The Printer's Device: Robert Estienne's Numbering of Verses and the Changing Form of the New Testament in the 15th and 16th Centuries

Robert Estienne's Printer's Device, from his 1550 <i>Editio Regia</i> Greke New TestamentThe form that a text takes exerts a strong influence on the meaning readers construct from it. In turn, the function to which a reader puts a text exerts a strong influence on the shape that text takes. The period leading up to, during, and following the Protestant Reformation was one of great change both in the way the Bible looked as well as the uses for which the Bible was employed. As the technology of the printing press developed, Bibles were printed with  new texts, new tools, and new systems of annotation, drawing upon renewed interest in the original languages and contexts of the Biblical text and enabling further critical study. Likewise, as theological arguments centered on the Biblical text and its original languages and contexts, scholars began demanding new forms of and tools in their Bibles. It is no surprise that many of the elements of presentation of the Biblical text found in modern Bibles, such as footnotes, cross references, andcriticaltextual apparati, developed during this period.

This exhibit explores one such element often taken for granted in modern Bibles: the division of verses. The focus of this exhibit is on the work of Robert Estienne (1503-1559; a.k.a. Stephanus), one of the dominating figures in printing industry of the 16th century. In most accounts of the development of the New Testament, Estienne is given credit for the separation of the text into individual verses and the ascribing of numbers to these verses. This credit is justified, as his 1551 Greek New Testament was the first text to exhibit the same division of verses found in modern Bibles. The story is more complex than a tale of one man’s brilliant idea, though. Rather, the introduction of verses must be understood in the context of the development of the Bible as a critical text in the 16th century. The separation of verses was a means to larger scholarly and theological ends: the ability to create an “original text”; the ability to translate this text sufficiently; and the ability tointerpret properly the text in light of its historical, cultural, and philological context. The verses were introduced as means of accomplishing these essential tasks more efficiently.

By looking at Bibles before and during Estienne’s life, some of the rarest items held by the Pitts Theology Library, we gain an appreciation for the way in which changes in scholarship and changes in the text mutually enable one another.

You can download a digital Reader's Guide to the exhibit, which includes high-resolution images of the volumes on display and interactive labels that guide you through the exhibit. To download the guide, in iBook or PDF format, click here.