Friday, December 31, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Offenders for a Word

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Christianity Today’s Caleb Lindgren interviews author Brian J. Wright about his new book, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus.

Tom: We bounced this article around by email last week, IC, and it was fodder for a few interesting observations. I thought we might revisit it here. One major weakness of Lindgren’s interview is that he never quite gets Brian Wright to define “communal reading” for us, and the term then ends up being used to describe a whole bunch of different things in the course of the interview.

Care to take a shot at defining it?

Back and Forth

Immanuel Can: I think the main problem is with “communal”. What it meant, precisely, is unclear to me. The “reading” part is initially plain: Christians gathered to hear the word of God read aloud. This was quite necessary, especially in the days before mass-produced Bibles were available, and when most people couldn’t even read. But it seems to have been a bit more than mere reading ...

Tom: Right. It’s clear that there were many at these “readings” who couldn’t read, so you could hardly call these readings communal, though most were public. (Wright also talks about gatherings in homes.) It sounds more like a distant cousin of the participatory Bible study, in which someone read from scripture, perhaps giving the sense as Ezra and his Levite helpers did, and others, many of whom could not read but had learned scripture from memory, would ask questions or comment on what had been said. We certainly see that in the Lord’s public ministry there was plenty of back and forth with the crowds and individuals present, so it seems likely public discussions about religious matters were very common. In fact, Wright’s research brings this out.

Well-Read Illiteracy

I think Wright’s main point is that just because a fair-sized segment of any population was sub-literate in the first century, it does not mean that those people were ignorant. In fact, in many ways, they seem more alert and familiar with the text of the Old Testament than some Christians today who are perfectly literate but just don’t take the time to really engage with the word of God.

IC: Well said. Anybody who has read Plato or the great ancient poets, like Homer or Virgil, will be familiar with how smart and attentive ancient people could be. They had comparatively little of an intellectual nature available to them — no books, little time for leisure, in most cases, and no formal public education — but they were intense thinkers in other ways. And perhaps because such distractions were few, they were very, very intellectually focused on those they did have. In fact, in some ways they were much sharper than we tend to be. They were oral learners, but they were decidedly not stupid.

Safety in Numbers

Tom: Now, what I like a great deal about Wright’s research is that he has demonstrated that the general population in first century Judea was very familiar with both the Old Testament and with contemporary literature. It was not just the elite. And Wright makes the argument that communal reading made the early Christian writings much more consistent than we might think in terms of their transmission. I like this quote:

“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.”

This is an argument I’ve been making for several years now, even before there was research to substantiate it. These things were not done in a corner. Copies of the Gospels and epistles were being made and circulated all the time, as F.F. Bruce documents in The Canon of Scripture. The early church quickly became familiar with them, and many of these folks knew the Old Testament far better than we do.

Brand New Tech

IC: We have lots of independent evidence that in the ancient world people made better use of discussion than we often do. More to the point, they performed quite amazing feats of memory, since they had no other means of retaining important things. There’s a discussion recorded in the Phaedrus in which Socrates worries about what the brand new technology of the “book” (i.e. written literature) will do to destroy the people’s powers of memory and understanding. He declares:

“In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. [We] have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; [we] provide [our] students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. [Our] invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

Now, if attention to text, public reading, debate and memorization were of high value to the Greeks, just compare how much more important these things were to the ancient Hebrews ...

Tom: Absolutely. These books did not make it to us as they stand today without being thoroughly picked over, generation after generation, by people who knew their stuff.

Devote Yourself

But now I’m wondering if maybe there’s something we can learn from Brian Wright’s research. Do you think we could use more of that back-and-forth the ancients prized in our churches today? Is there something we’re missing by simply consuming sermons rather than challenging them?

IC: Absolutely. As I pointed out in my earlier post “The Problem Begins at the Platform”, our habit of passively hearing sermons is neither historically normal nor spiritually healthy for us, for reasons I give in detail. There are other ways for us to learn that are both more normal and more effective. And I wouldn’t be surprised at all if communal reading turned out to be one of them.

Tom: “Devote yourself to the public reading of scripture,” Paul tells Timothy.

IC: Yes. And we find the Lord himself practicing both reading and commenting on the reading in a public discussion forum in Luke 4. We are told this “was his custom”. It makes you wonder why it isn’t ours, doesn’t it?

Old Habits Die Hard

Tom: And do we really have to go to 1 Corinthians 14? Sure, it’s prophets and tongues-speakers Paul is correcting, not teachers, but it’s abundantly clear it was not a one-man show Paul was promoting when he told the Corinthians how to do things “decently and in order”.

The thing that’s amazing to me is that the modifications required to allow orderly participation of more than one godly, gifted man per gathering would not be huge. But we’re stuck in our little platform rut. We’ve never known anything else, and we don’t want to know anything else.

IC: Well, the fear is that our old habits and patterns are the only “glue” that’s holding the whole ship together at the moment. If there were not the ritual performances, delivered in predictable order, then we’d be forced to an unnerving rethinking of our whole procedure. And I suspect that many congregations are simply not up for that. But if so, what does it say about us that we’re okay with stale, minimally-effective, rote behavior, but not okay with pushing our limits to be more effective and obedient to the Head of the Church?

Really, though: how much would a rethink actually cost us?

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