Monday, December 08, 2014

The problem with verses

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I was interested to read at T.C. Robinson's blog about Gordon Fee's reasons for revising his commentary on First Corinthians (the revised NICNT, published this year). The third of his reasons is as follows:
A third, probably less significant, change from the first edition is related to another passion engendered from many years of teaching, writing, and listening to sermons—namely, to eliminate the language of “chapter and verse,” a system of numbers absolutely essential for “finding things” but otherwise totally foreign to the first-century author. Paul wrote words put into sentences, which in the present written culture also require paragraphs. But he did not write “verses,” language that has inherently, but not purposefully, created a misguided use of Scripture that would be foreign to the original authors. So I have tried to relegate the numbers to parentheses, rather than use such language in the text of the commentary itself. This in itself required a third and final reading of the text in an attempt to be faithful to Paul, while still trying to help the reader “find things” regarding the rest of the biblical revelation.
It seems to me that this would be a very helpful discipline for all students and commentators - to eliminate the language of 'chapter and verse' from exegetical discussions. It would also be a helpful discipline for editors and translators of the New Testament.

The damage was done in 1551, with the small Stephanus edition printed in Geneva: ἅπαντα τα τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης. Nouum Iesu Christi D. N. Testamentum: cum duplici interpretatione, D. Erasmi, & Veteris interpretis: harmonia item evangelica, & copioso indice (for the two volumes online see here). In this edition each verse is separated out into a whole paragraph, as can be seen below:
http://books.google.be/books?id=jYg8AAAAcAAJ&hl=nl&pg=PT15#v=onepage&q&f=true

The verse references were needed for the seriously copious indices (103 pages of three columns each), which now provided a transferable (and henceforth indispensable) system of reference (chapter and verse references were also used in the gospel harmony). Here is the first page of the index:



The point is that something can be excellent and essential for reference, but not necessarily helpful for reading with understanding. It can also become a rather in-house method of communicating, similar to this or even this: 

24 comments :

  1. Speaking of Fee's 2nd edition, I heard he relegates 14.34-35 to an appendix now. Oops, sorry, I used verses.

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  2. I think I could see the validity of the point more on a popular, in-the-church context than an academic one.

    In church discussions, I have often heard arguments like "but that's all the way back at the beginning of the chapter" as a way to reject the relevancy of some element of the context, or arguments like "so-in-so's position would require us to go back to the previous verse just to find an antecedent" as if its a logical principle that Paul wouldn't have wanted to violate verse boundaries when using pronouns.

    Further, I do think that, in practice, versification does encourage lay-people to read more in isolation, more acontextually, and the attendant problems to that are obvious.

    So reducing, eliminating or reformatting versification could be a helpful corrective to those problems. Note, I believe Eugene Peterson's "Message" bible already eliminated versification in favour of natural thought units, eh?

    I'm not sure it's a necessary corrective in academic contexts though. Academics, of course, still commit all the same errors (e.g. acontextualising) as the laypeople, it's just that unlike in church settings, we usually benefit from the nit-piking of our peers. It's not often that in a wednesday night bible study you could offer your reading of a verse and immediately have 7 people explain at length how you ignored the context! At least not the bible studies I've been to. So I think the competitive debate of academia already acts as a corrective to the potential problems introduced by versification. And with those problems corrected, that leaves only the benefits of versification: accuracy and ease of reference.

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  3. The index has only 99 pages; Google Books as usual scanned some pages twice.
    Besides that, I think the verse numbering was even more needed for the harmony than for the index.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Jan. You mean I should not only have actually counted the pages (which I did do), but also paid attention enough so as to discount the duplicates.
      I haven't really looked at the harmony very closely, but harmonies already existed and worked naturally with the text printed (Osiander, 1537 etc.); whereas the index could only really function with verse numbers.
      [de Lang's book on gospel harmonies starts with Calvin in 1555 so I haven't got anything on the 1551 harmony.]

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    2. Yes, GB produces duplicates, and in the absence of page numbers they can be hard to find (I looked at the quire numbering actually).

      As for the reasons for the verse numbering, there were also indexes before, not only harmonies ... In fact there was a current system of dividing chapters into sections a to g. And Osiander's Harmony is perhaps not the best example, as Osiander 1. has an extensive "Elenchus" at the beginning with his own section numbering; and 2. produces the text of his harmony in full (and 3. adds annotations without bothering that readers are referred to some words somewhere within larger chunks of text).

