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!