In common parlance, a verse is a writing arranged with a metrical rhythm, typically having a rhyme. Most of the books of Bible contain prose which do not follow metrical rhythm or rhyme. But their sentences are called verses. My question therefore is: Why are the divisions of the Bible called verses?

  • 4
    Remember that you are not reading the Bible in its original languages, but in translation, and in some places perhaps several layers of translation. You can see this in other works: even if the original was in verse, as for instance Homer's Illiad, Beowulf, the Kalevala, it's very difficult to create a translation that's faithful to both poetry and meaning. Also note that poetry doesn't have to rhyme, it can be alliterative as in Beowulf, blank verse as in much of Shakespeare, or other forms such as the Japanese haiku.
    – jamesqf
    Nov 25 '20 at 17:30

The Lexico online dictionary says that 'verse' comes from:

Old English fers, from Latin versus ‘a turn of the plow, a furrow, a line of writing’, from vertere ‘to turn’; reinforced in Middle English by Old French vers, from Latin versus.

Bible.org says that the Bible was split into chapters in the 13th century and was further divided into verses by a highly regarded French printer called Robert Estiennes (or Robertus Stephanus in Latin) in the middle of the 16th century. At that time Latin was still the language used by educated people to write about and discuss academic matters so 'versus', and therefore 'verse' would have had its meaning of 'a line of writing' for them.

In fact the Lexico entry for 'verse' mentions an old definition of it as

A line of poetry

so it would seem that the modern definition of a 'verse' as a 'stanza' rather than a 'line' is more recent.

Once the smallest divisions of the books of the Bible had become accepted as 'verses' there would have been no need to change the term no matter what happened to the definition of 'verse' in other contexts.

  • 7
    Actually, when the French printer Robert Estiennes divided the Bible into chapters and verses, he called them chapitres and versets. See this French webpage. So the obvious English translation was verses. Nov 25 '20 at 15:02
  • 3
    @PeterShor Thanks for that, Peter. I also found it interesting that Estiennes became a protestant. The idea of quoting the Bible 'chapter and verse' was a Protestant one rather than Catholic because the Catholic Church relied on dogma rather than Biblical authority.
    – BoldBen
    Nov 25 '20 at 17:14
  • don't you disbelieve this, when verb and word are lying near? Mark my word, word doesn't only mean those with spaces on both ends. Formally, verto is from the "athematic root present" of *wert- (modulo inflection); versus "line of writing" is, according to wiktionary, from "verto + tus", which already fails to convince because where did the t leave off and what is the further ety? Whereas verb and word are from \werH-dh-, from *werH- "to speak, say"; If athematic nominative is build with *-s, then *wersH is not unlikely, and it doesn't require a Latin intermediate.
    – vectory
    Dec 8 '20 at 22:46
  • on the other hand, Strophe, turn of phrase, Ger. Rede-Wendung, at least support the idea. It reaks of folk-etymology because it is based on classical sources, who had a penchant for colorfoul interpretation, though like with any legend there might be a true kernel. vertere has of course to be compared to torque, turn, and cetere, leaving *wer- effectively, which can be seen in many more roots (cp. *werp-, Ger. werfen, just to throw an idea out there), and if the codas are root-extensions (cp. *dh- "do" in credo), the *w- might as well be aglutinative (cp. *wi- "separate").
    – vectory
    Dec 8 '20 at 22:53
  • Third, less formally, an interesting comparison is root, as in word root, thus already in Panini about Sanskrit, but analogically in al Kwarizma (> algorithm) about the roots of a polynom, from Arabic where it roughly means angle (viz. j-b-r "joint", when concerned with triangles it might be ca. turning-point). More over, roots tend to cork-screw-phorm; bookstaffs maybe wooden. I recognize this doesn't lend credence to my claim; instead it shows the problem is rooted much deeper, if we may further compare veritas "truth", very much. I mean, if we are talking sacred writing.
    – vectory
    Dec 8 '20 at 23:15

A number of questions on Stack Exchange - English Language and Usage have commented on the words 'stanza' and 'verse' in relation to poetry and to scripture.

'Verses' are also used in Shakespeare.

Merriam Webster defines a 'verse' in three ways : metrical verse, a stanza or a biblical verse.

In any work which requires to be referenced and quoted as part of its function, stanzas or verses are numbered accordingly so that they can be cited.

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