58. User Friendly Bibles: When Titles Mislead

section headings … can be misleading

I like section headings in Bible translation.  They are not part of the original text, but added by the translation team to assist the reader in three ways: “1. to help those already familiar with the Bible to find a passage they know; 2. to help those unfamiliar with the Bible to assimilate the text; 3. to help every reader by breaking up what could otherwise be forbiddingly large slabs of print.” (1) But there are times when the insertion of section headings into a passage of scripture can be misleading.  Even when the title itself may be accurate in its identification of the passage, the focus of the message may be distorted. (2) Furthermore the placement of some titles can actually undermine the structural unity and continuity of thought because the presence of the section heading communicates to the reader that the passage before the break is, in some way, disconnected from the passage under the heading and therefore is a “stand alone” passage with a unique message.

the section headings actually disguised, rather than illuminated the overall meaning of the passage

During my trip to Pakistan for Bible translation at the end of 2007, I was involved with a small team of translators and helpers who were reviewing a translation of the New Testament in the Sindhi language.  In our study of the Sermon on the Mount we found a number of places where section headings actually detracted from the flow of the passage and obscured the meaning.  This was not because the headings were incorrect, but because their presence between two related passages of Scripture inadvertently indicated that the passages were unrelated to each other.  In reality, the unity of thought between the passages was crucial and the section headings actually disguised, rather than illuminated the overall meaning of the passage.

Problem Section Headings: Charity, Prayer And Fasting

In the Sindhi New Testament Matthew 6:1-18 is divided into three sections each with their own heading.  Verses 1-4 is entitled “Teaching about Charity,” verses 5-15 has the heading “Teaching about Prayer,” and verses 16-18 has the title “Teaching about Fasting.”  Thus the reader is predisposed to expect three distinct messages about charity, prayer and fasting respectively.  In actual fact, the three passages are illustrative of one message concerning hypocrisy.  It would not be extreme to suggest that Jesus despised hypocrisy in religion.  Putting on a show to impress others is a constant temptation (I want people to like my sermons!) whereas Jesus instructs us to “play to an audience of One.”  One solution to the section headings problem is to provide one title for the entire passage – “Avoid religious hypocrisy” – or to express the main theme consistently in all three titles: “Hypocrisy in Charity,” “Hypocrisy in prayer,” and “Hypocrisy in fasting.”

Problem Section Headings: Light of the Body

The next section, Matthew 6:19-34, is also divided into 3 sections: verses 19-21 have the title “Heavenly Treasure,” verses 22-23 is entitled “Light of the Body,” while the remainder of the passage is preceded with “God and Wealth.” Again, while the headings are not inaccurate, they provide an unfortunate break between the passages so that the connection between the sections is obscured.  This is especially disturbing for the middle section, “Light of the Body:”

Section headings … make the Bible more “user friendly.”

The eyes are like a lamp for the body. If your eyes are sound, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eyes are no good, your body will be in darkness. So if the light in you is darkness, how terribly dark it will be! (TEV)

These verses serve as an illustration of the overall message that our desire is to be for God and his kingdom rather than the temptations of this world. They also act as a segue between the admonition to focus on the things of God (verse 19-21) and the argument that we cannot serve two masters. That is, if we maintain the true and central focus of putting God first in our lives, then all aspects of our life will be synchronized with reality, truth and goodness.  But if we miss out on our relationship with God as the essence of human life and purpose, then nothing can be made right: “how terribly dark it will be!”  

Unfortunately, with the insertion of the section heading, “Light of the Body,” followed with a break after verse 23, the reader is inclined to search for a meaning outside of the context of the surrounding passages.  Since the meaning is determined by the other passages, the reader can become confused by this illustration rather than recognizing it as a method to drive the point home.  Because verses 22-23 are illustrative of the surrounding passages rather than providing a separate or distinct message, it is better for the translator to avoid a separate heading at this point.  A heading can be inserted after verse 23 if the theme of the former passage is maintained.  For example at verse 19 the heading could read, “Seek God’s Treasure,” while the title at verse 24 could be, “Seek God’s Kingdom.”

Section headings are a popular and important tool that make the Bible more “user friendly.”  But the reader needs to be constantly aware that, like chapter and verse numbers, these are not part of the original text and can sometimes get in the way of the message!


(1) Referencing W. Smalley in Clark, D. and Asberg, D. Section Headings: Purposes and Problems in The Bible Translator, Vol 57, No. 4, Oct 2006, 194-203. p. 195.

(2) ibid., p. 197.

Avatar photo

Author: Mark Naylor DTh (missiology)

I have been with Fellowship International since 1984. Karen and I served in Pakistan for 14 years and returned to Canada in 1999. I have continued to be involved in Bible translation traveling twice a year to Pakistan. My current role with Fellowship International and Northwest Baptist Seminary is as Coordinator of International Leadership Development

One thought on “58. User Friendly Bibles: When Titles Mislead”

  1. Once again, Mark I greatly appreciated your thoughts and insights. I checked my NIV which breaks Mt. 6:19-34 into two sections, “Treasures in Heaven” and “Do not worry.” Great thoughts.


Comments are closed.