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Communal Reading In the Time of Jesus: How Did the First Christians Learn the Bible?

How did early Christians learn and pass on their traditions about Jesus and his teachings? What did the first communities of Jesus followers do to maintain the authenticity of their understanding of the meaning of his work, and its continuity to new generations? Further, what place did the growing collection of apostolic writings to scattered churches have in first century Christian gatherings?

For some time the academic study of early Christianity has maintained an emphasis on the role of oral tradition and social memory in the initial spread and growth of the new Jesus movement. It was assumed that due to things like the scarcity of both writing materials and professional readers, actual communal reading from sacred texts must have been somewhat rare and limited especially to more urban areas, at least until later in the second century.

But now there is an increasing recognition that early Christianity, like the Judaism from which it was born, was a “bookish” religion through and through. (See our earlier article How the First Christians Challenge Us to Be Bible Readers.) Larry Hurtado, a New Testament scholar and historian of early Christianity, has been a key voice helping us explore the evidence for this more closely. His books Destroyer of the Gods (2016) and The Earliest Christian Artifacts (2006) have directly examined this theme. Brian Wright’s new book continues this effort to bring more clarity to our understanding of the place of reading in the earliest church.

Wright’s key point is that communal reading was geographically widespread and that such reading was a way of avoiding any serious alterations in the traditions and teachings of the first Christians.

There are two backgrounds to this: first, the fact that public reading was a common feature of life across much of the Roman Empire. Letters, proclamations, poetry, and the great literary sagas of the time were all frequently read in public places. These did have a kind of performance aspect to them, but the point is that they were not performed from memory, but rather read aloud from written texts.

The second key background is of course the Jewish matrix from which Christianity emerged. Just as the Jews met and read the Scriptures together regularly, so did the early Christians. (See the chapter “Sharing Our Synagogue Bible” in my book Saving the Bible from Ourselves.)

Wright’s book is an important piece of detailed, collected evidence from the first century, in both the broader Roman culture and in specifically Christian settings. He includes chapters on relevant social, economic, and political factors, arguing that all of these were actually conducive to the widespread practice of public reading, making it a familiar feature of life for everyone. In the case of the Christian communities, it’s more clear than we’ve realized that the New Testament documents themselves are filled with evidence that they were expected to be widely shared and then publicly read.

In short, a standard part of the experience of the first Christians was the public, out-loud reading of the founding documents of the faith.

Should We Recover Communal Reading Today?

Of course most of the first Christians didn’t have any opportunity to own a personal copy of the Scriptures, and the preponderance of evidence remains that most people could not even read or write. But they were experienced, focused listeners, and this served them well. Christian formation in the early church was centered on immersion in the story of God, Israel, and the world as found in the sacred writings, both old and new. This tangible, practical focus on the Scriptures also helped ensure the integrity of the message over time.

But what about us?

In the modern era we’ve largely turned away from the early Christian practice of communal immersion in the Scriptures. Reading and study of the Bible is largely done individually, surrounded by all manner of reference-type helps, commentary, and devotional aids. The research evidence is clear that this is not working as an overall strategy for Bible engagement. People report that reading alone in this way is complicated and overwhelming. In short, it’s hard. And as a result, folks admit they’re not doing it much.

What new kinds of communal encounters can we imagine? What new forms of public reading and dialogue around the text can we envision?

The consequences have been serious for both private and public expressions of the faith. Unfamiliarity with the Big Story has produced Christians who don’t really have a good chance of living into the story in our contemporary setting because they don’t know who they are or where they came from.

There is no shortcut to this biblical knowledge. It comes only from sustained attention to our founding narratives, letters, songs, and wisdom. It comes from reading big and reading whole, not piecemeal sampling.

So what if we were to reclaim the practice and simplicity of the early Christ-followers?

What if we were to rediscover the unique value of communal reading of the Bible?

There have been a number of shifts in the nature of congregational life in recent history. A new emphasis on small groups, a move toward contemporary music and worship styles, and others. Why couldn’t we commit to similarly shifting how and when and where we engage the Bible? What new kinds of communal encounters can we imagine? What new forms of public reading and dialogue around the text can we envision? There are lots of different kinds of churches, lots of different ways this might look.

A commitment to biblical fluency should be at the center of every church’s life.

