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!