Years ago I was part of a prayer group that met weekly during the lunch hour at the company where I worked. Unlike me, most of the members were from denominations where you grew up memorizing Bible passages that could be regurgitated by chapter and verse. This gave participants an impressive command of Scripture, enabling them to buttress any theological argument and to plumb life’s mysteries with an appropriate biblical citation. I was reasonably conversant with Scripture myself but usually had to rely on a concordance to locate the verse I had in mind. The difference between having command of Scripture and merely being conversant with it came down to being able to call up the appropriate biblical passage by chapter and verse.
The Bible was not written with numbered chapters and verses. It is not even a single volume but a compendium of 66 separate works (excluding the Apocrypha) written over a period of centuries in three languages, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Ancient Hebrew manuscripts divided the text into paragraphs identified by two Hebrew letters. Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury in the early 13th century, was the first to divide the books of the Bible into chapters. A 16th-century classical scholar named Robert Estienne printed Latin and Greek translations of the Bible in side-by-side columns using numbered verses to compare particular passages. This became the basis for the chapter-and-verse numbering system used today.
There is no question the system Langton and Estienne developed has aided biblical scholars in referencing particular texts. However, the system is admittedly somewhat capricious, occasionally splitting portions of the same story into separate chapters and even the same sentence into separate verses. There is also a tendency to view each numbered verse as self-contained rather than as part of a larger narrative, thereby increasing the likelihood that it will be taken out of context for polemical purposes. By citing chapter and verse, you can lend more authority to your doctrinal positions than they might otherwise merit.
It is useful to remember that may of the stories contained in the Bible were told long before anyone wrote them down. There are no contemporaneous historical narratives in either the Old or New Testaments. According to tradition, Moses is author of the first five books of the Old Testament, but the best evidence is that none of the contents was produced until centuries after he lived. Jesus left no written record of his sayings or doings, and the gospel narratives, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, were all written a generation or more after the fact – and none by a first-hand participant. From an historical perspective, the biblical narratives are all hearsay.
We are in the realm of story-telling here. That doesn’t mean the stories are untrue, although perhaps not as literally true as religious fundamentalists might have you believe. Certainly it would be hard to maintain that the various gospel narratives have the same degree of factual precision that one might expect of eyewitness accounts. They differ on significant details and sometimes even contradict one another. Under normal circumstances, this should be expected – unless you insist upon biblical inerrancy, in which case the discrepancies must be explained away.
If Bible stories are not always historically accurate, what standard of truth should be applied? Some obviously are meant to be allegorical. And then there are those rarefied occasions when the words of Scripture seem to speak directly to the heart. St. Anthony, the first of the Desert Fathers, had such an experience as a young man when he heard a sermon preached on Jesus’ admonition to another young man, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Anthony believed God was speaking to him in that moment, and he became an ascetic.
Similarly, the young St. Augustine, tormented by doubts, once heard a child’s voice chanting from a nearby house, “Take it and read, take it and read.” Remembering how St. Anthony had been converted at hearing the gospel read in church, Augustine rushed back into his house and picked up a volume of St. Paul’s epistles. He opened the book, and his eye fell on a passage in Romans that he believed was meant for him: “…not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” With all doubts now dispelled, Augustine abandoned his plans to marry his mistress and began a new life of faith.
As much as we might like to nail down truth by citing chapter and verse, the kind of soul-shaking truth that changes lives tends to arrive by an altogether different route. As Jesus told his disciples, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak…” Truth comes to those who seek it, but it never arrives at our initiative. It is not for everyone, but only for those who have “ears to hear,” as Jesus put it. This was dramatically demonstrated shortly before he was crucified, when he was brought before Pontius Pilate. Jesus told him plainly, “He who is of the truth hears my voice.” Pilate, who was far from the truth, could only reply, “What is truth?”