Bible Study Notes No. 1


What is a “Pericope”?



ne of the most commonly used words in Biblical studies is “pericope.” Sitting on the page, it looks like a misspelling of “periscope.” One might even think it should be pronounced in a similar way. Both assumptions are incorrect.

            The prefix “peri” is from the Greek. It means “about,” “around,” or “beyond.” The rest of the word – “cope” – is from the Greek kope, which means “a cutting.” It is pronounced ko-pay. A pe-ri-ko-pay is a section of text from a book or a document. It has been “cut around” and identified as a literary unit. The Bible is made up of myriad literary units or pericopes. To study a verse of Scripture without consideration for the larger literary unit of which it is a part is to take it out of its immediate context.

            We find the word pericope used as a technical term in Hellenistic literature in the 3rd century of our era. There it refers to a short section or passage of writing. Jerome (340? - 420 AD) carried the term over into Latin to designate portions of Scripture.

            Scholars often focus on pericopes as self-contained units of text. For example, Mark 3:1-6 is a pericope. It tells the story of Jesus’ encounter in a synagogue with a man with a withered hand. Verse 1 opens the story and verse 6 closes it. To understand any of the verses in this literary unit, one must study the whole pericope – that is, the whole literary unit.

            Is Mark the only Gospel writer who includes this story? No. Matthew includes it as well, but the details differ somewhat from Mark’s account. We find Matthew’s pericope in Matthew 13:53-58. Matthew does not include the account of the man with the withered hand, yet he includes and emphasizes other parts of the story.

            What about Luke? Does he include this story in his Gospel? Yes, but the pericope in Luke is out of order in the normal flow of the Gospel account. It is found in Luke 4:16-30. Luke’s wording is also at variance with the other two accounts.

            If we are going to understand the story of Jesus’ entrance into the synagogue at (probably) Capernaum, “his home town,” we must study all three pericopes together. In doing so, we must ask, “Who wrote first?” Who borrowed from whom? Whose account is the most authentic? Why does one writer include something while another omits it? Why did Luke place the story where he did in his account?


Recommended Bible Help

In studying Scripture, it is vital to first assemble all of the relevant pericopes on any given subject for consideration as a whole. An excellent Bible help for doing this for the first three Gospels is Gospel Parallels by Burton H. Throckmorton. It is more current and far more helpful than the old harmonies of the Gospels commonly used by many. If you purchase it, be sure to read the explanatory material at the beginning before proceeding.

            Incidentally, it is not enough to simply study the English-language translations of these pericopes. Though it is good to compare 5-7 translations of any given pericope, it is also helpful to examine the Greek texts themselves. Translations cannot always be relied upon to remain faithful to the intent of the original.

Chapters & Verses

Originally, most of the “books” or scrolls of Scripture had no chapters or verses. The text simply flowed continuously. The one exception is the Book of Psalms which was originally divided into chapters with titles. When Jerome made his Latin translation of the Catholic version of the Bible, he subdivided the first section of Scripture – the Pentateuch – into 175 pericopes. The word “Pentateuch” is Greek. “Penta” is “five.” This is the name given to the five Mosaic books that were originally a part of single scroll at the time the Greek-speaking pharaohs ruled Egypt. We call this translation the Septuagint (LXX). The Hebrew name for these books is the Chumash which means “fivefold” or pentad. The first five books of the Bible also constitute the first of three divisions of what we erroneously call “The Old Testament.” To the Jews, it is the TaNaKh. This is an acronym taken from three words, the first of which is Torah. The word Torah does not, as is commonly supposed, mean “Law.” It means “instruction” or “teaching.”

            The word Torah also refers to the whole Hebrew Bible, and to the entirety of Oral Law – in other words, it is all of the instruction that God has ever given to His people from the beginning of time to the present. We will discuss this further in a study on the subject of “Torah.”

            Suffice it to say that the Bible was not originally divided into discreet pericopes. It was written mainly as a continuous narrative. Pericopes were considered when the chapter and verse divisions were made for both Testaments. Chapters and verses, as Halley’s Bible Handbook (p. 755) reminds us, “…were added by Cardinal Caro (A.D. 1236) and Robert Stephens (A.D. 1551).” Stephens, whose real name was Robert Stephanus, or Etienne, published a Greek and Latin edition of the New Testament in Geneva in 1551. Many have questioned the apparent arbitrariness of Stephen’s verse divisions that were made while on a journey from Paris to Lyons. His own son suggested that horse bumps may have caused his pen to jump from time to time.

            Be cautious in identifying pericopes for study. Often, modern translations tend to identify them by the way the page is laid out. For the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Throckmorton’s (mentioned earlier) is most helpful.


- Brian Knowles