The Wartburg Project

April 26th, 2019

52. The Verse Numbers in the Bible

In Matthew 2:1-2, I noticed what seems to be a discrepancy between the location of the verse number in the EHV and in some other translations. Does the EHV change verse numbers?

The short answer is No,” but as is often the case with questions our readers ask, this turns out to be more complicated than anyone expected. So before we address your specific question, we will comment on the issues concerning verse numbers that confront Bible translators.

Early Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the biblical texts did not have the chapter and verse numbers that appear in modern versions. The verse numbers were a very late addition to the text, and, to make it more complicated, there are various systems of numbering that do not agree with each other.

Already by the time of Christ, the Hebrew text was being divided into standard paragraphs and sections. The Eastern Church also developed a system of paragraphs and divisions for the Greek text. In the 13th century AD, Archbishop Stephen Langton and Cardinal Hugo de Sancto Caro developed two different plans for the division of the biblical text into sections. Langton’s system became the basis for the modern chapter divisions of the Bible.

By 1000 AD, the Hebrew text had a system of punctuation that became a forerunner of the modern system of verses for the Old Testament. The first person to divide New Testament chapters into verses was an Italian Dominican biblical scholar, Santi Pagnini (1470–1541), but his system never became popular. Robert Estienne (aka Robertus Stephanus) created a system of verse numbers for his 1551 edition of the Greek New Testament. This system was also used in his 1553 publication of the Bible in French.

The first English New Testament to use these verse divisions was a 1557 translation by William Whittingham (c. 1524–1579). The first Bible in English to use both chapter and verse numbers was the Geneva Bible published in 1560. These verse numbers soon gained acceptance as the standard way to divide the text, and they have been used in nearly all English Bibles and in the vast majority of those in other languages.

It seems then that it would be a simple matter to use these verse numbers. There are, however, a number of complications for Bible students and editors.

There are many differences between the Hebrew chapter and verse numbers and the English numbers. This means that very often when translating from the Hebrew text, the translator not only has to translate the words of the Hebrew text into English but also has to “translate” the Hebrew verse numbers to English verse numbers. The list of these discrepancies covers four small-print, double-column pages in the SBL Handbook of Style (p 172-175).

That same SBL list also includes a list of discrepancies between the Hebrew numbering and the numbering in the Greek and Latin Old Testaments.

These discrepancies of numbering seldom are a problem for the translator, but they do pose problems for students of the Bible. If readers of the English Bible are trying to look up the Hebrew for a specific verse of the Old Testament, they may be baffled that they cannot see any connection between what the Hebrew text is saying what they have just read in English. They need to look at a different chapter and verse in the Hebrew Bible. To help our readers who want to check the Hebrew for a verse, the EHV has footnotes at those spots in which the Hebrew numbers do not correspond to the English numbers. These notes direct readers to the appropriate Hebrew references.

The discrepancies between the Hebrew and Greek/Latin numbers come into play when students are trying to use Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic commentaries, especially patristic and medieval commentaries, since these works often use the verse numbers from the Greek Septuagint or Latin Vulgate. English translations of these works of the church fathers may sometimes “translate” the original Latin or Greek verse references into English verse numbers to help their English readers.

The Book of Psalms is a special example of the problem.

The heading of the psalms are part of the Hebrew text, and in Hebrew they have their own verse numbers. In English these headings have no verse number. The result is that verse numbers in the Hebrew Psalms are often one or two numbers higher than the numbers of the corresponding verses in the English Bible. In the EHV study Bibles, any footnotes pertaining to the headings are listed under verse one, so that all footnotes will have a verse number for computer searches.

The numbering of the Psalms in our English Bibles agrees with that of the Hebrew text. It differs, however, from that of the Greek Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate. It is necessary to know this, not only for looking up scriptural references in those versions, but also for using Roman Catholic commentaries, which sometimes follow the numbering of the Vulgate.

The problem arises because the Greek Septuagint (LXX) joins Psalms 9 and 10 into one psalm; joins Psalms 114 and 115 into one psalm; splits Psalm 116 into two psalms; and splits Psalm 147 into two psalms. The net result of this is shown in the following chart:

Hebrew and EnglishGreek and Vulgate

In summary, the numbers of the Septuagint and Vulgate psalms are one number lower than the English and Hebrew numbers, with the following exceptions: for Psalms 1-9, 147b-150 the numbers are the same; Hebrew Ps 115 = Greek 113; Hebrew Ps 116 = Greek 114 or 115. For example, our beloved Psalm 23 is called Psalm 22 in works based on the Greek text of the Old Testament.

Another minor variant is that some rabbis and church fathers treated Psalms 1 and 2 as one psalm, Psalm 1. This is actually rather perceptive, since together these two psalms form an introduction to Psalms. This approach explains the textual variant in Acts 13:33, in which Psalm 2 is called Psalm 1.

