Were the verses really put in the Bible by someone riding on horseback?

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.

Robert Estienne, the French printer who added the verses to the Bible

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!

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

One thought on “Were the verses really put in the Bible by someone riding on horseback?”

  1. I had puzzled over Eph 5:1, “imitators of God” thinking that’s kinda abstract for me and wondered why it’s not “imitators of Christ” until I noticed the “therefore” and remember someone said once, check the previous verse to find “why it’s therefore” so I looked at the end of Chapter 4 and now I get it. It’s about God example of forgiveness – God in Christ has forgiven me, so wow and wow – how gracious I should be to others!

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