By Doug Schlegel
In 1524, the son of a Parisian printer took over his father’s business at the age of 21. There is nothing particularly unusual about a son taking over the family business, but the previous year, Robert Estienne had revised the Latin edition of the New Testament. Its subsequent publication was the first occasion of years of controversy that were to follow.
The controversy? Estienne had run afoul of the powerful and influential Roman Catholic faculty of the Sorbonne who thought it was a dangerous thing to have the Bible in the hands of ordinary farmers and shopkeepers.
Estienne was undeterred and continued to publish editions of the Bible for sale and distribution as well as to speak approvingly of the Reformers’ theological views that were then being circulated. He even published many of Melanchthon’s works, further antagonizing his opponents.
Although his work continued to aggravate the professors at the university, his printing and binding were of a very high quality. His Greek typeset was particularly elegant, and eventually he was awarded the title “Printer in Greek to the King” in 1539.
The royal patronage, and the royal money from government printing work, shielded Estienne from his opponents for many years. He twice published the entire Hebrew Old Testament, and in 1550 he published his third edition of the Greek New Testament – and that appears to have been one of the final straws. Eventually, the opposition became so fierce and violent that he and his family were forced to flee Paris in 1551, and they headed, initially, to Lyon.
Estienne loaded his family into a carriage and rode on horseback accompanying the carriage. In his pocket was a small copy of his third edition New Testament. To pass the time on the road, Estienne took out his New Testament and began to jot down where he thought the text should be divided into verses. In the thirteenth century, the New Testament had been divided into chapters by Steven Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, but there were as yet no verse divisions (in 1448, Rabbi Mordecai Nathan had previously divided the Old Testament into chapters and verses).
There are two reasons we know of why Estienne would do this. First, he was an ardent student of the Scriptures and thought that verses would help in studying the Bible. The second reason is related to the first: He was planning to publish a concordance of the New Testament, and the work of assigning verse numbers was part of that project (sadly, the concordance was not published until after his death by one of his sons in 1594).
The Estienne family settled in Geneva, Switzerland, and Robert began to pursue his calling as a printer there. Soon after setting up shop in Geneva, he published his fourth edition of the New Testament in 1551 with his verse divisions included. He also used his presses to defend himself from the attacks of the faculty of the university.
By 1553, he had published a French language Bible and had also published a fine edition of John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion.” His French language Bible was the first Bible published that combined Nathan’s Old Testament chapter-and-verse divisions with his New Testament divisions. The Geneva Bible, published the year after his death, and based in large part upon his work, was the first English language Bible to contain the verse divisions that we use today.
To learn more, read the full account on the Leben website.