Wednesday, 14 August 2019

The Sociocultural Context of the New Testament (Part 8): Public Reading

From earliest times the Jews gave attention to the public reading of God’s word (Exod. 24:1-7; Josh. 8:30-35; 2 Kings 22:8-13; 23:1-3; Neh. 8:1-9, 18; 9:3; 13:1). In fact, Hebrew narrative, which comprises more than 40% of the Hebrew Bible, was designed primarily for hearers, not readers.... these texts were composed altogether with the hearer in view and thus contain structural features designed to make the narrative more memorable.1  In the 1st century AD public reading was a regular part of the synagogue gatherings, where both the Law and the Prophets were read aloud (Acts 13:15, 27; 15:21). Jesus customarily attended synagogue meetings and participated in the communal reading and exposition of the sacred writings (Luke 4:16-22).2

The prevalence of illiteracy in the 1st-century Mediterranean world made public reading indispensable.Speaking to the educated elite, Jesus could ask, “Have you not read?” (Matt. 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:16, 42; 22:31; Luke 10:26), while in addressing the common masses it was more appropriate to say, “You have heard that it was said” (Matt. 5:21, 27, 33, 38, 43; cf. 7:24, 26; 13:19-23), albeit with reference to oral instruction. James charges his audience to be doers of the implanted word and not just “hearers” [akroataí] (Jas. 1:21-25; cf. Rom. 2:13). The apostle John pronounces a blessing on “the one reading and those hearing the words of the prophecy ...” (Rev. 1:3a).4

Paul commends the holy scriptures to Timothy, charging him to “preach the word” (2 Tim. 3:16–4:2) and “to give attention to the public reading [anágnōsis]” (1 Tim. 4:13; cf. Acts 13:15; 2 Cor. 3:14). At the time, in addition to the Old Testament, the writings of Luke were already regarded as “scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18), and within a comparable timeframe so were Paul’s (2 Pet. 3:15-16) [see What the Scriptures Say]. In the earliest extant Pauline document, the directive is given: “I solemnly charge you [in] the Lord, [that] this letter be read to all the brethren” (1 Thess. 5:27). Seeing that the Thessalonian correspondence would naturally have been read publicly when the Thessalonica church assembled together, the exhortation potentially includes the nearby brethren in Berea and Philippi and beyond (cf. 1:7-8; 4:10). Paul intended for his writings to be circulated rather than kept isolated in their respective localities: “and when this letter shall be read in your presence, have it also read among the church of [the] Laodiceans, and that also you may read the [one] from Laodicea” (Col. 4:16) [see Paul's Missing Letters].

By the mid-2nd century Justin Martyr writes from Rome, “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits …”E. Ferguson remarks,“The Gospels and Prophets may have been a Christian counterpart to the Jewish readings from the Law and the Prophets…. the reading may have been continuous from Sunday to Sunday, taking up where the reading left off the last week, but not of a predetermined length. The indication is that the readings were rather lengthy ...”6

P. F. Esler provides helpful insights into examining the New Testament writings as they were originally designed. He reminds us that the author of each inspired document has communicated with the aim of informing and motivating a particular group of Christ-followers, most of whom potentially were illiterate. Since the text would have been read aloud when the church gathered, the message was conveyed orally and received aurally. It is therefore appropriate to consider the 27 New Testament documents as nonliterary in character, “as scripts for oral performance delivered within a setting of face-to-face dialogue …”

Conversely, when modern readers in literary cultures interact with the written text, the tendency is to read and examine each word but fail to hear the words collectively as interpersonal discourse. “The omnipresence of printed text in our lives as a result of Gutenberg’s fifteenth-century invention of the printing press represents quite an obstacle to our understanding and benefiting from these communications in a manner that accords with their original and oral and interpersonal nature.”Esler challenges us to pay attention to the biblical author’s “communicative intentions” and listen to the New Testament “in a way that does justice to its oral and interpersonal origins.”9

--Kevin L. Moore

     G. D. Fee and D. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth 93-103 (emp. in the text). 
     Cf. Matt. 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:39, 21; Luke 4:44; 13:10; John 6:59; 18:20; etc. Unless noted otherwise, scripture quotations are the author’s own translation.
     It has been estimated that in the world of the Roman Empire, only about 10 and at most 20 percent of the entire population could read, and in the western part of the Empire no higher than 5 to 10 percent (W. V. Harris, Ancient Literacy 130-45). Considering the diversity of the multi-cultural and multi-lingual contexts in which early Christianity developed and spread, it is difficult to determine the educational and literacy levels within these Christian communities (H. Gamble, Books and Readers 3).
     At times a note may be inserted in the written text for the public reader (Matt. 24:15; Mark 13:14). C. Bryan says this “is probably to be understood as a stage direction to ‘the one who reads aloud (that is, to the assembly).’ If so, then in performance these words should be omitted, on the principle that one does not recite stage directions, one carries them out” (Preface to Mark 111 n. 9). Others, however, see this as applicable to the reader of Daniel (R. T. France, Gospel According to Matthew TNTC 340; R. H. Gundry, Matthew: A Commentary 481).
     A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, “The First Apology of Justin” 1:186.
     E. Ferguson, “Justin Martyr and the Liturgy,” RQ 36 [1994]: 271-72.
     P. F. Esler, NT Theology: Communion and Community 8-9. See also K. L. Moore, The Study of Ancient Rhetoric.
     P. F. Esler, op cit. It is helpful to note that “the difference between oral and written material was less distinct in antiquity” (E. R. Richards, “Reading, Writing, and Manuscripts,” in The World of the NT [eds. J. B. Green and L. M. McDonald] 349).
     P. F. Esler, op cit., 88-118, 148-70.

Related Articles: Jovan Payes, Public Reading of Scripture

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