      Thus, two factors are important: granularity and referentiality (if that is the correct word). Both harmonies and indexes can exist with lower granularity. Stephanus' index and harmony both need referentiality.

      However, it is interesting to read what Robertus Stephanus himself writes on the matter (in the To the Reader, vol. 1, f. a ii v):

      Quod autem per quosdam, ut vocant, versiculos opus distinximus, id, vetustissima Graeca Latinaque ipsius Novi testamenti exemplaria secuti, fecimus. eo autem libentius ea sumus imitati, quod hac ratione utraque translatio posset omnino eregione graeco contextui respondere. Ad calcem praeterea, Harmoniam Euangelicam et indicem adiecimus. His igitur interim fruere, Lector, ut illarum annotationum, quas assiduo cursu persequimur, desiderium lenius feras.

      In my quick preliminary translation:
      We divided the work into small verses, as they are called, and we did so following the oldest Greek and Latin copies of the New Testament itself. We imitated these even more gladly, as both Latin translations could thus correspond precisely to the Greek text. Moreover at the end we added a Gospel Harmony and an index. Enjoy these meanwhile, reader, so that you support more lightly the desire for the annotations which we are continuously pursuing.

      Thus another reason is given (besides what we suppose: precision and conciseness in index and/or harmony), namely the exact alignment of the three columns of text, i. e. the Greek, the Vulgate and Erasmus' translation. And perhaps yet another reason: the promise to supply copious annotations (which eventually/a few years later Beza would do, on Stephanus' request), which are easier to put together if they are keyed to chapter and verse.

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  4. I'm quite in favor of this; it's nice to see someone like Fee put so eloquently something I've been driven to by frustration. The versification isn't problematic ... until it is. And even though we "know better," as scholars in the academy we still deal with a versified text by default, and take its advice implicitly. This isn't so much about contextualization with surrounding verses, as it is the imposition of something like measure lines in printed music. Versification imposes a kind of meter upon the text, a measured sequence that we simply tend to obey. Like the other useful but arbitrary inflections we've applied, including punctuation, paragraphing, and mixed case, it becomes the shape of the text prior to our interpretation of it. It's one thing to insist, here and there, that context requires a violation of verse boundaries—but to really get behind it, the inflection needs to be stripped out, and the work redone without it.

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    1. On the other hand, I don't see any way around the resulting problems but resort to the same system of versification for reference. The classical phrasing of the piece is one thing, the various competing modern assessments of the phrasing of the piece another, and each performer will perform it their own way, but there's no way we're going to get a new standard of versification on the basis of anyone else's opinions. Compatibility of reference simply requires the reinsertion of now-standard versification in some way.

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  5. Would we be better served by the approach used with classical literature or Shakespeare by simply numbering the lines of text for each major division in any particular edition? Not unless the lines in every edition are of the same length and content; and if not, the verse system remains preferable for reference purposes.

    The greater problem I find when using the standard chapter/verse division is that, apart from checking, one cannot easily know that, e.g., Lk 8:56 is followed immediately by Lk 9.1. It would save time were there some nice "end of chapter" symbol that could be relied upon to indicate such; but otherwise, I suspect the standard chapter/verse system remains more useful than any other alternative (so long as no one seriously considers each verse an entity unto itself).

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  6. Maurice, I use the verse number suffix 'e' (for 'end') as in John 7:53e-8:12 or Mark 16:9-20e.

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  7. I had no problem finding anything in Fee's writings:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=LA2LBAAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Gordon+Fee+First+Corinthians&hl=en&sa=X&ei=zS-GVM_nKYyxyASVrIGgAw&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%E2%80%9Cfind%20things%E2%80%9D&f=false

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  8. See how ugly is the grave accent of « τὰ » in « ἅπαντα τὰ τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης » ! something like « τα’ »… so ugly that everybody and his uncle writes « ἅπαντα τα τῆς καινῆς διαθήκης »

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  9. These are indeed drawbacks to the chapter-verse reference system. On the other hand, the benefits of having a common reference system tied to the text instead of an edition are immense.

    If we could agree on paragraphing and sentence division, it would probably be better to number those but that ship has sailed.

