Are Bible Verses The Worst Thing Ever?

5353114275_6fc2a2205a_b(Credit: Chineka, Flickr Creative Commons)

Bribing kids with candy (or other prizes) to memorize Bible verses is an ancient tradition in the Church.

And by ancient, I mean it dates back to at least the 1980s when I was a kid and like every other red-blooded American I just assume everything from my childhood is the way it’s always been and, therefore, the way it always should be.

In theory, teaching our children to memorize scripture is a wonderful thing. After all, if our faith is biblically based, then knowing a thing or two about the Bible would probably come in handy from time to time.

But in practice, our love for Bible verses can be incredibly problematic.

In fact, Bible verses might be the worst thing ever.

I know that may sound strange, perhaps even bordering on the blasphemous, but hang with me for a moment and I promise I won’t lead you into the flames.

Believe it or not, the chapters and verses that divide our modern Bibles into today didn’t exist for the first 1,000 years or so of Christianity. Which was awful for Sunday School kids back then, because they had to memorize entire books of the Bible just to get a piece of butterscotch candy they didn’t really want in the first place.

When the books of the Bible were first written down, they were read and discussed in much greater length than we typically do today. Sure, the Psalms were often read or sung one at time and specific Levitical laws were analyzed and debated over individually or just a few at a time, but when Nehemiah rediscovered the book of Deuteronomy, he didn’t have Ezra read selected portions. He read the entire thing to the people of Israel. Likewise, Paul’s letters in the New Testament were intended to be read in their entirety to the congregation to whom he was writing – just like we would read an entire letter today. Or, maybe an entire email. Does anybody still write letters?

Sure, particular stories like that of Noah and his ark were told without slogging through the entire book of Genesis, but it wasn’t until the 13th century when a guy named Stephen Langton, a Cardinal and Archbishop of Canterbury, began dividing up the Bible into more easily accessible portions that our modern chapters began to appear. Verses followed later as a way to further subdivide these newly created chapters into easy to cite passages of scripture.

I imagine at the time it seemed like a wonderful revolution in biblical studies. Scholars could converse more easily with each other about what part of scripture was being debated and children could rack up the candy far more quickly now that they had less to memorize.

Nearly a thousand years later, however, chapters and verses have become decidedly less wonderful.

On the most basic level (and this isn’t anything new; it began the moment Langton got to work), chapters and verses chop up scripture in ways it was never intended, allowing modern readers to focus on small portions of a much bigger conversation and thereby miss the crucial context for understanding the verse we’re focused on. Context is everything and without it a particular verse can be warped, twisted, or cut and pasted with other verses to create a meaning the original author never intended.

It’s this proof-texting, ripping verses out of their proper context to prove a point – that leads to legalism, fundamentalism, and all sorts of other -isms that turn the Bible into a weapon of war instead of a message of peace.

On one end of the problematic spectrum you’ve got a verse like Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” There are few things we love more than quoting that verse at graduation ceremonies, but the thing is, it doesn’t really have anything to do with us. At least not directly. God was speaking specifically to the children of Israel while they were in exile. It was a promise to them that one day their exile would end. It wasn’t a divine promise to an 18 year old American high school student that they would become rich and famous after graduation. But by virtue of its verse-edness (Is that word? Well, it is now), all context and proper understanding for that passage has been lost and today it’s become little more than a proof-text for the prosperity gospel.

But verses can create bigger problems than that.

Take Paul’s infamous words from 1 Corinthians 14:34, “Women should be silent in the church.” Or 1 Timothy 2:12 in which he wrote, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.” Despite the fact that Paul also wrote that all are one in Christ Jesus, involved women in places of leadership in his ministry, and ignoring the fact that Jesus also made women a central part of his ministry (including choosing women to be the first ones to proclaim the resurrection), the isolation of these verses allows them to be stripped of both their biblical and historical context in order to relegate women to second class citizenship in the Church.

But verses can create even bigger problems than that.

We consider ourselves to be fairly enlightened people today, folks who understand and value the importance of things like equality and justice. The idea that one person could be the property of another person is universally deplored in the Church today…but that wasn’t always the case. Paul’s words in Colossians 3:22 and Ephesians 6:5 in which he says “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” and Peter’s command in 1 Peter 2:18 that “You who are slaves must accept the authority of your masters with all respect,” have been used for centuries as proof-texts to justify the enslavement, exploitation, and oppression of countless millions of people.

And, of course, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of the myriad of ways in which the creation of chapters and verses has empowered us to justify our legalism, sanctify our bigotry, and proof-text our oppression of people we don’t like.

Now, as someone who spent the better part of a decade studying the faith in the academy, I am fully aware of how helpful the division of scripture can be in that sort of setting. Likewise, having been on both sides of the pulpit, I realize that going through an entire book like Matthew or Acts on a Sunday morning (at least in the way we’re used to in modern sermons) is neither possible for the preacher nor particularly appealing for the congregation.

So, yes, there are certainly times in which chapters and verses can be helpful as reference points so long as as we understand how incredibly narrow our perspective is in that moment and how limited our understanding of that passage will be if we do not venture out further into the text.

However, I am convinced that the benefits, insights, and understanding that can be gleaned from being forced to retell an entire story and wade through its context and commentary, far outweighs whatever convenience chapters and verses might afford. And again, that is to say nothing of the very real problems that a “plain reading” of those chapters and verses has created and continues to create in the lives of very real people.

