After 800 years, thank you.

Last week began the annual cycle of reading the Torah. And already from the beginning, it’s easy to notice that the chapter breaks are not always in the most expected or logical places. For example, the first chapter of Bereshit (Genesis) describes the creation of the world, of which the pinnacle is God resting on the seventh day – and yet that first Shabbat appears in the second chapter. There are many other such questionable chapter breaks throughout the Bible.

However, it is important to note that the Bible did not originally have the divisions into chapter and verse that we are familiar with today. The division of the text has quite a history, both in the original Hebrew and the later translations. The traditional Jewish division was the parasha. While today the term is often used to refer to the weekly reading of the Torah, that was actually called a sedra, whereas the parasha was a much smaller division.

The chapters we use today are of Christian origin, and some of those unusual chapter breaks were due to Christian polemics and disputes over the meaning of the Bible. Jews later adopted these chapters due to their convenience, but in recent years there has been a move back to the traditional Jewish divisions. The Koren Tanach, published first in 1961 emphasized the parasha over the Christian chapters, and a more recent edition, Shiva Le’Bitzaron, does not include the chapters at all.

Who came up with these chapter divisions? The Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (1150-1228). At first glance it might be easy to view Cardinal Langton as one who has done a disservice to the Jewish Bible, for his misrepresentation has now achieved universal acceptance, by Jews and non-Jews alike.

However, perhaps we should not be so quick to rush to judgement. For Langton is perhaps even more famous for another document. Nearly 800 years ago, in 1215, a major conflict had broken out between King John of England and rebellious barons. Although he supported John, Langton drafted a document that would limit the rights of the king – the famous Magna Carta. Langton loved to study the Bible, and was particularly familiar with the laws in Deuteronomy, such as in (his) chapter 17, which limits the rights of the king, and requires the king to carry the book of the law at all times. The Magna Carta, which was the inspiration for the United States Constitution, and is viewed as the founding document of the modern ideas of liberty, democracy and human rights – was itself inspired by the Torah!

A Jewish contemporary of Langton, Maimonides (1135-1204), in his Book of the Laws of Kings (Chapter 11), wrote that while Christianity was founded by a false messiah, it was part of God’s plan:

But the human mind has no power to reach the thoughts of the Creator, for his thoughts and ways are unlike ours. And all these things of Jesus the Nazarene, and of the Ishmaelite who stood after him – there is no (purpose) but to straighten out the way for the King Messiah, and to restore all the world to serve God together. So that it is said, “Because then I will turn toward the nations (giving them) a clear speech, to call all of them in the name of God and to serve God (shoulder to shoulder as) one shoulder.” (Zephaniah 3:9). How is this? The entire world had become filled with the issues of the anointed one and of the Torah and the Laws, and these issues had spread out unto faraway islands and among many nations uncircumcised in the heart, and they discuss these issues and the Torah’s laws.

In the beginning of the Torah we read of universal failures of humanity – ending with the Flood and the dispersion into different nations after the Tower of Babel. A new system was necessary – one nation would receive the laws reflecting the divine morals and ideals, and through this (start-up) nation, the message would eventually spread to the rest of the world. It would take some time, but it would – and will – work.

Some early successes were the in the war against immoral idolatry, and in the introduction of the revolutionary idea that no person should work every day without rest – the Shabbat. The Romans thought the Jews were lazy, but today the world works on a weekly schedule – including a weekend with rest.

And so too should we view Langton’s effort. The words and message of the Bible, from thousands of years before, were translated to a foreign language, and spread out to the faraway island of Britain. And from there they gave the world some of its most important and cherished ideals.

So, Cardinal Langton, no hard feelings about the chapters. And after 800 years, thank you for helping the Torah achieve its original goal.

About the Author
David Curwin is a lifelong lover of language (although not a professional linguist). He has been writing the blog Balashon, about the history of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connections with English, since 2006.