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What many do not know about Bible chapters

Whatever one believes, it is widely agreed upon that God did not divide the Bible into sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. So what happened to make the reading and understanding of the Bible easier?

Masorites

The division between sentences and paragraphs as well as punctuation signs were initiated by a group of people called the Masorites, a word derived from masora, a Hebrew word meaning “tradition.” There is no agreement as to when the Masorites lived. The period was probably sometime between the time of Ezra, about four centuries before the Common Era, and about the tenth century of the Common Era. There were different systems practiced by different Masoretic groups.

The generally accepted view is that the Masorites were groups of Jewish scribe-scholars who worked from around the end of the 5th through 10th centuries CE, based primarily in medieval Palestine in the cities of Tiberius and Jerusalem, as well as in Iraq.

The ben Asher family of Masorites was largely responsible for the preservation and production of the Masoretic Text. There was another Masoretic text of the ben Naphtali Masorites. There are about 875 differences between the two versions. Maimonides endorsed the ben Asher work as the better version. Saadia Gaon liked the ben Naphtali version.

Punctuation signs

The punctuation signs indicated how to chant the text in the Synagogue. It also indicated where there are pauses in the verse, what we would call commas, semi colons, periods, etc.

Little is known about when the Masorites originated the punctuation signs. Natronai Gaon, in the latter half of the ninth century, wrote, “The punctuation was not given at Sinai. It was the sages that told us to do the punctuation.” The earlier Babylonian Talmud, Megilla 32a, Nedarim 37b, and Berakhot 62a seem to date the origin of the punctuation to the first centuries of the Common Era. However, a tradition in Megilla 3a seems to say it was as early as the time of Ezra.

Other Masoretic contributions

The Masorites also placed dots over words in ten verses. We do not know why they did so. There are two main theories. One is that the dots inform us that we should give the word, verse, or phrase special attention because it is important, or that it has a hidden message. Another theory is that the dots identify some error: the word may be wrong or misplaced, the spelling may be incorrect, or the punctuation is suspect. Even those who take the first conservative approach disagree on what the message is in the verse.

Division of Tanakh into chapters and books

The Masorites did not divide the Tanakh into chapters and books. Although the Christians divided the Torah into chapters, a concept that Jews accept, the divisions often lacked thought, and indeed seems foolish. For example, the very onset of the Bible in Chapter 1 tells the story of the origin of creation in seven days. Yet the events of the seventh day, which belong in chapter 1, are in verses 1 to 3 of chapter 2. Chapter 2 verse 4 begins with a different narrative and verse 4 should have been the opening verse of chapter 2.

Similarly, the story of Abraham begins in 11:27, which should be the opening verse of chapter 12 because it gives essential information about the patriarch.

Christians also divided some of the biblical books into two for easier reading. Here, too, their work was not always reasonable. For example, chapter 2 might fit better as the beginning of II Samuel instead of chapter 1, which is part of the story of King Saul’s death discussed in prior chapters. In addition, it makes more sense to read the final chapter of I Samuel 31 and the first chapter of II Samuel together as they are two versions of the same episode.

Division into Weekly readings

Jews in Israel, but not Babylon, later divided The Five Books of Moses into 154 sections of weekly readings, which would take three years to complete. Israel discontinued this practice. The current practice today dates back to the ancient practice in Babylon to read 54 sections (parashat hashavua) in its entirety in a single year.

Numbering verses

It took until the sixteenth century for the extension of the division by Christians to include numbering the verses. This numbering is also frequently faulty. Sometimes two ideas (sentences) occur in a single verse. At other times, the end of the idea appears improperly in the following verse. For example, many scholars say that the first half of Genesis 2:4 belongs with verses 1–3, which should be in chapter 1, not 2, and the second half of verse 2:4 should have been placed as the introduction to chapter 2 as part of the current verse 5.

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.
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