Now, I acknowledge that there is no going back to a time without chapters and verses (though there is a noble attempt to turn back the clock). But this inability to reverse the tide of history simply means we must be that much more diligent in our study of scripture and always be on guard to resist the temptation to chop up the Bible into little pieces we can put back together (or not) however we see fit.

If we can do that, not only will we have a better understanding of the Bible, but maybe, just maybe, we’ll also do a better job of being disciples of Jesus.

So, is dividing the Bible into chapters and verses the worst thing ever?

Maybe not and maybe things would have turned out the same either way, but considering how they’ve empowered and continue to empower people to sanctify the oppression, exploitation, marginalization, enslavement, abuse, and even death of countless souls, I think the world would probably be much better off if Bible verses had never been created.

 

16 Comments
  • kristen
    January 23, 2015

    Have you seen what this guy is doing? Im pretty excited about it. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/530877925/bibliotheca

    • Jimmy_Melnarik
      January 23, 2015

      First thing I thought of. I’m actually excited to use this project as a reason to finally read the ASV version. (And interested in the changes the editor makes concerning Young’s translation and the word Lord being removed.)

    • ZackHunt
      January 24, 2015

      I hadn’t seen it, but that’s awesome. Thanks for sharing it!

  • Rebecca Erwin
    January 23, 2015

    The practice of Bible Verses for a piece of candy made me insane! My grown kids now talk about not remembering the ton of verses memorized in bible club, but remembering the prizes.

    Walking away from soap box.

  • Joe Fontenot
    January 23, 2015

    Zack, I think you’re right on. It seems like a passive issue at first (as in, what’s the big deal?), but it really does lend itself toward proof-texting. There are things that I’ve come back to *years* later and had to relearn, because I originally learned them out of it’s context (like, when Jesus says, where 2 or 3 are gathered, he’s not talking about worship).

    Good thoughts.

  • AnotherJosh
    January 23, 2015

    I enjoyed my time in AWANA as a kid, and not just for the candy – I was good at memorizing stuff, while I sucked at sports, so the competitive part was the one thing in the world at which I could excel. So I felt good because I won all of the awards. All of them. 😉

    Since then, having seen how much damage was done by verses taken out of context in the fundamentalist Baptist church of my youth, as well as in the evangelical circles in which I now find myself, I completely agree with your thoughts here.

    In that vein, a couple of years ago, when my church was discussing whether to keep doing AWANA or switch to another kids program that was more hands-on and much less rote memory, I voiced some of these same concerns. Unfortunately, the nostalgia of the older crowd won out, and we’re still doing AWANA to this day…

  • Alex
    January 23, 2015

    For those interested in The Books of the Bible, mentioned above, there is more information here: http://www.biblica.com/thebooks

  • Zachary Frazier
    January 23, 2015

    It might be that some of the section breaks are more harmful than the verse markings. For example: some translations put a break between Ephesians 3:21 and 3:22. That changes everything. The chapter markings in the letters might make it more difficult to follow the flow of the letter’s argument if each letter is not read as a whole or at least with a knowledge of the whole.

  • A.O. GREEN
    January 24, 2015

    It seems like you have issues with verses because people usually interpret them contrary to the progressive narrative.

    • ZackHunt
      January 24, 2015

      You got me. I was lying in my post when I said I think verses are problematic because they strip passages of context and empower people to weaponize scripture. I don’t actually care about the welfare of people and I’m definitely not interested in folks reading more of the Bible, even if my post and the history of my blog overtly imply otherwise. It’s sustaining the “progressive narrative” I’m really worried about. I’m just too scared to admit it.

      • A.O. GREEN
        January 24, 2015

        Take the passages related to female activity in the ekklesia they are problematic because taken at face value because it goes contrary to the progressive narrative.

        • ZackHunt
          January 24, 2015

          “Taken at face value” – that’s the problem I’m talking about. You can’t just read scripture in isolation like that and pretend like individual verses have no context. It’s that sort of proof-texting that sanctifies bigotry and justifies a whole host of atrocities.

        • Zachary Frazier
          January 27, 2015

          There is no “face value.” We cannot help but bring some sort of context to anything we read. The question is, are we going to bring on own context to bear on the text or will we try to bring the original author-and-reader’s context to bear? Not only should we not read individual verses out of context, but every pericope, book, and testament needs to be read in ever-larger contexts.

          -Zachary Frazier (www.un-a-bridged.com)

        • Philip Mills
          January 27, 2015

          I think few people take all of scripture “at face value” and we as Christians implicitly understand that. The discussion is always which ones we take at face value and which we don’t.

          Since your posting on a website I suspect you didn’t sell all you have and give it to the poor. But we understand that story to be more nuanced and deep than the face value reading of “you must sell everything you posses and give it to the poor or there will be nothing for you in heaven.”

          We know it to be more than that. As well we can see that your don’t honestly believe that’s how we read scripture because in your picture you own some clothes and a watch/bracelet. so either you don’t actually believe in taking scripture at face value or you understand that there is some interpretation that happens.

          I think a lot of us hold views in our mind that a very discrete and objective but find we actually act and function far more in the interpretive and we often don’t even realize that we are doing it. I know I do it, and it’s hard for me to see the areas where I say one thing and do another, but i happens all the time.

  • Janis V
    January 29, 2015

    Is it even necessary to cite book, chapter and verse when reciting scripture? I don’t see why this is necessary.

  • Alan Christensen
    February 5, 2015

    Worse than dividing Scripture up into verses is the practice of printing them as if each verse is its own little paragraph, as used to be typical. That lends itself even more to wrenching a verse out of context to say whatever you want it to say.

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