Brian J. Wright on Reading in the Early Church

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.”

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Source: Christianity Today