Have you ever heard of communal reading? Evidently, it was the norm among the first Christian believers. Check this out, from an interesting, and important, interview:
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.
The person answering the question is Brian J. Wright, author of the new book, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus, a Window into Early Christian Reading Practices.
It seems that communal reading was part of the culture, and especially, part of the daily life of the first Christians. It not only provided discipleship and fellowship, it also provided stability to their texts as they passed them down:
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.
I recommend you read the whole thing.
Toward the end of the interview, Wright asks, “…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?”
That’s a great question. Wouldn’t it be great if a bunch of groups like this broke out among the Young Adults fellowship? Let me know if you’re interested in being part of one.