Biblical Literacy & Composite Citations

In a recent post on the fascinating phenomena of composite citations in the New Testament, the host of the podcast remarked that the New Testament authors were comfortable using composite citations which indicated they knew their audiences were very familiar with what we now call the Old Testament. When you take a look at Romans 3:10-18 which was discussed in some detail during the podcast, it is one complex catena of 6 different citations combined into one composite citation.

Today, Christians struggle greatly with single Old Testament quotations that are longer than a line but the early Church seemed to be quite conversant with composite citations. Back then no one had ready access to the Bible as they knew it. There were even no public libraries that you could freely visit to reference these things. Moreover, the Roman church Paul was writing to were mostly Gentile so most of them had not grown up hearing and learning the Scriptures unlike Jewish communities.

It is not only in the Romans 3 catena but the entire letter which is dense with Old Testament references, citations and allusions. Yet Paul was confident that his mostly Gentile audience whom he had not met met before, would get what he was referring to. Him going out of his way to heavily reference the Old Testament suggests something very important. He was trying to show a church he was not responsible for founding how orthodox and authoritative he was by basing his arguments on the Holy Scriptures. So it was not just Pauline churches but Gentile churches across the empire that seemed to have a good grasp on Israel’s scriptures. The primitive Church seemed to have a more thorough knowledge of the Scriptures than most contemporary Christians who have the full privileges of unrestricted access to print and digital technology. The Bible today is arguably the most accessible yet least known book in the world.

I know the Bible far better than the average Christian but that observation about using composite citations encouraged me to know the Bible even better. It also showed me the growing silent crisis of biblical illiteracy in the contemporary Church is even more inexcusable than I had imagined. In spite of their limited resources, our earliest spiritual ancestors put in tremendous effort to teach the Bible. Remember they were the first generation of believers and without them Christianity would never have taken of. If it was absolutely imperative to them to be biblically literate, then we must take the same stance if we identify ourselves as their spiritual heirs.

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