The Public Nature of Reading Scripture

James Tissot, Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (c. 1890)
James Tissot, Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (c. 1890)

In the modern age, it’s easy to assume that Christians always studied Scripture by reading their personal Bible, or that theological questions always settled by the believer looking through his Bible at home, alone.

But none of that is true. Before the creation of the printing press in 1440, books were handwritten. They were expensive, and took a long time to produce. As a result, reading looked and sounded very different than it does today. Those who could read, and who had access to books, would customarily read aloud. Everyone else would listen, and if need be, ask questions.

That’s why St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) struggled in his Confessions to understand why his mentor St. Ambrose (337-397 A.D.) was in the odd habit of reading silently:

For I could not request of him what I wished as I wished, in that I was debarred from hearing and speaking to him by crowds of busy people, whose infirmities he devoted himself to. With whom when he was not engaged (which was but a little time), he either was refreshing his body with necessary sustenance, or his mind with reading. But while reading, his eyes glanced over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent.

Ofttimes, when we had come (for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of those who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and, having long sat in silence (for who dared interrupt one so intent?), we were fain to depart, inferring that in the little time he secured for the recruiting of his mind, free from the clamour of other men’s business, he was unwilling to be taken off. And perchance he was fearful lest, if the author he studied should express anything vaguely, some doubtful and attentive hearer should ask him to expound it, or to discuss some of the more abstruse questions, as that, his time being thus occupied, he could not turn over as many volumes as he wished; although the preservation of his voice, which was very easily weakened, might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But whatever was his motive in so doing, doubtless in such a man was a good one.

Today, we wouldn’t think anything of it for someone to read silently to themselves, without moving their lips. Indeed, given the circumstances (the train, for example), it might be very odd for them to read in any other way. But reading was a different thing in the fifth century than it is today.

And that’s true of the first century, too… and it’s specifically true of Sacred Scripture. We see this clearly in Luke 4:16-21, when Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth:

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus doesn’t bring His personal Bible with Him to the synagogue (indeed, the Bible isn’t even in book form at this point — it’s still a series of scrolls). Rather, He’s handed the Book of Isaiah by an attendant, to whom He returns the book at the end of proclaiming the word aloud. And it’s this way that Scripture speaks of itself as being read and proclaimed. The Book of Revelation opens this way (Rev. 1:1-3):

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants what must soon take place; and he made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. Blessed is he who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written therein; for the time is near.

 

This isn’t just Biblical or historical trivia: it colors how we think of the relationship between the believer, the Scriptures, and the Church. If Scripture is something I read at home by myself, it’s natural to think of it as a one-on-one encounter between me and the Word. There’s not an obvious role for the Church in that encounter. But if Scripture is something that I literally go to the Church for, and I learn the Bible by hearing it proclaimed and explained liturgically, the centrality of the Church as the locus for the encounter between the believer and the Word is hard to miss.

In that vein, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been asked by the good folks at Catholic Bytes to help out with their “Bible in a Year” project. The goal is to have priests and seminarians proclaim the entire Knox Bible. This will then be released as a series of 365 audio episodes (tentatively) starting this Advent. It’s been a big success so far: they’ve gotten Cardinals from every continent (save Antarctica, sorry) to record for it, and the seminarians and priests have been only too happy to participate. I am reading three of my favorite Old Testament books: Jonah, Malachi, and Judith.

I mention this for three reasons. First, because I’m happy to see (and participate in) a project that emphasizes the proclamation of Sacred Scripture. Second, because I think a lot of people reading this would be benefitted by it. And third, because if you would like to help to fund the project, it’s super easy to do. Although  most of the initial recordings are done, there’s still a lot of work to do – they’ve got to listen to every chapter to make sure we didn’t screw anything up. Like I said, unless things go awry, it looks like we’ll be ready to go this Advent!

14 Comments

  1. “But if Scripture is something that I literally go to the Church for, and I learn the Bible by hearing it proclaimed and explained liturgically, the centrality of the Church as the locus for the encounter between the believer and the Word is hard to miss.”