We can all ask: What could my community do?

How the First Christians Challenge Us to Be Bible Readers

They were counter-cultural—standing out in a world where reading and writing were rare. They were fully committed—doing everything necessary to ensure their communities were deeply formed by written texts. They were transformed—this solid, ongoing determination to live within these texts produced real change in their beliefs and in the character of their lives. The earliest Christians were truly people of the book.

And all of this happened in spite of the fact that in their world the Bible itself was still being written, and was not yet fully formed as a collection of sacred writings. Before the Bible was even completed, there was an impressive and widespread belief that knowing this content was basic to this new Jesus movement.

The new believers were committed from the start to immersing all of their communities deeply in the sacred stories and texts of their faith. Some of these texts were already very old, having been preserved by the ancient people of God. Some were brand new letters to fledgling churches or early collections of the oral traditions about Jesus. Regardless, the first followers of Jesus devoted themselves to learning all of it.

What Serious Commitment Looks Like

What makes this story remarkable is how unique this devotion was in the world of the Roman Empire. The religions of this period were centered especially on the offering of sacrifices to the gods and the accompanying profession of loyalty. Learning the content of a set of stories and instruction was not part of the arrangement.

The earliest Christian converts came into the faith from hearing the public preaching or private sharing of the announcement of the saving work of Messiah Jesus. But once they were in, they were immediately expected to incorporate themselves into an older story of what God had been doing in the world. No doubt, the experiences and practices of the synagogue were decisively influential on the first gathering of Jesus followers. The regular rhythm of public Scripture reading and discussion moved seamlessly into the first churches.

The regular rhythm of public Scripture reading and discussion moved seamlessly into the first churches.Click To Tweet

But when we consider that these churches were increasingly made up of Gentiles joining what was at first a Jewish movement, we can begin to recognize how striking the commitment to God’s written revelation really was. Early Christian leaders had to make heroic efforts to even produce and pass on these texts. There was no personal or financial gain in it for them, and they weren’t part of the leisure class with a household full of slaves to write, copy, and deliver their new writings.

First, writing materials themselves were rare and expensive. Writing and copying was slow, time-consuming work. In a world with no postal or delivery services, travel was both dangerous and costly. Yet the Christians were determined to produce a prodigious amount of new religious material and to make sure other far-flung Christian communities received copies of it.

As one example, we can look at the use of letters in ancient Rome, which were common enough, yet almost always very short. In contrast, the early Christian letters were lengthy, seeking to provide whole congregations with a significant amount of instruction and teaching. Ordinary papyrus letters averaged about 87 words (we have about 14,000 examples preserved). Even the more literary letters of someone like Cicero ranged only from 22 to 2,530 words. In comparison, Paul’s shortest preserved letter, Philemon, is 395 words in Greek and his longer ones are off the charts (Romans is over 7,000 words, 1 Corinthians is over 6,800, and 2 Corinthians over 4,000). This would have been unheard of in the ancient world. In short, this is serious content, and the believers were expected to be serious learners.

What Text-based Christian Formation Looks Like

What would happen when a particular local gathering of Christians would receive a new apostolic letter, or even their first copy of one of ancient Israel’s sacred writings? The vast majority of the members of this community would have been illiterate, reflecting this characteristic of the larger Roman world. Yet all the evidence we have suggests that Christian worship gatherings always included a time for the public reading of, and interaction with, these Scripture texts.

All it took was at least one member who could read the text out loud. Reading the Scriptures became the ongoing rhythm of these times of worship and praise, learning and instruction. It is noteworthy, for example, how Paul and the other apostles showed no hesitation in quoting or referencing significantly from Israel’s Bible. Again, these congregations were largely made up of former pagans. These texts would have been completely foreign to most of them. Yet early Christian leaders expected everyone to enter into these stories of Israel as their own, to learn them inside and out.

They were people of the book, learners of the text, keepers of the traditions. And it made all the difference.

So what about us, today? What would it look like if we also became counter-cultural, committed, and willing to be transformed by these God-breathed books? What if we demonstrated this level of devotion? Maybe we too could change the world.

*The full telling of this story can be found in “A ‘Bookish’ Religion,” in Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, by Larry W. Hurtado, 2016, pp. 105-141.