Reading Together, Early Church Style

New historical research by Brian J. Wright shows that early Christians were surprisingly bookish.
Reading Together, Early Church Style
Image: Matthew Coughlin

Brian J. Wright first experienced communal reading more than 15 years ago, which led him into the field of textual criticism and put him “three inches from the text.” He spent time photographing manuscripts and working with the fine details of the biblical texts. But when he began PhD work, Wright wanted to step back and ask who was reading what in the first century. His advisors told him—and others scholars all thought—that he would have to include the first three to four centuries to have sufficient evidence on communal reading, but his research revealed a vibrant and active culture of communal reading in the first-century Greco-Roman world.

Wright’s recently published book, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus, details his findings and has been drawing praise from a wide variety of established scholars. Wright, now an adjunct professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, spoke with associate theology editor Caleb Lindgren about what Christian reading communities in the first century looked like and what that means for Christians today.

Most of our study Bibles tell us that many of the apostles and early Christians were not members of the educated elite classes, and are often assumed to be illiterate. How widespread was literacy in the
ancient world?

Great question. My book is not specifically on ancient literacy, but the consensus view of literacy in antiquity, as you just mentioned, is that the vast majority of people were illiterate. Up until now, no one has documented or argued for the widespread practice of communal reading in the first century. So while I disagree with that illiteracy assumption, it really isn’t the focus of my work.

Because I’ve demonstrated that communal reading events were widespread socially and geographically, you really don’t even need to prove that many people were literate in order to have an overwhelming majority of people that could have known literary texts well or had access to them regularly.

And so we shouldn’t be surprised when we read in the Gospel of John (12:32–34) an account where a crowd of people—not scribes, religious leaders, or elites—challenged Jesus on his use of one verb in one subordinate clause. Or we shouldn’t be surprised when we read of other first-century accounts outside of the Bible where someone in the audience would stand up and object to some detail being shared in a communal reading event because it differed from what they had been hearing elsewhere.

Can you give a picture of what a first-century communal reading would look like?

It would have occurred in many different ways. It could have been friends sharing literature. It could have been public figures actually having something at a theater or auditorium. They happened in both formal and informal venues: apartments, temples, synagogues. They were happening everywhere, courtrooms, private homes, schools.

There are even some pretty humorous examples of one first-century writer, Martial, who talks about how annoying it was when people were reading everywhere to everyone, even while he was in a public bathroom. So there are a number of accounts in the first century where it seems like there were more people reading communally than scholars have thought, and it was just pervasive.

Also notable is the type of reader, that it’s not just the elite. All sorts of people were reading. What my book really shows is there were more people involved in this than have been really seen so far. So I think, in one sense, their problem back then was everyone seemed to be reading and reciting literary works. But our problem today is thinking that no one was doing it or no one could do it.

So, it sounds similar to the way we talk about people using their smartphones today. Is there any kind of correlation between what you are talking about and social media today?

Yes, absolutely. Two things come to mind. One of them is that there was a kind of public reading mania in the first century. It was the trend of the day, and people were talking about it just like what’s on Facebook and Twitter today. The second is that because of that, one historian even notes that the distinction between authors and readers became blurred, and this really damaged what he referred to as the intellectual fabric of the empire.

Because everyone was just posting things or reading their works, a person could become instantly popular. So people wanted to become well known. There’s even accounts of teachers in the first century complaining about students trying to fast track their schooling so they could participate in the reading culture. They just wanted to be out there reading their works and participating in it. And so that caused a lot of self-taught, immature writers and readers and a lot of non–peer reviewed books. Overall quality really decreased because nobody knew who really wrote what or who to listen to. So I think the comparison to social media is pretty striking. There were a lot of self-made experts.

But also, if you’re on social media, it’s almost impossible to quote a popular movie line or name a wrong player on a sports team without somebody noticing and correcting it. Imagine if that type of control was in literature. That’s what you see in the first century because of how pervasive communal reading was. People would stand up and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. That’s not what I heard.”

Are you then suggesting that this phenomenon of communal reading events might have provided some consistency to the transmission of Christian literature?