    This is a good point and in many ways, the ability to just read the Bible on your own as your own private devotion is, in some sense, an anachronism and not necessary for most Christians. I always felt that the Reformation was really caused by the printing press, if anything.

    Augustine writes in Chap 27 of On the Predestination of the Saints:

    And since these things are so, the judgment of the book of Wisdom ought not to be repudiated, since for so long a course of years that book has deserved to be read in the Church of Christ from the station of the readers of the Church of Christ, and to be heard by all Christians, from bishops downwards, even to the lowest lay believers, penitents, and catechumens, with the veneration paid to divine authority.

    As we can see in the above, Augustine presumes that the common man’s exposure to the Bible is via “the readers of the Church of Christ.”

    I do not think that the Catholic liturgy allows for the entirety of the Scriptures to be read, however, and so there is still a place for private readings or lectures (literally sitting down, hearing the whole thing read, and transcribing your own copy.) Yet, even this is an anachronism. Memory in the west is not what it used to be. More than a few muslims have the whole Quran memorized. We’re not geared to do the same with the New Testament, for example. Hence, we are stuck with the book.

    I guess my point is that going back to the old way of doing things would not work without a gigantic shift in education.

    1. Hello Craig,

      I can’t speak for Joe personally, but the main point that I received from the article wasn’t saying that Hearing the Word is the Only way, but rather that there’s an attitude that goes with it. In one of his last paragraphs Joe says,

      “it colors how we think of the relationship between the believer, the Scriptures, and the Church. If Scripture is something I read at home by myself, it’s natural to think of it as a one-on-one encounter between me and the Word. There’s not an obvious role for the Church in that encounter. But if Scripture is something that I literally go to the Church for, and I learn the Bible by hearing it proclaimed and explained liturgically, the centrality of the Church as the locus for the encounter between the believer and the Word is hard to miss.”

      But the Church has been doing this since the beginning of time and so there is no “going back to the old way of doing things” because the Early Church spreads the Word in this way and so does the current Catholic Church, so I guess the question would be, why go to a church that isn’t doing it this way? As in why go to a church that isn’t the historic One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church?

    2. “I do not think that the Catholic liturgy allows for the entirety of the Scriptures to be read,”

      Virtually all of it is, in the three year cycle.

      1. I’m not sure how that is so. The readings are too short. you need to average 4-5 chapters a day to cover the entire RCC Canon in a year if you read every day. So, in three years I don’t see how you can do it unless there is technically a reading every day.

        1. Actually, Craig, there are two or three reading every single day, because there is Mass every single day (bar Good Friday) and the readings are the first portion of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word. Bless you heart, you try so very hard to convert and ‘educate’ the largely RC readers of this blog, when you really don’t have much of a grasp on what (and/or who) the Church is.

          Pretty darn sure you mean so well, but we have a Gift in the Church founded by Christ that you only see bits and pieces of….

    3. I always felt that the Reformation was really caused by the printing press, if anything.” Amen to that!

      I do not think that the Catholic liturgy allows for the entirety of the Scriptures to be read, however, and so there is still a place for private readings or lectures (literally sitting down, hearing the whole thing read, and transcribing your own copy.)” Agreed. In speaking of the primacy of encountering the Scriptures in the Liturgy and the Church, I don’t mean to suggest that there’s no role for encountering Scripture elsewhere, like personal/private Bible reading, Bible studies, etc.

      As to your question with Mary, my understanding (based upon this) is that the old Lectionary used 1% of the Old Testament (plus virtually all of the Psalms) and 16.5% of the New Testament, while the current Lectionary uses 13.5% of the Old Testament (plus virtually all of the Psalms) and 71.5% of the New Testament. That’s assuming daily Mass – the numbers (including at the link) are obviously lower if you just go on Sundays and major feast days. As you’ve suggested, Craig, covering the rest of the Bible (much of which includes the genealogies and whatnot) would seriously prolong the Liturgy.

      Memory in the west is not what it used to be. More than a few muslims have the whole Quran memorized.” Agreed. I was reminded of this about an hour ago. At lunch today, a couple of Muslim women were describing to me how their five daily prayers work, and it was clear that they had at least large chunks of the Qur’an committed to memory.

