Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: An Interview with Brian J. Wright
October 15, 2017
In December 2017, Fortress Press will publish Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices, by Brian J. Wright. Wright is adjunct professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University and has published a number of academic studies in the Journal of Theological Studies, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Bulletin for Biblical Research, Trinity Journal, and Tyndale Bulletin.
We recently interviewed Wright about his soon-to-be-released book, the implications of his argument, and the significance of his scholarship for the practice of communal reading today.
Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus not only has value for those doing an historical reconstruction of early Christian reading practices, but also worthwhile for Christian philosophers and theologians working on issues of scripture’s authority and canon formation, engaging issues of hermeneutics, and the role of communal reading practices in shaping communal identity over time.
The main argument of my book is that communal reading events were widespread during the time of Jesus (i.e., the first century AD). Practically speaking, this brings the academic conversation back at least one century, overturning the predominant idea that the communal reading of written texts, and even the use/demand for written texts, were a second century or later phenomenon (or trend). In other words, the simplistic notion that only a small segment of society in certain urban areas could have been involved in such communal reading events during the first century has been overturned.
What are the relevant Jewish/Hebraic ‘background culture’ factors that shape first-century Christian communal reading?
It seems to me that the early Christian movement largely inherited the book culture, reading communities, and literary practices of Judaism, even if early Christian communities modified or transformed them in diverse ways. Thus, one factor I note in my work is that Christian communal reading events were not a new sacred phenomenon. A main (yet additional) factor suggesting this was the role of synagogues in early Christian origins. We also see the NT authors, such as Paul, using the terminology of “tradition(s),” which has a long history in Judaism. To give just one more specific example here, there is a first-century Jewish text that has a scene where a mother addresses her sons after their father dies, and she focuses exclusively on what their father read, taught, and sang at home: the Jewish Scriptures. I believe we also see this type of focus and even Christian obligation to train our families, which includes reading the Scriptures communally.
What do you care most about in this important discussion?
I know this might sound trite, but I care most about discovering the truth. Why was there such an emphasis in the New Testament on the communal reading of written texts (e.g., Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim 4:13; Rev. 1:3)? Was communal reading a conserving force within literary traditions in the first century AD? To what extent did it control the textual transmission of the Christian tradition and influence its stability? By knowing the correct answers to these types of questions, as a historian I can better reconstruct the history and culture of Jesus’s time, and as an interpreter I can more accurately understand God’s Word.
How do you develop your book’s argument?
In one sense, developing my argument was the hardest part of the book because I was mostly navigating in uncharted territory within New Testament studies, and identifying these events is more complex than merely looking for some key terms or in one corpus of literature. But in another sense, developing the argument was the easiest part of this work. Every time a location was identified, like Jesus reading communally in a synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16–30), it automatically advanced my main argument to some extent. As the evidence quickly multiplied, I then placed it within the political, social, and economic context of the day. I believe this enhanced the strength of my argument that communal reading events were widespread because such factors did not necessarily hinder them in the Roman Empire.
However widespread, was the Christian practice distinct in forming “communal identity” among early Jesus followers? If so, how?
I note several factors in my work that enhance the notion that the earliest Christian communities were distinct in forming communal identity. The picture more often than not is of a didactic community that used texts in forming communal identity, while emphasizing such things as the office of teacher, gift of teaching, commands to teach, traditions passed on, and communal reading. In fact, I note several outsiders who attended and tried to imitate Christian communal reading events in certain ways. I also show the distinctiveness of Christian reading culture by noting such things as the inclusion of new writings. But let me conclude by giving just one verse as a distinct example. Paul states, “I put you all under oath before the Lord to have this letter read aloud to all the brothers” (1 Thess. 5:27).
Why do you find your argument to be compelling?
I think the argument is compelling because it is data rich. In fact, at each stage of research, I had to keep narrowing my parameters. I started the project looking for all types of evidence from the first three centuries. Before long, I realized I would not even be able to cover one type of evidence (literary) in one of the centuries (the first century). Even after adding a highly selective appendix with 60 additional authors and 142 texts, I was unable to include all the literary evidence I found, not to mention other types of evidence, such as epigraphic and archeological.
