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“Communal Reading” in Early Christianity

July 6, 2017

A forthcoming book by Brian J. Wright, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus:  A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices, is a solid and valuable contribution to our grasp of how texts functioned in early Christianity.  View the publisher’s advance notice here.  Due out December this year, it’s available for pre-order now.

Wright invited me to write a Foreword for the book, and after reading the manuscript I was entirely happy to do so.  Here’s what I wrote:


This book is an important contribution to our understanding of how texts were handled in early Christian circles and in their larger Roman-era cultural environment.  For a few decades now, both in biblical studies and in classical studies, scholars have explored and debated a variety of questions about the distribution and usage of texts, the level and degrees of Roman-era literacy, the relationship between “orality” and texts, and the factors affecting the transmission and stability of texts.  In the process, some earlier exaggerations and romantic notions (such as claims about an original “orality” in earliest Christian circles that involved the oral “performance” of texts from memory rather than the reading of manuscripts) have been corrected.[1]  But there continues to be a need for more data to be placed into discussion about texts and reading in the world of earliest Christianity, and one of the major strengths of Brian Wright’s book is that it addresses this need, with a commendable abundance of primary sources drawn upon, which he submits to a careful and cogent analysis.

The rich body of evidence surveyed in Chapter 5 on “Communal Reading Events” in the Roman-era setting alone makes the book worth its price, and the Appendix provides still more!  That is, he documents amply the frequent, perhaps even characteristic, manner in which texts were used, one person reading from a manuscript while others listened.  By giving attention to the provenance of his evidence, he is also able to show that this reading practice was followed trans-locally in various parts of the Roman Empire.  In Chapter 6, he shows further that this was the common practice among earliest Christian circles as well, and from the first century onward.  In short, early Christianity reflected the reading practices of the Jewish matrix in which it emerged, and, indeed, the reading practices of the larger Roman-era cultural environment.

One of the effects of Wright’s study is to show that, whatever the levels of literacy in the Roman world, written texts were experienced and engaged widely and by people of various social and educational levels.  For, even among circles in which the great majority were illiterate, all that was needed was one person capable of reading a text out for the rest.  So, the low level of literacy that we assume (and it is basically an assumption) cannot be a basis for marginalizing the place and influence of written texts in the Roman world.  Indeed, Wright adds further data to the growing conviction among historians of the Roman period that it was a time characterized by a remarkable salience of writing and reading of all kinds, from graffiti to inscriptions, and from letters and bills of sale to popular and elite literary texts.

Wright also notes rightly that the communal reading of texts functioned as one factor affecting the transmission of texts, particularly those that were read repeatedly.  For as these texts were read they became, so to speak, the textual property of the circle(s) of those who heard them read.  Wright shows that people were often concerned to have a reliable version of the wording of texts, and could object when any significant alteration was attempted to texts that they knew well.  In making this point, Wright underscores a factor that is relevant for our estimates of how writings that came to be treated as scriptures, such as those that form our New Testament, were transmitted textually.[2]  Michael Holmes noted how some early Christian texts suffered what he called “macro-level” alterations, such as the Gospel of Thomas, whereas other texts, particularly those that early on acquired a scriptural status and usage, exhibit “micro-level” variants (i.e., smaller variation in such things as verb tense, presence/absence of the definite article, word-order of small phrases, etc.).[3]  Wright’s emphasis on the role of the repeated communal reading of texts helps us to account for this.  Those texts that were read out communally more frequently acquired a comparatively greater textual stability.

I do not wish to distract readers further from the rich feast of data and discussion in this book, and so I shall conclude simply by reiterating that it is a study that anyone interested in the realia of early Christianity should note.  I hope that Wright’s study will quickly acquire the attention that it deserves.  As others have noted, early Christianity was a particularly “bookish” religious movement, evidenced in the place given to the reading of texts, and also in the production, copying, and trans-local circulation of texts.[4]  Wright’s valuable book illumines in specific ways the social dimension of that early Christian bookishness, and we are all thereby enabled to perceive better features of that remarkable religious movement.

[1] Larry W. Hurtado, “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies?  ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity.” New Testament Studies 60.3 (2014): 321-40.  Cf. also Kelly Iverson, “Oral Fixation or Oral Corrective? A Response to Larry Hurtado,” New Testament Studies 62.2 (2016): 183-200; and my reply, “Correcting Iverson’s ‘Correction’,” New Testament Studies 62.2 (2016): 201-206.

[2] In a very brief manner, I pointed to this factor myself in an essay published several years ago:  Larry W. Hurtado, “The New Testament in the Second Century:  Text, Collections and Canon,” in Transmission and Reception:  New Testament Text-Critical and Exegetical Studies, ed. J. W. Childers and D. C. Parker (Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, 2006), 3-27.  So, I am happy to have now Wright’s supporting analysis.

[3] Michael W. Holmes, “Text and Transmission in the Second Century,” in The Reliability of the New Testament:  Bart Ehrman and Daniel Wallace in Dialogue, ed. Robert B. Stewart (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 47-65.

[4] E.g., see my discussion of this in Destroyer of the gods:  The Distinctiveness of Early Christianity in the Roman World (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2016), 105-41.

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  1. I presume it will come out in eBook version in which case I wound like to read it.

  2. Congratulations Brian! I look forward to reading this work.

  3. Jim permalink

    This is totally a speculation-based question; but hey, that’s why God created beer … so that people wouldn’t dry out when they sat in a group and engaged in long “what if” questions. 😊

    What is your view on the location of communal reading during the fairly early Jesus follower era (say 40s-60s CE) for Gentile churches: do you think that these Gentiles would have attended synagogues to listen to readings (proselyte-ish) while being “Christians”, or were they likely to already have had copies of at least some of the OT texts that were read in their own meetings? I think (very light on the “think” part), that Harry Gamble suggested the circulation of some document(s) with select pertinent OT excerpts for reading at church gatherings.

    • Jim: It’s difficult to give a solidly based answer to your question. But from an early point there may well have been collections of OT texts deemed by believers as applicable to Jesus and prophetic of their faith. These collections may have been read and pondered from an early point in gatherings of believers. And, yes, Jewish and at least some of the Gentile believers likely frequented synagogues, where they would have heard scriptures read.
      The remarkable commitment of the early believers to texts likely means that from an early point they made their own copies of some OT writings for communal reading too. (I discuss the “bookishness” of early Christianity in my recent book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World, Baylor University Press, 2016.)

  4. Thank you for this.

    One comment of yours in particular rang a loud bell with me. You state, “Wright shows that people were often concerned to have a reliable version of the wording of texts, and could object when any significant alteration was attempted to texts that they knew well.”

    My research for my doctorate in linguistics consisted of an in-depth study of an indigenous language in Peru. To gather data, I made tape-recordings of local people speaking, and they soon offered to tell me traditional stories. They were an entirely oral culture with no writing system. One of them would start talking, and the story might last five or ten minutes. That is a long monologue. They were only interrupted if they got the slightest word wrong, by listeners who would correct them by saying the correct word or phrase, which they would immediately accept. Subsequently, as I studied these stories, I discovered that on rare occasions they included words that the speakers did not understand, which would seem to indicate that the stories had been transmitted over several generations and were memorized verbatim.

    It would appear that Wright’s comment illustrates an equivalent phenomenon .

  5. Timothy Joseph permalink

    Dr. H.,
    Thanks for the heads up on this book. I have added it to my Christmas list with advice to my Santa-wife that preordering it now should get it here by then!


  6. This type of book is long overdue. Thanks for championing it. Look forward to reading it.

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