Reclaiming Biblical Literacy I

The Bible is a very important collection of books. It is arguably the most influential collection of documents in all of human history. For the Church, irrespective of what you think it means, it’s embedded in the DNA of every single believer. Since the inception of the Church how we have treated the book has changed over the years. After two millennia of historical and cultural change what the original biblical community meant is often lost on us. Even though the Bible is germane to being a Christian, we are now complete strangers to its world. How they handled the word differed from how we do today. Let’s take an instruction Paul gave to the Thessalonians for example.

I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers – 1 Thessalonians 5:27-28 ESV

This line probably suggests Paul wrote the letter to a specific individual at Thessalonica, most likely a church leader there, and he expected the letter to be read in every assembly in the city. Paul took this task very seriously and put the recipient under oath to have it done. Now this will strike us as very odd. Who makes someone swear to read a letter to a bunch of people? What he wrote highlights the fact the early church had a different approach to the biblical text from us. Not only was the cannon still in development but literacy in the ancient world was very different.

The state of literacy in the ancient world was complicated. Even though literacy rates in the ancient world were thought to be between 5-10%, what literacy meant was not straightforward. The early church existed in a preliterate society. Most people did not have access to their own personal copies of books. Writing technology was not very advanced. Having entire volumes required hiring a scribe to copy manuscripts by hand. This meant only the wealthy could afford books. Most people had access to books and important documents by hearing them read aloud as was the case in the churches of Thessalonica. The Jews for example congregated regularly at the synagogues to hear the Tanakh (the Hebrew Scriptures.) This created a fascinating situation where people could be very familiar with a text, even grappling with complex issues regarding it, even though they may have never read the book. This situation known as textuality was not uncommon in the ancient world especially in Jewish communities where Holy Scripture was vital to their identity.

Today, when you say someone is literate, it often means that person is able to read and write in a particular language. Archaeological evidence seems to tell us there were people in biblical times who could read but may not have been able to write or had limited competency in writing. When you consider the wide range of literacy competencies it is no surprise that Paul insisted on the public reading of his letters. The ancient world was primarily an oral society and writing was secondary. This did not mean writing was not valued. There is a lot of evidence that writing, to a degree was, a part of everyday life. Richard Bauckham, a New Testament scholar, explains in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses this meant they thought of words as something you said first and wrote later. Today we have the curious idea that dictionaries define words instead of trying to faithfully report the general consensus of the population.

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. – Revelations 1:3 ESV

Here is another example that the early church publically heard the word of God instead of privately reading it. This part of the introduction to Revelation resembles the opening benediction during the reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue. This provides evidence that long before the Council of Nicaea the early church had already started thinking of what we call the New Testament as authoritative Holy Writ. This opening also offers an example of the influence of Judaism on the early Church. Like modern Rabbinism, the Church shares in the common spiritual heritage of the era of Second Temple Judaism. The first Christians were Jewish and the Jewishness of Jesus is central to the Gospel.

The Jewish people have had a long documented love affair with the Logos (Greek for word.) From the opening moments of creation, to Moses reading the Torah, and the national revival under Ezra, the Logos was central to their story as a people. Early Christians continued this tradition but under radical new circumstances because of faith in Jesus, the incarnate Logos of God.

A church meeting in the first century could simply consist of a letter from James, Peter or Paul being read to the congregation. Today this would make for a very bizarre church experience. No preaching, no worship, no offering, no announcements, but just hearing the word of God being read to you. We today would have found ourselves quite out of place in a first century church service.

This change in Church culture is in some ways part of the change in global culture. We often claim in the Church to highly reverence the Word of God but the Logos, on its own, has no real place in our lives. Many people do not spend time reading (for whatever reason) let alone reading their Bibles. The advancement of modern information and communication technologies has placed visual media at the centre, pushing the Logos to the side. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Netflix, film and television, smart phones and tablets, PC’s, among other things dominates modern pop culture. Our minds are constantly being bombarded with the image so it has affected our ability to handle the Logos.

Today we congregate around the image. When for instance a song comes out, and it is popular, people start clamouring for the release of the accompanying music video. Some songs like Korean artist Psy’s Gangam Style rose to international fame because of its YouTube video. The visual experience in today’s society is a key part of our shared experience. You are expected to have watched that film, or seen that picture, or viewed that weird clip.

Without the Logos we do not have stories. Storytelling is a very important art which is present in all human cultures. Children are gathered around to hear the stories that define their people. I have fond memories of my primary school days when teachers read to us stories at the end of the day. Some of my favourite books as a child I read because I heard it first at school. The Church, as a new community of people, also has its definitive story called the Gospel. The early Christian community gathered around that word. Since ancient societies were primarily oral they developed robust skills in memorizing and transmitting oral traditions. Today, even though most people have access to the text, Christians have such a hard time remembering the Bible. I doubt people were impressed in Jesus’ day if you could recite portions of the Bible. Now we are reduced to memorizing short verses without any contextual awareness. We have simply fallen out of love with the Logos. How do we get back to our first love? How do we surmount the challenges of our time and have the Bible strongly entrenched in the hearts of every believer?

Sometimes I hear really cringe-worthy interpretations of the Bible. I always wonder how well-meaning, educated Christians, manage to pull of such spectacular abuses of relatively straightforward passages. As I pondered the problem I realized that people did not know how to read the Bible. Being able to pronounce the words in the Bible does not mean you know how to read it. Even when I came to that realization it did not yet strike me how problematic it was. Surprisingly it was something at home that helped me appreciate the true nature of the problem.

Part 2⇒

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