Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Reading between the lines

SOME FOLKS WHO are very particular about the Bible translation they read (and there’s nothing wrong with that) overlook one potential problem area it most likely shares with all those other versions. Namely, the chapter and verse thing.

Now, with a collection of writings that runs to some 750,000 words, it’s certainly helpful to have some way of navigating all that text. But we’d do well to remember that while the words may be divinely inspired, the way we have cataloged them are purely a human invention.

This can affect the way we interact with Scripture more than we may be aware. The mere presence of orderly numbers can suggest a very logical, systematic approach to everything. But while the Bible has plenty of clear direction, there’s also a fair amount of less certain imagery. Revelation, anyone?

If the verse numbers can be unhelpful, then even more so the chapter breaks. And, to a less degree, the different subheadings publishers choose to insert, and which may very between translations. These interruptions can obscure not only context, but connections of thought.

For example, some versions make Ephesians 5:22 the start of a new passage, with the instructions, “Wives, submit to our own husbands, as to the Lord.” Other translations include the previous verses, which talk first about all Christians submitting to one another, and which can give a slightly different sense to what follows.

This sort of thing isn’t limited to correspondence. We find it in the Gospels, too. Take the end of Matthew 3 and the start of chapter 4. Chapter 3 ends with Jesus’s baptism, when the Holy Spirit descends on Him and the Father speak words of affirmation from heaven. Chapter 4 begins with Jesus being led into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.

That chapter break disguises something highly significant: God’s affection and assignment comes with testing and trials. Without the editorial pause added by the chapter break, we go from warm fuzzies to cold confrontation in the blink of an eye. Turns out the Holy Spirit we readily identify as the Comforter also wants to make us uncomfortable.

It’s also instructive that in the encounter that followed, Satan quotes Scripture to Jesus, demonstrating that merely being able to recite the text doesn’t make it true. Jesus has to put what God said in true context for in the circumstances.

Maybe the apostle Peter had an inkling that some future curating of God’s Word intending to be helpful would also have a downside. After all, he wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet. 4:12).

With all this in mind, I am trying to read the Bible more cautiously and cohesively. And I’m appreciative of the work of the Institute for Bible Reading, which seeks to help Christians engage with God’s Word more holistically and meaningfully.

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