Giving chapter and verse: interpretative argument and the non-sequential reading of the Bible

Bibliographic details

Allington, Daniel and Hewings, Ann (2013). ‘Giving chapter and verse: interpretative argument and the non-sequential reading of the Bible’. Paper to be presented at Digital Media and Sacred Text, the Open University in London, 11.15-11.40, 17 June.


In my research on literary hermeneutics, I have theorised interpretation as a form of argument that renders seemingly static text into quasi-hypertext, implicitly privileging literacy practices in which sequential reading is abandoned and readers instead leap ‘back and forth between details made salient by an argument that exists outside the text’ (Allington, 2006, p. 134). In this presentation, I will argue that, in a Christian context, a notably similar style of reading has been facilitated by two material innovations in the organisation of Biblical text: first, the medieval and early modern typographic division of the Bible into chapters and verses, and second, the contemporary use of this division as a foundational principle for the construction of dynamic online Bibles. John Locke decried the ‘chop’d and minc’d’ text of the printed chapter-and-verse Bible for encouraging the treatment of individual sentences as standalone ‘aphorisms’ (2002 [1703], pp. 53-54), an interpretative practice potentially intensified by electronic editions that (a) permit almost instantaneous movement between chapters and verses regardless of their sequential relationship to one another, and (b) display individual chapters or verses in isolation from those that follow and precede them. By reference to examples of online discourse among Evangelical Christians, I will argue that while interpreters remain able to refute specific interpretations with the claim that they involve taking Biblical passages out of context, this does not necessarily challenge an implicit conception of the Bible as a collection of decontextualised fragments whose sequential order may be of almost marginal importance.


Allington, D. (2006) ‘First steps towards a rhetorical psychology of literary interpretation’. Journal of Literary Semantics 35 (2): 123-144.

Locke, J. (2002 [1703]). ‘An essay for the understanding of St Paul’s epistles by consulting St Paul himself’. In: Nuovo, V. (ed.). Writings on religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 51-66.


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