You don’t have to read to know Scripture
One of our friends has a big extended family, hectic lifestyle and struggles to read and understand the Bible by herself in Arabic. My wife and another lady visit her regularly and they and the kids read the Bible together and discuss it.
Today, many people think of the Bible as being a book that we read. However, most people in the New Testament world could not read and books were not invented. How did people read the Bible? How did the writers of the Gospels intend people to read them? How did Paul intend his letters to be read? Did these assumptions shape the way they wrote them? How might the answers to some of these questions provide us with ideas for how we read the Bible today, individually and as communities?
How did people read the Bible in the New Testament period?
Jewish people valued their written scriptures and many Jewish people tried to teach their children to read. By read, most people got to the ability of being able to sound out the words of a few well known passages.1
Most people lived at bare subsistence level and didn’t have the money or spare time to invest in learning to read much better than this. From the available evidence, people estimate less than 5% of people read well enough to read a book of the Bible.2 Notably, in the Gospels the only people Jesus met who he assumed could ‘read’ the scriptures were chief priests, scribes, Sadducees, and Pharisees.3 Scriptures had to be hand copied and so cost a huge amount and had to be regularly cared for. So, most people could not afford to own a set of scriptures even if they could read them. Normally, a community owned a set of scriptures which were stored at the synagogue.
You don’t have to read to know Scripture
The vast majority of people heard Scripture read aloud at the regular weekly gatherings in their local synagogue. During the corporate reciting of blessings and prayers together, a handful of people (those who could read) would be invited by the synagogue leader to come up to the front and read a few verses aloud to the group. They worked through the Torah every three years or so.
One text says, “In a city where only one person is able to read [from the Torah scroll] he reads all the prescribed sections, provided he sits down between the reading of one section and the next.”4 It seems that some cities or towns only had one person able to read this well.
When Jesus spoke to most people about engaging with scripture, he spoke about them ‘hearing’ it. For example, Jesus to a crowd, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment’” (Matt 5:21). They ‘heard’ the Scriptures read aloud.
Revelation 1:3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads (singular), and those who hear (plural people)the words of the prophecy…” (Rev 1:3). We can see that one might read while a group listened.
People couldn’t write and so they developed good memory skills. Some people, like priests and Pharisees, memorized large amounts of Scripture as well as oral interpretations and teachings relating to them. But, most people seem to have memorised a lot less, maybe the key passages that were used regularly regularly in the community prayers but little beyond them.
For example, it was the custom for families to recite a set of Psalms during the Passover meal in their homes. It is clear from the writings that some could not do this and so a custom developed where people would go to the synagogue during the Passover meal so they they could recite the psalms along with others in a group. Then they would go back home to eat their meal.5
It’s likely that people knew some parts of the Biblical stories about the prophets from hearing them read aloud over time and through popular culture. Teachers often used rhyming lines that helped people to commit their teachings to memory (it is clear that many of Jesus’ teachings rhymed). Sometimes Paul used puns or words that sound like they could have two meanings. For example, in Philemon, he says that Onesimus was ‘useless’ but this word also sounds the same as ‘outside of Christ). These meanings would have come out orally when people heard his letters read.
Reading in the Early Church
Paul wrote to Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to reading (Scripture to others), to exhortation and to teaching” (1 Tim 3:14). We can see that the written scriptures was read aloud in their gatherings and spoken teachings were given.
Paul and others sent letters to churches. They put thoughts down on paper so that someone could read them aloud to gatherings of believers who would listen to them. For example, in his letter to the Colossians Paul wrote, “After this letter has been read aloud to you, see that it is also read aloud in the church of the Laodiceans …” (Col 4:16).
Writing down what was spoken also shaped it too, giving people time to compose complex things. Like how we prepare a speech. It is helpful to think of the scriptures as things to be heard. Divides that appeal to our eyes, like chapters, verses and paragraph breaks were added much later.
Recognizing that Scripture was composed to be heard aloud in groups shapes our exegesis and how we think about and use Scripture today. We might think of the Bible as a collection of stories rather than a book. they are written in the book, but they can also be heard and known orally apart from the book. In fact, the stories tend to lend themselves to being told (ie think of how they are mostly short stories).
We can also think about how we might also read/hear/discuss scripture with others as part of our devotional life. For example, my wife reads the Bible aloud to our kids each morning while they eat their breakfast.
I enjoy listening too. It becomes a family Bible time. While this is normally my wife and the kids, and I’m racing to get dressed and eat breakfast too, I’m aware of what the kids are hearing. Later in the day, or that week, I can bring up something from the story I know they have been hearing. It makes me wonder whether our long term is to get them to do this individually?
Regularly engaging with the Bible helps people to come to faith and to grow in maturity as believers. Reading the Bible individually is just one way of engaging with the Bible. Other ways include listening to it in groups.
How might this relate to you?
Have you ever practiced listening to the Bible rather than reading it?
If so, did anything about this help you to engage with scripture?
Some people find engaging with scripture in groups more helpful than alone, do you assume that reading alone is a sign of maturity? If so,why?
Do you think there are benefits to hearing and discussing scripture with others?
1. Josephus (a first century Jew) mentions this in Against Apion 2.204
2. A wide range of scholarship points to this number, but it would vary
from community to community.
3. See Matt 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31; Mark 2:27; 12:10, 26; Luke
4. Soferim 11:2
5. Tosefta Pischa 10
Rich lives with his family in a socially deprived area of Beirut. They and their friends are sharing the love of God with people of many different backgrounds. Rich enjoys teaching the Bible in hookah cafes, living rooms, corner shops and also sometimes in universities in the US and Lebanon and in some books and blogs. He loves learning about God with their Arabic speaking friends and can’t understand God’s generosity to him in adopting him into his global family.