review of Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices by Brian J. Wright. Fortress Press, 2017. Print length, 321 pages. Available in print and digital.
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Brian J. Wright has written an important book that fills a gap in New Testament studies. Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus presents us with a picture of how important reading (and thus texts) was in the 1st century. We have apps, printed books and libraries in abundance. The ancients didn’t have this wealth of tools and resources. So then, was the practice of reading rare? Were most people illiterate? Did most people regard reading as something reserved only for officials in the upper echelons of government or the religious establishment?
The answer, Wright shows, is yes, but… Yes, but communal reading, even public reading was a common practice in many cities. Such readings were a part of a thirst for entertainment. Such readings were also influential in forming and even re-shaping culture. Literacy according to modern standards was low, but Wright wants us to see that communal reading filled that gap to such a degree that influence of texts extended well beyond just those who could read them.
The value of the research and writing Wright has brought together in Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus has been recognized by prominent scholars. The list of endorsements reads like a roll call of current luminaries in the field of New Testament studies. Praise for it comes from D. A. Carson, Craig Keener, Richard Bauckham, Stanley Porter, Craig Blomberg, Craig Evans, Thomas Schreiner, Michael Bird and others.
In Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus Wright first does a deep dive into the practice in its various forms as found in the pagan and non-Christian contexts. Evidence of communal reading related to ancient authors such as Epictetus, Strabo, Valerius Maximus, Chariton, Ovid, Martial, Persius, Dio Chrysostom, Statius, Rufus, Quintillian, Seneca the Elder, Celsius, Petronius, Seneca the Younger, Pliny, Tacitus and also many Jewish sources provides firm confirmation for Wright’s thesis. Communal readings also played part in the social and economic development of many cities. In Rome, for example, many people “read such philosophers, in light of the vast literary resources available there, in order to achieve a certain social status by later reciting them communally or referencing them during a communal reading” (loc 1138). It was seen as way to boost your CV or resume. Communal readings provided a way not only for news to be disseminated, but also for the cultural ideas of the days to gain currency.
Given the value placed on communal reading we can see how Christianity with its focus on texts would be well -suited to slip into this mode of cultural formation. Though superstitions abounded in those ancient contexts, there was at the core of communal reading a counter force against superstition built into the academic and philosophical aspects of the thirst for knowledge it represented. In other words, in the presentation of Wright’s thesis we see more plainly how Christianity could flourish in contexts which we not Jewish, not particularly friendly to Hebraic mores and either unaware or dismissive of key motifs from the Torah.
In Communal Reading we get a wide and deep picture of this development from a variety of vantage points, whether it be Greek, Roman, Jewish or what would become distinctly Christian creedal commitments. Wright uses his skill with Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other languages to bring into our sight in one place how communal reading was used providentially by God to spread Christianity across the Roman Empire and build it into a formidable cultural force.
Another important lesson from this book is how over the last 2000 years the Church has valued the practice of publicly reading the Scripture. It bears repeating again that high literacy rates in modern societies and the plethora of libraries, books and apps have brought texts directly to the individual. This is a good thing. Yet, since this technological advance was unheard of for most of human history we should be willing to see the importance, even the need, for people to come together to listen to texts.
Our churches, small groups and even our efforts in evangelism will be greatly helped by keeping a practical emphasis on communal reading. This communal reading need not be reserved just for Scripture, but also for reading of other published materials that can help deepen our appreciate for theological truths of the Christian faith and deepen our love for the beauties of the Gospel. We can learn a great deal by listening to others read aloud and from the shared thoughts which arise from communal reading.