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Book review – Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices

Mission Round Table Vol. 13 No. 2 (May-Aug 2018): 27

Reviewed by Walter McConnell
Head of OMF Mission Research

Who would have known that “communal reading events” were a regular feature of first-century Mediterranean and Middle Eastern life? Who would have known that they existed or even cared? In Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus, Brian Wright demonstrates that at that time people from all segments of society and varying levels of education actively engaged literary texts and shows us why it is important and why we should care.

This book, which is the published form of Wright’s doctoral thesis, joins a growing list of studies into the way the Bible and other literary works were read during the first century.[1] Beginning by examining secular works published during that period, the author demonstrates that texts were read in public and private so frequently throughout the Mediterranean world that common people were familiar enough with the content of texts that they could and would point out and correct errors in a reading (52). By showing how the broader society regularly took part in communal reading events the author sets the stage for his main study which is to show that the New Testament documents were all written to be read in group settings and that they were thus read.

Wright’s study is important for a number of reasons. First, it dispels misunderstandings about the extent to which people in the Roman world engaged with literature and shows us how they did so. Though some advocates of orality isolate it from literacy and speak of people in the first century as being predominantly oral, this examination shows that authors read their texts in a wide variety of settings to a vast range of listeners and that others copied these texts for further dissemination and reading. This is particularly true in Christian communities where, contrary to some recent assertions that the early church did not so much read texts as perform them, all the New Testament books describe and/or prescribe reading. According to Wright, “There was never a time in early Christianity that the transmission was exclusively oral” (17). From the very beginning the apostolic witnesses made use of texts, be they of the Jewish Scriptures, testimonia, or notes taken down when Jesus or the apostles taught.

Second, this study shows that the regular reading of New Testament texts acted as “a reference point that can be used to verify the content of what is being taught” (158). When they read the Gospels and Epistles or heard them read regularly, Christians could assess whether they were receiving proper instruction. All verbal teachings were to be judged as to whether they followed the written teaching given by God or not (1 Cor 14:27–33, 37–38).

A third reason stems from the preceding one. The regular reading of the New Testament was a safeguard during the transmission of the text that helped to identify what was canonical and to preserve the integrity of its context (4). Though the books says little about the details of textual criticism, Wright is well aware of the issues involved (see Preface). The regular communal reading of the New Testament is, he feels, one of the reasons the text has come down to us with relatively few divergent readings. The readers (and hearers) demanded that the traditional wording be preserved.

[1] For some other similar studies see Larry W. Hurtado, “Oral Fixation and New Testament Studies? ‘Orality’, ‘Performance’ and Reading Texts in Early Christianity,” New Testament Studies 60, no. 3 (2014): 321–40; Kelly Iverson, “Oral Fixation or Oral Corrective? A Response to Larry Hurtado,” New Testament Studies 62, no. 2 (2016): 183–200; Larry W. Hurtado, “Correcting Iverson’s ‘Correction,’” New Testament Studies 62, no. 2 (2016): 201–6; Angela Lou Harvey, “Spiritual Reading: A Study of the Christian Practice of Reading Scripture,” (PhD thesis, Durham, 2012); Stanley E. Porter and Bryan R. Dyer, “Oral Texts? A Reassessment of the Oral and Rhetorical Nature of Paul’s Letters in Light of Recent Studies,” JETS 55, no. 2 (2012): 323–41.

Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices
By Brian J. Wright

Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017
Print ISBN: 9781506432502
eBook ISBN: 978150643849-8

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