      I.X.,

      Joe

        1. The Second Vatican Council, in its document on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) called for a greater portion of the Bible to be used liturgically. Here are the relevant texts:

          “24. Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning. Thus to achieve the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy, it is essential to promote that warm and living love for scripture to which the venerable tradition of both eastern and western rites gives testimony.

          “25. The liturgical books are to be revised as soon as possible; experts are to be employed on the task, and bishops are to be consulted, from various parts of the world.” [….]

          “35. That the intimate connection between words and rites may be apparent in the liturgy:

          “1) In sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from holy scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable.

          “2) Because the sermon is part of the liturgical service, the best place for it is to be indicated even in the rubrics, as far as the nature of the rite will allow; the ministry of preaching is to be fulfilled with exactitude and fidelity. The sermon, moreover, should draw its content mainly from scriptural and liturgical sources, and its character should be that of a proclamation of God’s wonderful works in the history of salvation, the mystery of Christ, ever made present and active within us, especially in the celebration of the liturgy.

          “3) Instruction which is more explicitly liturgical should also be given in a variety of ways; if necessary, short directives to be spoken by the priest or proper minister should be provided within the rites themselves. But they should occur only at the more suitable moments, and be in prescribed or similar words.

          “4) Bible services should be encouraged, especially on the vigils of the more solemn feasts, on some weekdays in Advent and Lent, and on Sundays and feast days. They are particularly to be commended in places where no priest is available; when this is so, a deacon or some other person authorized by the bishop should preside over the celebration.” [….]

          “51. The treasures of the bible are to be opened up more lavishly, so that richer fare may be provided for the faithful at the table of God’s word. In this way a more representative portion of the holy scriptures will be read to the people in the course of a prescribed number of years.”

      1. Hi Joe,
        You mentioned to me that the reason certain passages (like 1 Cor. 11 or Psalm 137) aren’t included in the lectionary is to avoid scandalizing the people or to avoid prolonging the liturgy. At first I was confused by that explanation but I think I now see that maybe the Church leaves that to the people to take on the responsibility of reading the remaining parts of Scripture for themselves.
        In regards to Muslims memorizing the entire Quran; forgive my candor but whoopty-doo. Being able to recite something doesn’t make you a holy person nor does it make one more intelligent. Applying Scripture in our daily lives makes us holy. I find it more helpful to read small chunks of Scripture daily and understand their meaning with the aid of the Magisterium and pray on it. If read daily, Scripture is absorbed; at least in my opinion. One can read the entire Bible but I don’t think its practical to memorize it.

        1. Kelley,

          While I am always impressed when Christians have big chunks of the Scriptures memorized, I also think it’s true that (a) this isn’t necessary to have a good working knowledge of what the Bible says; and that (b) knowing the spirit is more important than knowing the letter.

          I.X.,

          Joe

          1. I know you do. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that you didn’t. Thanks again for your insight.

            Peace,
            Kelley

  2. Craig, I enjoy your comments and i bet you could answer this (simple) question that came up to me. Was the writings that our Lord saw on the scrolls Hebrew and did He speak Hebrew there in the synagague? When he went out into the s\treet Aramaic, which was very similar to Hebrew used. Sorry Joe, off topic. thanks

    1. Joe might know better than me. Here’s my speculation:

      There are some theories that the term “aramaic” was essentially a euphemism for Hebrew. I am not sure how seriously I take it, but most ancient manuscripts are in Hebrew. Yet, in the Scripture, Jesus quotes Ps 22 in “Aramaic” and elsewhere quotes Scripture sometimes straight from the LXX. This makes it hard to know whether Mark, Luke or whomever remembered what Christ quoted but used the LXX in their writing, or if at the time being bilingual was the norm, as so Greek and Aramaic would have been used in every day Scripture quoting.

      Augustine speaks of the Jews keeping scrolls of the Old Testament in the temple. These, with the exception of Daniel, would have been entirely in Hebrew. So, it is likely that regular synagogues did the same. However, being that the Dead Sea Scrolls use Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, I personally think all three were in religious use and I prefer to believe Jesus quoted the LXX most often.

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