Are Bible Verses The Worst Thing Ever?


(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.