What do you anticipate as some criticisms of your argument that you find most interesting or
Craig Keener noted this regarding my book, “Although subsequent scholarship regularly debates some conclusions of any ground breaking work, it remains indebted to the foundations that such a work lays.” I reference his comment because I’m not naïve to think that my book will settle all matters. In fact, I expect to receive my share of criticism, which is par for the course. So if I were to venture a guess on a couple of them, I would suspect at least seeing these two broad criticisms: (1) my survey-of-the-entire-NT approach, and (2) my seemingly arbitrary selection of authors and texts, especially those at the beginning and end of the first century.
What is your response to those criticisms?
I would say without hesitation that those criticisms are correct. I did do a survey of the entire NT instead of narrowing my focus onto one author, book, or verse. I did have to establish parameters and make certain selections of the evidence that might initially seem arbitrary and will not please every academic reviewer. Nevertheless, I would respond to the first one by saying that I cast a wider net than many modern scholars do because I’m asking and answering only the first of a series of important historical questions regarding communal reading: how widespread were they? As for the second one, I would say that other selections could always have been made. What I don’t think can be denied, however, is that I have provided more evidence for first-century communal reading events in my book then anyone has thus far. Therefore, I don’t think those types of critiques will jeopardize my main argument that communal reading events were widespread and an available conserving force within literary traditions in the first century AD.
How does Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus intersect with your other current or forthcoming projects?
Given the wide-ranging implications of this study, such as the affects it will have on hermeneutics and possibly even future translations, I think this work will continue intersecting with all of my current and forthcoming projects. I am actually finishing a devotional book, which Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus has influenced in some powerful ways, such as how spiritual formation occurred during the communal reading of Scripture.
How did early Christians approach communal reading with an expectation that the practice would be spiritually formative?
The Book of Revelation probably contains one of the most explicit statements regarding your question: “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it” (1:3). This statement alone demonstrates that the author foresees his work being read aloud communally and the expectation that the practice would be spiritually formative. In fact, it comes right after the opening verse, which states that this revelation is for all Christ’s “slaves” (= Christians). Elsewhere, believers seemed to accept the NT writings, like the word of Paul, as the word of God and that this word was presently active in their lives. Thus, Christians understood what it meant to live in the sphere of a sacred text that was read communally and they approached it as such.
What do you notice about communal reading as “a conserving force within literary traditions in the first century AD”?
For many scholars, I think the “pot of gold” in this study will be the quality controls that are linked to communal reading events. There are simply too many examples to list here, but I will try to summarize just a few of them to illustrate my point. Some first-century authors mention their community getting angry and throwing away manuscripts they received to read if they contained mistakes. Other first-century authors write at length about textual differences, such as changes to earlier manuscripts and spelling differences between them, in order to highlight a quality control they think should be in place when audiences hear poets read their works. Still other first-century authors mention posting their communal readings publicly so others can read them, discuss the peer pressure involved during readings, and write about making corrections to manuscripts during readings.
Can communal reading still be a ‘conserving force’ today? If so, in what sense and under what kinds of conditions?
I think it can and should. Let me first give just two specific examples that happened after the first century. The so-called Muratorian Fragment from the second century notes that even though the Shepherd of Hermas should be read personally, “it cannot be read publicly to the people in church.” Fast forward about a century and there is a situation recorded in a letter from Augustine to Jerome. According to Augustine, there was one word in Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate) of Jonah 4:6 that differed from what they had been hearing read communally for generations, and it caused an uproar in his congregation. I share these two examples to say this, communal reading can and should still act as a conserving force today because other so-called testaments of Jesus Christ (like the Book of Mormon) and new translations of the Scriptures (like the Jehovah’s Witnesses New World Translation) continue to be produced but should not be embraced or read communally in Christian churches.
How might your book help illuminate discussions about “hermeneutics” and the “authority of scripture”?