Absolutely, for the texts that would have been read more frequently. Let me give one non-biblical example. If someone were to misquote Homer, everybody would know, because that was just read so frequently. Paul’s writings and other early Christian writings that would have been quickly or immediately read and used, even in the first century, would have been similar. In fact, there’s countless examples after the first century of somebody standing up to read and there’s an uproar in the congregation over one word that had changed because of a new translation.

I reference in the book a letter Augustine wrote to Jerome about when Jerome translated the Latin Vulgate. Augustine’s congregation was in an uproar over one verse in Jonah (4:6) because there was one word that had been changed from what they knew. But I wasn’t just finding examples like this in later centuries like the third and fourth. I started seeing those same type of things in the second and even first century.

So, texts that were read more often would necessarily have been more well known, and people could, in a sense, stand up and say, “That’s not what we’ve been hearing” or “I’m not sure that’s the correct reading of that text” or things like that. I think that should increase our understanding and confidence that there may have been more stability to the transmission of Christian tradition and more stability to these texts than we’ve thought.

You’ve talked about the similarities between the way that Christians might have been reading and the way the rest of the ancient world was reading. Are there differences?

Yeah, a number of them. One of the main ways that I believe Christians and their reading practices stood out from their surrounding culture was their humility and their distinctive focus on spiritual formation. They didn’t write to make money like Martial. They didn’t read to show off their knowledge like Lucian. They didn’t complain about their exiles or sufferings like Ovid. They didn’t seek fame or status like Propertius. They weren’t prideful in their accomplishments like Juvenal. They didn’t laugh at or embarrass other people like Arrian describes in many settings.

Christians read communally so they and others would become more like Christ. It was about communal transformation as much as individual change. And so they valued the input of others. They were grateful for the people God had placed around them. And so one of the big distinctions is that Christians encouraged communal reading not as an end in itself but as a way of comprehending the text, promoting unity, of forming spiritually, of becoming like Christ.

How does this renewed understanding of how early Christians were reading and interacting with the literature of their day affect how we understand the first century? And also how does that affect how we understand our Bibles?

I think I could sum up everything I’ve learned in early Christian reading practices in four words: “They did it communally.” And so in two words, I feel like I can sum up what that means for believers today, and that’s “Read communally.”

I think Christians today, in an attempt to kind of “win the world,” have become too much like it. Christians are no longer bookish, like the earliest Christian communities. Christians are more self-focused than communally focused, unlike the earliest Christian communities. And so I hear people saying all the time, “I don’t need to go to church.”

I think my book provides yet another way of countering that argument because there was extensive interaction among Christians in the first century. There was a broad circulation of Christian writings. There was an emphasis on reading texts communally both biblically and non-biblically. I mention in the book a few communities like that in Jude or in 1 Peter. These would have been bookish communities that were reading literature outside of the Bible, apocryphal literature, Enoch and others.

So instead of reading little and gathering infrequently, what might happen today if Christians read a great deal in community like they did in the first century? As I was doing my research, I saw that communal reading was a powerful discipleship tool because it aided understanding. It fostered community. It promoted a healthy interactive discussion of our common confession.

Think of how many times in the Book of Acts or elsewhere you see them communally expounding the Scriptures, you see them doing it to engage the culture. Today a lot of people are individually listening to Scripture read aloud on CDs or individually listening to a reading while merely sitting around other people, without any genuine Christian community, with no interaction, with no expounding feedback, audience responses, etcetera.

I hope my book challenges those practices today in healthy ways. Granted, both extremes are bad—reading doesn’t always have to be communal. But I think the evidence shows that reading in the early church was more often communal. And so I would say if you want to read your Bible well or just read well, period—like Jesus, like Paul, like the earliest Christians—do it communally.

I think that is something that is in our heritage. It’s our pedigree. And this wasn’t some new phenomenon that started in the New Testament times with Jesus or Paul. It goes all the way back. This pedigree runs from Moses through Jesus through Paul to the early church and beyond. I’d love for us today to retrieve this great Christian tradition and reinstitute this important spiritual practice that we have neglected— taking up and reading together.

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Reading Together, Early Church Style