What are Those Strange Reference Notations in the Bible?

Q: What are all the strange reference notations?

A: The reference notations in the Bible (such as Romans 3:23) are analogous to line numbers assigned to a Shakespearean play; they serve as a study aid. Since the Bible is much longer and more complex, its reference notations are more involved.

The Bible is divided into 66 books,* or sections, such as Genesis, Psalms, John, or Acts. These were the names given to them, over time, based on the pieces’ author, audience, or purpose.

In the 1200s each book was divided into chapters, such as Acts 2. In the 1500s the chapters were further subdivided into verses, such as John 3:16.

The name of the book is listed first, followed by the chapter number, a colon, and then the verse number. This is sometimes called the chapter-verse reference notation; it was done in order to help people quickly locate a specific text.

Here’s how to locate a specific passage in the Bible based on its reference: Most Bibles contain a table of contents at the beginning, which gives the page number of each book.

So start there, locate the book you want to read and turn to that page number. Then page forward to find the chapter you want, and then skim that page to locate the specific verse.

Although an effort was made to place these divisions at logical breaks, they sometimes seem arbitrary. Therefore, it is a good practice to read what precedes and follows each break, as the surrounding text may contain relevant insight into the portion you’re studying.

* see Apocrypha for more information

A lifelong student of the Bible, Peter DeHaan, PhD, wrote the 1,000-page website to encourage people to explore the Bible. His main blog and many books urge Christians to push past the status quo and reconsider how they practice their faith in every area of their lives.

By Peter DeHaan

Peter writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and make a faith that matters. Learn more at

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