of radio & earlier & has great benefits today also but I can’t accept that it’s the only or best way to learn any more. One of the most powerful exercises I use to teach X-Tables for example is to simply get the students to write them out as fast as they can, say them as they write them, listen to themselves say them & of course look at them as they do all this – that’s 4X the learning as opposed to just saying &/or listening to them & it works!
    Another more common example might be to look at the success Advertising Companies have had in their marketing campaigns & assess which type of ads are more successful (Radio / TV / Internet / Posters etc…); or which types of media are more powerful in formulating the values, opinions, actions & worldview of the youth (MTV comes to mind) but I’m probably getting off the topic at this point—
    Just something to think about – & thanks Al for your comments too – I’m open minded enough to at least experiment with what you’ve suggested.

  32. Stuart
    Thanks for your comments, as a sub teacher and a audio learner who loves to read the Bible and other books, I see many students who need help in reading. My hope is to help these students who I sub for and those I teach as a pastor in the confirmation and sunday school classes in both these areas.

  33. @ Al: Vanhoozer? or Von Balthazar, perhaps?
    Mark: Great analysis. I am very much in agreement. The first time I saw the single column paragraph format in modern English (in the New Geneva Study Bible), I was sold. The Archaeological Study Bible also uses a format similar to the ESV PSR, and it may be the most beautiful study Bible I’ve ever seen (worthy of review-hint, hint).
    I would, however, agree with Bill that “This issue is largely about preference not about doctrine or dogma in Bible publishing.” So, maybe we should take it easy on folk who disagree with us. If, for example, I were to meet a 60 year old preacher who grew up on the verse-by-verse format, has used it all his life, and insists on having it for pulpit use, I am certainly not going to engage him in a debate on the subject. I disagree with his choice, but I can appreciate and respect that choice.

  34. Re: Old is New
    Interestingly, I’ve come accross several old, non-English biblical texts that use single column paragraph (scp) formats with chapter and verse numbers in the margins:
    Prior to some time in the latter 20th Century, it seems as though that was the standard format for Greek New Testaments, including the many critical editions and the Textus Receptus editions (though not without exception). The current editions published by the United Bible Societies have verse numbers in the text, but they are still in the scp format. Perhaps the edition that has intrigued me the most is a pocket edition that has the TR and KJV in parallel columns that uses scp format with marginal chapter/verse numbers for *both* the English and Greek.
    The standard, traditional Hebrew Tanakh (OT) uses the scp, with verse numbers in the margins. Again, the UBS edition (the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia) now has arabic numerals in the text indicating chapter and verse, as does the edition published by the Jewish Publication Society. But the more traditional editions published by Koren Publishers and Artscroll (both out of Israel) still have the chapter/verse numbers in the margin–and they use Hebrew, rather than Arabic, numerals.
    Last week I took a look at some facsimiles of 16th century editions of the Bible in German (“Lutherbibel”). Again, scp–and I’m pretty sure there were no in text numbers (though I didn’t look that carefully).
    It’s funny how, when you see such a format in Greek, Hebrew, or an older form of German or English with caligraphic letters, it looks foreign, antiquarian, old-fashioned. But, when you put a modern paraphrase (the Message) in that same format with a trendy font, it looks hip, forward thinking, and innovative.
    Well, like Mark, whether you consider it to be old-timey or avant-garde, I think the scp is beautiful.

  35. One distinction that hasn’t been made yet in this thread but I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere on Mark’s site is that not all verse-by-verse editions are created equal. Some of the v-b-v editions use bold-face verse numbering or the classic pilcrow paragraph symbol to indicate when a new verse truly starts a new paragraphical thought. Some here have opined that they are able to read v-b-v’s just as profitably by mentally processing these paragraph symbols in real time. I’d still regard this as a poor substitute to modern traditional paragraphing but I agree it’s miles ahead of v-b-v editions in which there is *nothing* to indicate a change of thought, time, or even location.

