Q. I’ve heard that the verses were put in the Bible by someone who was riding on a horse, and that when you come to a bad verse division, that’s where the horse stumbled. Is that true?
This story is almost true. The verses were added to the New Testament by Robert Estienne (also known as Stephanus), a French printer, linguist, and classical scholar. He wanted to create a concordance to the Greek New Testament and needed to mark off small stretches of text so words could be easily located.
His son Henri finished the concordance project in 1594 after his father’s death and tells us, writing in Latin, that his father put in the numbers in 1551 while traveling inter equitandum from Paris to Lyon and back. This could mean “on horseback,” but it more likely means “while traveling by horse” or simply “while on a journey.”
Bruce Metzger explains in The Manuscripts of the Greek Bible:
“Although some have understood [inter equitandum] to mean ‘on horseback’ (and have explained inappropriate verse-divisions as originating when the horse bumped his pen into the wrong place!), the inference most natural and best supported by the evidence is that the task was accomplished while resting at inns along the road.”
Caspar René Gregory says similarly in The Canon and Text of the New Testament:
“Henri uses the words ‘while riding,’ ‘inter equitandum,’ and it has sometimes been supposed that he actually did it while jogging and joggling along the road upon the back of his steed. . . . Yet I do not think that he did that, or that his son Henri says that he did that. It seems to me to be more likely that the words ‘while riding’ simply mean that he did it in the breaks of this long ride. When he got up in the morning he may have done something before he set out. During the morning he may have rested a while at a wayside inn, and certainly at noon he will have done so. And at night he doubtless . . . ‘divided’ away until it was time to sleep.”
So Robert Estienne wasn’t actually on horseback when he added the New Testament verse divisions. Nevertheless, as Gregory notes, this was a hasty, distracted job.
The verse divisions in the First Testament (Old Testament) have a different history. As I explain in my book After Chapters and Verses:
“By the early centuries of our era, those who read the Hebrew Scriptures aloud in the synagogues had to pause at regular intervals to allow for an Aramaic translation, since most Jews no longer spoke Hebrew. By the year 500, the short stretches of text that were read before a translation had become standardized. They were indicated in manuscripts by a soph pasuq mark (:). Even so, two different systems remained in use, one in Palestine and the other in Babylonia, until they were harmonized by ben Asher in the tenth century. When Stephanus versified the New Testament five hundred years later, similar ‘verses’ were created in the Old Testament by numbering the stretches of text between soph pasuq marks.”
So the First Testament verses were created in a haphazard process over the centuries, and this, too, made for some arbitrary and senseless divisions, as anyone who reads through the Bible, rather than picking out a verse here and there, will find out very quickly.
And so we shouldn’t think there’s any such thing as a “Bible verse,” a portion of the text that has been carefully marked off for us as a unit of meaning and authority. The verses as we know them today are historical accidents that are just as likely to mislead us as to inform us. Indeed, there are many places where it would almost be preferable to appeal to a horse stumbling than to admit that a person had introduced a verse division there intentionally!