The KJV: Is it THE Bible? Part 10: Divided Verses; Divided Minds
“A man dissatisfied with his life decided to consult the Bible for guidance. Closing his eyes, he flipped the book open and pointed to a spot on the page. Opening his eyes, he read the verse under his finger. It read, ‘Then Judas went away and hanged himself‘ (Matthew 27:5b) Closing his eyes again, the man randomly selected another verse. This one read, ‘Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”‘ (Luke 10:37b)”
-a common preacher story, adapted
In the last post we examined some of the paraphrases and renderings in the KJV that create potential problems in doctrine, in teaching. Now we’re going to look at how the divisions of the Bible into sections, which the KJV is mainly responsible for, has also had an effect on how people treat the scriptures.
The Geneva Bible, the one Shakespeare quoted from and the one that many people had in their homes before and after the KJV came along, divided verses into paragraphs. The idea was that this made it easier to memorize scripture. It can also make it easier on the eyes. But keep in mind that the Bible wasn’t written in verses. With the exception of passages like the psalms and proverbs, the books of the Bible run on like straight narratives, broken up in context by the cues given—”In the fifth year of the king,” “The next day,” “On the third hour.” The separation of verses mostly took place between 1300 and 1550 by different scholars. By the time the KJV came along, this was a standard practice in printing Bibles, and this “government issue” Bible cemented that practice for the English speaking world.
As I said, numbered verses and chapters make for easier navigation and memorization, but there is also a downside, as it carves up the Bible into pre-determined segments. These segments were carved by men, and often lead us to jump to conclusions about how the story is framed, how the writers expressed their thoughts, and even what the purpose of the books are. “This printing practice is actually a misfortune,” says Jack Lewis, “leading people to suppose that the Bible is composed of disconnected maxims” and “[contributing] to proof-texting in Bible exegesis“(1). In other words, it makes it easier for us to take a single verse out of context and make it say what we want, because it trains us to read the Bible as a list of sentences that each have a point. Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness by quoting scripture out of context. The solution was not only to look at more scripture, but to look at it in context.
One obvious example of this “cutting apart” of scripture is in 1 Cor. 12-13. Chapter 12 talks of spiritual gifts, and the discussion is supposed to move into the “more excellent way” of love being the most craved gift. But with these divisions, 12 ends with “and I show you a still more excellent way”, ending the chapter, rather than introducing the next “segment” of Paul’s presentation on love.
Another example is how Jesus’ illustration of the harvest (Matt. 9:36-38) is cut off from the instructions to his disciples (Matt. 10), as if they were disconnected, separate themes.
As the Bible wasn’t composed with chapters, it follows that it wasn’t composed with chapter summaries either. Sometimes the summaries given by the KJV translators, as with other translators in other translations, are harmless. But sometimes these chapter headings, in the words of Lewis, “suggest an interpretation that is of doubtful veracity, if not positively misleading” (2).
For example, in the KJV Song of Solomon, every chapter gives a heading indicating that the purpose of the chapter is to draw a comparison to Christ and his church. Although this can certainly be done, the book is a poem primarily meant to celebrate marriage, love, and sex. It can serve as a Christological allegory, but it was not written to be one.
And poetry too?
Another thing worth lamenting about the heritage of the KJV layout is that the translators made no distinction between prose and poetry. But having little knowledge of Hebrew, the translators knew less of the features of Hebrew poetry.
We could say that this issue of divided passages and chapter headings is not a huge deal. Nonetheless, if we are going to set up criteria for how a translation does or does not misshape the word of God, such criteria should be considered. Chapters and verses have helped countless believers to memorize scripture and locate it, but it has also led to innumerable misunderstandings about the text itself. The KJV is not alone in creating this effect, but it played a major role in keeping this effect around: Another reason why it cannot be deemed perfectly exceptional against all other translations.
Speaking of other translations, which one(s) should we use? We will ask this question in our next post.
1 Lewis, Jack P (1992). The English Bible from KJV to NIV: A History and Evaluation. 2nd Ed. Baker Book House. p.51
2 Ibid. p.52