  36. God be praised. I stumbled on this site from a posting at B-Greek e-mail discussion group (topic – leather GNT).
    A few comments: (1) About the example given at the introduction of this topic (ESV – If I’m not mistaken, is it given for an example of verse-by-verse format? Isn’t it just a line format for hymnal? May need a better example such as from KJV.
    (2) Read-along at the congregation – the only thing it helps is to bring the people out of their slumber 😉 and put them into a sort of unison. But I would limit the amount of the material to place on read-along. This is from my 50 years experience.
    (3) Read-aloud by a lector – this person needs some training to be effective at all, unless the congregation is visually-handicapped and needs some audio communication. See a wonderful by Clayton Schmit, Public Reading of Scripture (2002 Abingdon Press)
    P.S. If anyone interested in the text format which is neither verse-by-verse nor a traditional paragraphed format, both are right margin justified, kindly take a look at the line-format in this example (download PDF file of G-Mt) at or (The storage place is at other URL open to public where all the recent files of 4 Gospels, Acts, and Revelation are. For a sample for you to see is G-Mt. It is uploaded here at the old box which I could easily dig out its URL. This file itself is already updated but to be uploaded soon). (Your personal comments/critiques/questions to are welcome.)

  37. I feel the same way about highlighting passages, strangely Estienne’s verses don’t bug me.

  38. Upon reading I realise I’ve been a little narrow minded and rather ignorant…Thankyou for enlightening me. I’m off to buy an ESV Personal Size Reference…Would prefer the Allan’s version, but alas my budget won’t allow. My quiet time may never be the same. Thanks again!

  39. I just learned that Cambridge intends to publish a paragraph Bible (KJV). It does not appear to include headings at the top of the page, the margins are a little narrow for making notes, and it does appear to be their normal “bible paper”. But all told, it is single-column, paragraph format with their lifetime guarantee and decent binding. According to their site and it’s due around January 2011.
    See:, Amazon
    When it comes out, I sincerely hope that you will review it for the rest of us, Bertrand. The Psalms in the picture looks nice, but I’d like to see how the New Testament looks and the quality of the binding and leather.

  40. Robert K,
    That’s the New Cambridge Paragraph layout that Mark reviewed here:
    but in a personal (small) size. I’m crazy about the original “full size” edition, although Mark and many others felt it was too big. (The Penguin version was probably “just right” but only came with an undesirable paperback cover.) This upcoming Personal edition appears to be smaller font than the Penguin, but I think you’ll find plenty of space on the gutter margin for notes since that spot is reserved in the Cambridge editions for David Norton’s notes which are actually quite sparse.

  41. Thanks, Annie, it was magnanimous of you to share! And at .8 inches of thickness for 175 sheets, I doubt there’s any complaints of ghosting, right? Can you provide a high-rez version of the lower-right craigslist image so we can get a better idea of font, leading, etc?
    I guess committing to the ASV, which was an interesting choice, precludes a volume of the Deuterocanonicals rounding off the set? But is an option for a nicer binding in the works? How about a slipcase box when purchasing the complete set?

  42. A Case Against Paragraph Format:
    Nope! I so disagree, respectfully, with paragraph format. There is definately room for both verse by verse format of the Bible and paragraph. And maybe we should still emply a third, if you want to get real nit-picky, and just run the words together,.. no spaces, no verses, no paragraphs, no chapters… just like the original old manuscripts…)
    Modern readers glance through paragraphs all the time, trying to pick up the sense, the gist, the main point. We speed read. We move at a fast pace. In fact, we’re tuned in to multiple information sources, or so we think, at any particular moment. We multitask, or so we think.
    I love verse by verse.
    I love having to stop and think every few words.
    Verse by verse slows me down.
    It grabs my attention.
    It really helps grab my attention.
    I know readers didn’t have verses or chapters years ago.
    But they didn’t have center references either, or concordances, or lexicons, etc.
    All of those, of you choose to use them, ‘slow you down’.
    And remember, years ago, theydidn’tevenhavebreaksbetweenthe wordsaLLthe lettersrantogethernoversenoparagraphnopunctuation
    So I personally love attention called to each verse. It doesn’t mean I stop with one verse, but it helps call attention to SO MUCH more, making the nuances of the word of God stand out. Ok, I admit it’s my preference. And it is undoubtably that of many others. Maybe it’s our temperament. Wouldn’t bother me an iota if paragraph format disappeared. I personally struggle and plod, in fact, detest trying to read it! (?$&%*#(#*$%&?/;) But I know it would bother others. So, frankly, we need them both.
    I love verse by verse.