Another verse problem is that in many recent translations certain verse numbers are missing from the text because of textual questions. In Matthew 17, the ESV and NIV have no verse 21 in the text. The EHV includes verse 21 in the text.

21But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.

There are about twenty such passages in the New Testament. Most translations account for the missing verse numbers with a footnote or with a bracketed, blank verse number. The EHV includes the text of a number of these verses that were given verse numbers in the King James Version, but that are omitted from the text of many recent translations.

Another example of this issue is found in Acts 8. Many translations skip from verse 36 to verse 38. Here is the ESV:

36And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”5 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.

The ESV footnote 5 calls attention to the missing verse. The NIV and CSB are among the other translations that omit this verse because they believe it was not part of the original Greek text. In this case, the EHV agrees with placing the verse in a footnote. The EHV decision in each case is based on the strength of the textual support for the reading.

The opposite problem (too many words for a verse number) occurs in those cases in which the EHV accepts a longer reading which is present in the Greek Old Testament but which is absent from the Hebrew text. Here is one of the most extreme examples from Judges 16:13-14:

13Delilah said to Samson, “So far you have made a fool of me and told me lies. Tell me how you may be tied up!”

So he said to her, “If you weave the seven locks of my hair into the fabric of a loom ˻and fasten them with a pin, I will be as weak as any other man.” After she had waited for him to fall asleep, Delilah took the seven locks of his hair and wove them in the fabric of a loom.˼ 14She fastened them with the pin and said to him, “Philistines are upon you, Samson!”

The words marked by half-brackets are not present in the Hebrew text but are included in the Greek Old Testament. An accidental omission from the Hebrew text may have occurred as the copyist’s eye jumped from one occurrence of the word loom to another. Adopting the longer reading doubles the size of verse 13. There are quite a few such longer readings in the Old Testament, especially in Judges and Samuel. In such cases the translator could reposition or add another verse number, but the EHV usually retains the common English verse numbers, and it marks the long addition with half-brackets to help the reader identify the addition.

Now at last we come to your question about the EHV changing a verse number in Matthew 2. This is what the EHV text says:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, when Herod was king, Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem. They asked, 2“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?”

The NIV has:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, 2saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?

A sharp-eyed reader asked why the EHV moved the verse number. The answer is that we didn’t. This is one of the passages in which there is disagreement in the Greek and English resources concerning the placement of the verse number.

This is documented in the footnote to Matthew 2:1-2 in the UBS text. This variant is not listed in the main apparatus but appears in the middle apparatus on the bottom of the page. The footnote is fairly cryptic but indicates that the Greek, English, and German versions are divided on the issue of the placement of the verse number. The explanation of the abbreviation TR in the introduction to the UBS text (p xliv, third edition) very briefly explains how UBS editors deal with such discrepancies concerning the placement of verse numbers. They consult various versions of Stephanus and other sources to resolve the discrepancy. We leave the fun of finding such verse number discrepancies, of which there are quite a few, to our readers.

But how is it that the best authorities could not agree on something as simple as where to place the verse number? In Greek texts, it makes the best grammatical sense for the word saying to be placed in verse 1 since it is a participle modifying the word magi, which also is in verse one. But if the whole statement is broken into two sentences and the word saying is translated as a finite verb, they said, the verb fits better with verse 2 as the introduction to the question. The underlying cause of this type of problem is the Greek fondness for long run-on sentences. In this case, the EHV translator followed one set of authorities. The NIV translator followed another. Very likely, since we do not follow NIV as a resource, we did not notice the discrepancy until the reader asked about it. Good arguments can be made for or against either option.

In some cases, differences in Hebrew word order from English word order force the translator to move material from a Hebrew verse 5 into an English verse 6 or vice versa. If we think that this shift might raise questions for readers, we note the shift of material in a footnote.

Although the verse numbers, chapter numbers, and the topical headings that the EHV adds to the translation are not part of the original text, they have become a very valuable tool for finding specific passages and for following the flow of thought in the text. On the other hand, they may create artificial interruptions and disrupt the flow of the text. To minimize this, the EHV prints the verse numbers as small superscripts so they are less disruptive. Readers can easily learn to just pass over all these insertions. (It is also possible to find readers’ editions of the Bible that omit all the insertions.)

There are about 31,100 verses in the Bible. (The number cannot be exact because different editions disagree on the number of verses.) Over the years, the placement of verse numbers into the text required more than 31,000 editorial decisions by the transmitters of the text. Most contemporary translators simply follow the decision made by the editors of the base text that they are using.

The problem raised by the verse numbers of the Bible is just another illustration of the principle constantly experienced by translators: “This is a little more complicated than I thought it would be.”