It is quite ironic (or well-timed) that you ask me this question. A few days ago, I just received a courtesy copy of Klein, Blomberg, and Hubbard’s Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, which is in its third edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). As I flipped through the Table of Contents, I was reminded of how much my book applies to many aspects of hermeneutics and the authority of Scripture. For instance, and using their work as just one representative example of the various categories, I could see my work illuminating nine out of their 12 chapters. If I were to pick just one section to illustrate my point and answer your question, though, the one that keeps popping into my mind right now is their discussion on presuppositions and preunderstandings. I think my book will help interpreters identify and evaluate some of their preconceptions regarding the social and cultural matrix of Jesus’s day, especially as they relate to literacy and literate behavior.
How has your research for this book shaped your own reading practices of scripture?
It has affected my own reading practices in numerous ways, but I’ll just note three examples here. First, I believe my research shows that the earliest Christian communities prioritized the communal reading of Scripture. Thus, I try to model and emphasize this social dimension in my pastorate, as well as in the classrooms I teach. Second, I think my research also demonstrates that early Christianity was bookish. This has influenced my reading practices as I study and discuss literature in Christian gatherings. Third, I believe my research indicates that Christians have always been concerned about having a reliable copy of the Scriptures, and would object to alterations. This is something that also shapes my reading practices in that I am conscientious about having a reliable copy of the Scriptures, and even willing to question any significant variations.
I wonder if what you are also saying is that the social-cultural practice of communal reading, at least in the first century, is suggestive for how authority ‘works’ in community, at least tacitly. That is, not all texts merit a communal reading. But perhaps the tacit desiderata is this: those texts that have authority – at least authority to form identity – should be read communally; for that is how a particular authority is designed to be realized and recognized? The Scriptures, of course, are such a text.
I think you are absolutely right, and that you could even state that a little stronger. Only some literary traditions were shared, read aloud, and/or recited during certain communal gatherings. Again, let me give a few specific examples. Bishop Serapion writes to the Church in Rhossus about the Gospel of Peter, advising them not to read it communally. Pliny’s reading group often promoted or rejected certain texts, authors, and participants for their events. Tertullian specifically mentions the communal reading of the books of God during Christian gatherings: “We meet to read the books of God.” Justin Martyr refers to the communal reading of the apostolic memoirs and the writings of the prophets on the Lord’s Day. Meaning, various traditions eagerly awaited acceptance or rejection from various communal reading events. Will the literary community read it communally? Will they endorse it? Will they actively make copies and circulate it? Will the god(s) accept this text? Will people preserve it for future generations—via manuscripts, monuments, frescos, notebooks, etc.? In fact, some textual critics, such as Emanuel Tov, demonstrate that certain sacred texts were selected by scribes to receive extraordinary care.
What can communities of Christian scholars – especially philosophers and theologians! – gain by the insights of early Christian reading practices of Scripture?
D. A. Carson said of my book, “One wonders why these things have not been brought to light before.” I think he is exactly right to note this because, although the evidence has been around a long time, our knowledge (or incorporation) of it has not. Thus, beyond what I mentioned earlier regarding its contributions to hermeneutics and the authority of scripture conversations, and the freshness of the evidence as Carson noted, let me mention one more major takeaway communities of Christian scholars can glean from early Christian reading practices. The regular practice of reading texts communally points us in the direction of a more stable textual tradition.
In closing, any particular recommendations to aid a person’s further study of your subject-matter?
Absolutely. To keep the list manageable, though, I’ll just note three standard works and two articles in relation to ancient book culture, as well as a few names of key scholars that people should know about.
- Harry Y. Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven:Yale University Press, 1995).
- William Johnson’s Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study on Elite Communities (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
- William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker’s edited volume, Ancient Literacies: The Culture of Reading in Greece and Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- “Ancient Literacy in New Testament Research: Incorporating a Few More Lines of Enquiry,” TrinJ 36.2 (2015): 161–89.
- “Ancient Rome’s Daily News Publication with Some Likely Implications for Early Christian Studies,” TynBull 67.1 (2016): 145–60.
In fact, chapter 14 of Ancient Literacies has a topically indexed bibliography covering 20 years (1989–2009) of this multifaceted subject-matter, focusing on the cultural and social significance of literacy and literate behavior.
And at the risk of not mentioning so many other key scholars (!), here are just half-a-dozen scholars I think people would do well to read extensively: Roger Bagnall, Scott D. Charlesworth, Charles E. Hill, Larry Hurtado, Michael J. Kruger, and Alan Millard.