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    1. There is some agreement sometimes : when a pericope name is used.

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  10. Let's be pragmatic, please. The same people (academics, that is) who critique the current chapter and verse system for the biblical text will not agree on any new one that serves the same main purpose: EASE OF REFERENCE.

    Any textual scholarship on any text usually comes up with some canonical scheme for reference purposes. The way that works is that someone publishes an edition with a system and lots of people use it. There may be competing systems and some bad press for the system as employed. But as long as it serves the purpose of providing a generally considered reliable text at a low cost, people will take the whole package.

    I'm actually very thankful for the current system as it gives us the opportunity to work with large amounts of textual data electronically. Honestly, if you want to do textual criticism these days and your tradition happens to include large numbers of witnesses, you better praise the generations that have put such a canonical reference system in place, for the mere fact that they succeeded.

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  11. I want a new edition of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, not divided into eight books by those stupid editors of more or less Late Antiquity, but as Thucydides – and his aftercomer Xenophon in his Hellenica – wrote it : one war year = one book.

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  12. I wasn't calling for the abolition of all chapter and verse references. The initial impetus came from Fee as a commentator on the NT; and it is very easy to find commentators saying things like: 'Paul connects this verse to the preceding verses with OUN', as if Paul was actually writing in verses (Moo on Galatians 3.5 - the first commentary pulled off the pile and opened at random). It is also very easy to find Bibles which printed each verse as a separate paragraph (I had a NASB like this in my younger days) - with such Bibles you read verses very separately.
    I confess that perhaps I shouldn't have said "the damage was done in 1551", since I acknowledge the blessings of a universal system.

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  13. I seem to remember that the Jerusalem Bible relegated verse numbering to the margin. I found it frustrating when first picking it up (as a teenager) code you never knew where there verses started…Seems like a good compromise.

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  14. Why can’t We delete Our comments since the new version was launched on this website ?…

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    1. Richard, you should be able to, but you have to be signed in to the right Google account. See here.

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    2. Thanks, Peter J. Gurry, maybe, but I can’t. (Perhaps because I’m on the Very Black List of this site.)

      R. Budelberger, Old Versions’ Lover.

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  15. More problematic than verse numbering is that ALL, literally ALL, modern publishings of the KJV use verse by verse style rather than paragraphed style like modern translations. This is not a fault of the KJV, but publishers who own rights to more modern translations have conspired to make us think so. Its a ploy to force people off the KJV by refusing to print it in paragraphs. Yet, it doesn't work. It just results in people using KJVs that don't have paragraphs. And understanding of the text suffers, not really on account of the archaic language but on account of the publishers forcing people to read in fortune-cookie style. Publishers who behave this way ought to be flogged, in some non-violent way.

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  16. Not to worry, I've learned that all future publications of the KJV will include tin-foil hats for the reader to wear to protect them from just that sort of thing.

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  17. For those not weighed down by the tin-foil hats, the Trinitarian Bible Society long has offered paragraphed editions of the KJV for those who prefer such. See for example:

    http://www.tbsbibles.org/sales/english-scriptures/paragraphed-new-testament-with-headings

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  18. Coming to this a little late (thanks for the link, Peter), I don't think anyone is seriously proposing that English-speaking Christians drop versification entirely. The leading idea is that we add a new category of Bible editions to our thinking. We have "study" editions; Bible readers should also pick up "reader's" editions. The ESV Reader's Bible is a good example. Biblica's The Books of the Bible is an even better one, in my opinion. It uses the typographical conventions most suited to smooth reading—a single column, no verse or chapter numbers in the text, a flexible system of line breaks between paragraphs to indicate breaks in the thought flow. Of course, Bibliotheca.co looks to be an even more typographically pleasing edition of the Bible, one also focused on smooth reading.

    To Anonymous, there are single-column, paragraphed versions of the KJV. Here's one. Here's the beautiful Cambridge Clarion. I once saw a KJV reader's Bible—one without chapter and verse numbers in the text—from the 1930s. I'm afraid I lost track of it.

    Someone mentioned the NEB's practice of putting verse numbers in the margin. I, too, think that's a good compromise for people who want one Bible edition to serve most of their reading and teaching needs. But most English speakers can afford more than one Bible; they might as well add a reader's edition to the bunch.

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