Where did verses come from
But even if the verse division was more of a hindrance than a help, a main achievement of the Geneva was translating from the original, for the first time in English, the major poetic books of the Bible. In those books, the verse division gained more than it lost. Not only did it lend greater clarity to poetic parallelism, but it gave impetus to the English biblical tradition of resonant obscurity.
I aknowledge that Iyov is expressing the majority opinion. However, my contention is that every Bible is a translation from the text that the translators are most familiar with in their own minds. In this case, it is still the Latin text that the translators of the Geneva Bible were most familiar with and depended on. The image shows the Robert Etienne 1551 text which was widely used by translators. (Click on the image to enlarge.) The Greek is flanked by the Vulgate and Erasmus Latin translation.
This is the book to which we are indebted for our custom of quoting the Bible by chapter and verse. It is the first division of the Bible into verses.
The reason for the development is probably an accident of the format. This book has three separate texts of the Bible: the Greek is set in the middle of each page, next to Erasmus’s Latin and the Vulgate Latin. It appears that the need to provide a basis for cross-references and comparison gave birth to the idea.
Printing three columns in such small format may very well have influenced the development of verse divisions. The tiny format of this book, which is in sextodecimo, may have suggested the idea of setting off each sentence as an indented paragraph. Indenting each sentence in small format—a style we see in some newspaper articles—is aesthetically compatible with narrow columns since it breaks up the rectangularity of the textblocks. This system of indentation may have suggested, as well, the enumeration. The numbers are much less forbidding at the beginning of indentations than they would be if they were set in relatively rapid succession throughout solid textblocks.
One earlier book that may have inspired the insertion of verse markings was the Psalterium Quincuplex, printed by Robert Estienne in 1509. The Psalms had traditional verse divisions, but in this version Estienne numbered them, no doubt in order to make cross-references between the five versions of the text easier. Santi Pagnini’s Bible translation of 1528 also had numerical markers throughout the text, but his divisions did not catch on. He divided the first chapter of Matthew, for example, into forty-nine units.
This is one of the first books that Estienne printed in Geneva after fleeing Paris in fear of censure from the Sorbonne. Geneva had become an intellectual haven for biblical philology under the inspiration of John Calvin. Estienne did become a Calvinist. In a controversial, eleventh-hour codicil to his will, he even bequeathed a tidy sum to support the efforts of the Geneva Academy, an important institution in the history of the Reformed Church.
I would like to study this matter further, so my remarks on this matter are somewhat speculative, as is often noted by my cobloggers.
Update: The 1551 edition in the image was the NT only. Stephanus published the Latin Vulgate with versification in 1555 adding numbers to the "sof pasuk" divisions of the Masoretic tradition. The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to reflect these divisions. See Iyov's series on the Geneva Bible.