  43. I recently “discovered” the verse-by-verse format after years of reading the paragraph format in NIV, then NASB, now ESV. I bought one of the few remaining out-of-print ESV SCR’s, and I love it. I love how it slows me down, how it has a lot of white space between the lines for notes, and how it is SO easy to find verses.
    But something I would really like to mention: for dyslexics like my daughter, a verse-by-verse format is really important. She loves the Bible and wants to study it diligently, but having to search through lines of text to find the little number for the verse that she’s supposed to reference is very hard on her limited visual processing skills. Just something to keep in mind — not everyone has the same abilities, but we all need God’s word!
    I’m just glad there are still a few ESV SCR’s out there to purchase.

  44. Ever heard about these “Bible deversified” projects? No chapters. No verses. Just like what we our doing at our site, The Bible in Metre (a.k.a. metrebible). The Bible was not written with either. Now in my own fallible words, one cannot say they are bad, or that they are good. But, if like me, you have a goal of memorizing the Bible, it seems to help not to have them there. And this “proof-texting”, as you call it, is also harmful in the case where the other person (or you for that matter) does not know what lies around the quote; the context. When the Bible is not split into verses, “easy referrence” does not exist, and the reader is forced to be more familiar with the text. Faithful Bibles, these are. GOD be with you, and everyone else here with a passion for GOD’s WORD.
    Here are a few links to complete Bibles without them: (World English Bible, 2008) (Taverner Bible, 1539)

  45. BD: No surprise on the Taverner Bible of 1539–versification hadn’t been invented yet, or at least wasn’t widespread. I like the modern (1st) setting, but I don’t believe he’s marketing a bound version of it and personally, I think he’s fitting a few too many words per line.
    You and I are kindred spirits. I like chapter numbers but find versification a complete distraction in so many ways. But there’s not a lot of resonance with that idea on this blog, although single-column settings have a loyal following here.
    Your Bible in Metre project looks promising. I particularly like what you’ve done with the gospels.

  46. I prefer verse by verse , single or double column . I do not speak in paragraphs. I write in verses . I think in verses. Wonderful we have choice. Now if we want to talk about fonts of bibles … I surely do wish there were as many choices for other translations as there are for KJV. The choices are rather limited and seem bound by contracts of some sort. “Ceasar” being “Ceasar” it apears !

  47. I found this post by searching for “verse by verse” – I’ve been looking for a high quality one 🙂

    many of the verses wrap to a second (or third) line, leaving more space for notes. The cross references provided in the ESV are terrible. So I’ve got xrefs, definitions, journaling Q ….

    If I purchase a “wide margin bible” will I have the same amount of room?

  48. I agree fuly with barry kienholz above. The best comparison between verse-by-verse and paragraph can be made between the Oxford and Penguin paperback King James Bibles. I originally found the Penguin paragraph form refreshing but eventually became more and more irritated by page after page of block text which had the effect of making me impatient and also less and less able to concentrate. We live in a world that’s already too fast. Everyone wants everthing at once. And once they’ve guzzled down one item they’re too eager to get on to the next and the next etc. Give me those wonderful separate verses.

  49. I think it’s dangerous to advocate, especially on a blog, that one format is “better” than another. This is an entirely subjective opinion. I have have tried just about every format under the sun. Single column, Single column ref, Double column ref, Verse by verse, etc. Which format is best? It depends on the situation and what I’m seeking.

    If I want to blaze through some scripture then single column is what “I” prefer. But if I want to stop and study scripture, “I” prefer verse by verse because it slows me down and lets me latch on to the verse longer. Even see things I missed as I tend to skip some words when I read faster.

    To put this another way, I had grown up double column. It wasn’t until someone said “well double column makes your eyes work harder” did I begin to recognize my eyes working harder. Were they really working harder? Who knows. But the annoying feeling of my eyes shifting right left right left after 4 words became noticed because of the article I read on double column layouts. Did Dumbo know he had funny ears? Nope. Not until the other elephants pointed it out. But those funny ears let him do some amazing things!

    Thus, it’s a shame when a well respected and VERY influential blog advocates a subjective opinion which can steer the industry. I think thickness and binding are very objective. I think font size and font type are in the middle between objective and subjective. But then layout, that is entirely subjective and a blog post called “the case against verse by verse” is a disservice even if it touches upon some pro’s of the format.

    What would truley be useful would be a PDF containing 10 pages of Genesis in all the various formats. 10 pages for wide margin double column ref, 10 for verse by verse ref, 10 for esv study bible, 10 for single column, etc. Then let the reader decide what works best for him or her. That would be beneficial!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *