Bad Chapter Breaks Result in Poor Understanding
All of us tend to read our Bibles by chapter and verse. After all, these breaks help us to track where we should stop or where we left off. When we assemble to read scripture, chapters and verses make it easier to keep everyone on the same page, to let each person know where we are. Even so, I prefer to read the Bible without chapters and verses due to the number of bad chapter breaks.
We need to make a few points regarding chapter breaks. First, chapter numbers were not in the original text. The chapter breaks we have today were first added in the 13th century by an Archbishop named Stephen Langston.
Moses, Luke, Paul and John did not write their books with chapters and verses. None of the original writers had chapter breaks in their writings. Therefore, when we break at a chapter, we are breaking somewhere that the original writer might never have intended. Often, we break in the middle of a thought. Imagine that you are speaking to someone and before you could finish your point, you are told to stop until next week.
The Problem of Chapter Breaks
Chapter breaks in the middle of the thought cause two problems. If we stop reading at the end of a chapter before the thought has been completed, we won’t realize the writer wasn’t done. We assume that’s the end of the teaching. We never get the full teaching.
Additionally, we begin the next chapter thinking it is the start of a new thought. This can often make us think the writer is saying something different that he intended.
So, if chapter breaks were removed, how would you know when a Biblical writer is ending or beginning a new thought? Usually, there are simple clues in the writing. Even when these clues might be more difficult to find, one can usually know when the writer has moved on to his next point just by reading the context. It sounds difficult if you have never done it before, but with practice, it becomes more apparent. Think about a long letter from a friend: you know when the letter has changed topic without a header or chapter number. This is no different.
Examples of Bad Chapter Breaks
1 Corinthians often combines shorter thoughts together in single chapters. Chapter 6 combines Paul’s teaching about lawsuits together with his teaching about sexual immorality. Chapter 11 combines his teaching about women’s head covering and the Lord’s Supper. Meanwhile, we also find longer thoughts broken up into multiple chapters. Chapters 8-10 are about foods offered to idols. Chapters 12-14 teach about the gifts of the Spirit.
Matthew is divided into 5 sections. Each section ends with, “When Jesus had finished…” This occurs in Matthew 7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1. Notice how arbitrary the breaks are: twice they are near the end of chapters (chapters 7 and 13) and three times they begin chapters (chapters 11, 19 and 26). Why would Matthew break his gospel into five sections? Because he was writing to Jewish readers who would have been familiar with the 5 books of Moses, called the Torah. Early readers of Matthew understood this. Today, we can only see 28 chapter breaks. We don’t notice Matthew’s natural breaks.
Genesis has 50 chapters. However, right at the beginning, we find a mistake with the chapter break. Chapter 2 begins 4 verses too early. Chapter 2 should have started at 2:5. The first four verses are part of the story in chapter 1. When we look at Genesis 2:4, we find Moses’ chapter break, “These are the generations of…” When we recognize that these were Moses’ natural breaks in his writing, we find the following sections, which is a much more logical outline for the book than our chapters:
- Genesis 2:4 – Summary of the creation of the heavens and earth
- Genesis 5:1 – The genealogy of Man (Adam)
- Genesis 6:9 – Begins the story of Noah
- Genesis 10:1 – The genealogy of Noah
- Genesis 11:10 – The genealogy of Shem
- Genesis 11:27 – Begins the story of Abraham
- Genesis 25:12 – The genealogy of Ishmael (Abraham’s first son by Hagar)
- Genesis 25:19 – The genealogy of Isaac (Abraham’s promised son by Sarah)
- Genesis 36:1 – The genealogy of Esau (Isaac’s first son)
- Genesis 37:2 – Begins the story of Joseph (Jacob’s 11th son – first by Rachel)
Acts has 28 chapters, but Luke wrote it in 6 parts. Each part ends with a summary statement regarding the status of the church up to that point:
- Acts 6:7 – The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem
- Acts 9:31 – So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.
- Acts 12:24 – But the word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.
- Acts 16:5 – So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily.
- Acts 19:20 – So the word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.
- Acts 28:31 – (Paul was) preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered.
Why does Luke break up Acts into 6 sections? In Jewish thought, 7 is the number of completeness. Luke’s sections make the point that the Book of Acts is not yet complete. Paul will continue to preach the kingdom. To this day, the church continues the story of Acts.
We’ve already pointed out that the first few verses of Genesis 2 should be part of Genesis 1. Here are a couple more examples where the chapter breaks have been obviously misplaced:
- Isaiah 52:13-15 should be part of Isaiah 53. In fact, a quick look at Isaiah 53:1 will show that it is fully and completely part of the thought written in Isaiah 52:15.
- Colossians 4:1 obviously belongs as a part of Colossians 3.
Here are some examples where the chapter breaks cause us to miss or misunderstand the writer’s points:
John 14 should not have a break here. This splits the conversation Jesus was having with Peter and causes us to misunderstand. In John 13:36-38, Jesus is explaining that he is going away (i.e.: to heaven after his crucifixion). Peter claims he will follow Jesus even unto death. Jesus replies that Peter will deny him three times. But he also tells Peter that he should not let his heart be troubled. Most people will never see that. Jesus tells Peter not to let his heart be troubled after the chapter break.
Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. – John 14:1
Hence, for most people, in John 14:1, Jesus is speaking to people in general. We misunderstand this because the chapter break has been ridiculously placed right in the middle of Jesus’ response to Peter. (Important to note: verse 2 uses the plural “you,” meaning that his promises in John 14:1-3 applies to us as well). Evidence that this is all one conversation is that it starts in John 13:36 speaking about following Jesus (“you cannot follow Me now; but you will follow later”) and ends in John 14:5 (“Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?”).
Romans 8 is Paul’s great comfort chapter regarding salvation in Christ. From Romans 8:1-11, we are given tremendous assurance of our salvation not by works of the law (which is of sin and death) but by the law of the Spirit (which is of life).
In reality, this section of chapter 8 really belongs as part of the previous chapter where Paul discusses the difficulty of salvation by following the Law of Moses. After explaining how futile it is to try to earn salvation through the Law, he cries out, “Who will set me free from the body of this death?” The answer is the last verse in the chapter, Romans 7:25, and the first part of the next chapter, Romans 8:1-11. Hence, if you stopped reading at the end of chapter 7, you do not understand how Jesus has saved you because you have stopped in the middle of Paul’s thought.
Just as bad is that the end of chapter 8, beginning in verse 28, should really be part of Paul’s discussion about the Church versus Israel, which occurs in chapters 9-11. Throughout these three chapters, Paul argues that the Church has taken the place of Israel during the time of the Church Age. He explains that Israel was God’s chosen people (Romans 9:4) but now the Church is God’s chosen people (Romans 9:8), even though Israel will once again be His (Romans 11:25-31). When we recognize this, we can see that God knew this would happen and had planned for the Church to be His people from the beginning of time (Romans 8:28ff).
Many people use Romans 8:29-30 as evidence that individuals have been elected by God for salvation. However, when we remove the chapter breaks and read this as a single letter, we find these sentences belong with the following section discussing the election and predestination of the Church and not of individuals. In other words, Paul is teaching that the Church has been elected and predestined since the beginning of time to be His Holy Nation and Royal Priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), just as He had done for Israel in the past (Exodus 19:6).
Dealing with Chapter Breaks
These are examples of some of the problems we find with the chapter breaks that exist in our Bibles. Some Bibles have been printed without chapter breaks, though I do not know of any online versions available (please let me know if you find any). I’m going to assume most of us don’t have access to these. Therefore, the lesson here is, when you read your Bible, it is vital to continue reading through a chapter break. Failing to do so may result in not hearing all that the writer is trying to say.
Read into the next chapter to determine whether the chapter break is proper. Continue until you have read through the end of the section. This might extend several chapters.
Make every effort to remove chapter breaks mentally, so that the last sentence of the previous chapter flows into the first sentence of the next one. In this way, you will do all you can to read the Bible the way it was written. Doing so will help you to better understand the truth of God’s word, which will grow your understanding of and relationship with God.
 Evidence that this is where Paul’s section breaks: God’s “Spirit” is mentioned 17 times from verse 1-27; it is not mentioned once after this. The Spirit is Paul’s proof of his point in this section. Once the section is complete, he moves on to the next – the Church versus Israel. Download an example of Romans 7-9 without chapter, verses or paragraphs.
 Bible Gateway has settings that allow you to remove verses and headings. I have done this for every chapter of a book and then copied and pasted each chapter into a document so that all breaks are removed and I can read a book of the Bible as it originally was intended. Download an example of Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the NIV or NASB translations. Note: Paragraph breaks are different between the two versions. The first manuscript with paragraphs is found in the fifth century. English translations add paragraph breaks based on their translators’ beliefs. The impact of paragraphs is similar to the chapter breaks discussed in this post. Ideally, removal of paragraphs could also help us to understand better the writer’s meaning.