Devoted to the Public Reading of Scripture? A Case for an Increased Emphasis upon the Public Reading

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.

As I have been studying through the history of the text of Scripture, its transmission, and the realities of access to it in the ancient world, I have been thinking through the practical implications Paul’s exhortation in 1 Timothy 4:13 would have had. Why should Timothy have devoted himself to the public reading? What was so significant? What parallels does it hold for us today? 

I would argue that the public reading of Scripture has been relegated to a lesser place than it should be in most American churches. How often have you heard more than a single chapter read at a time? How much of the Bible is read on average in your public gathering? Interestingly, though potential access to the Bible is far higher today than it ever has been, it would seem that true access is possibly lesser than it was in the early church. A large number of Christians, though possessing a Bible, do not often read it, while public reading of Scripture is rather minimal in the local church.

To better understand the significance of Paul’s exhortation, I want to survey the historical context that he and those who came after him would have lived in and the necessity of the public reading of Scripture. In light of that context, I will then compare this with our modern context and argue that, though there is increased access, the need for the public reading is still very much present and that churches should place a greater emphasis upon it.

Historical Context

1. Christian Book Production

Prior to the time of the printing press, and especially during the days of the early church, you could not just go to the market and buy a Bible for yourself. Book production did not take place commercially for the most part in the ancient world, but rather propagated primarily through private citizens sharing and copying texts. The same is true of Christian literature and Scripture: Christian manuscripts were produced by and for Christians.[1] One of the quite distinguishable features pointing towards the in house production of copies of Scripture is found in the use of nomina sacra, a form of abbreviating sacred names like God, Jesus, or Christ, among several others less commonly abbreviated. 

In order for Christians to have had access to the books that make up the New Testament, they would have had to have been shared between congregations, copied, and passed on to others. While this may seem like it would have been a slow process, Gamble indicates that Christians appear to have had a rather efficient dissemination process, for many books spread at a rather rapid rate, most notably the Gospels of Mark and Matthew and the epistles of Paul.[2] This process necessarily meant that certain books became more numerous, while others took a while to become more well known. This means that many did not operate with a full canon of Scripture due to the dissemination process.

2. Cost of Book Production

The cost of producing a manuscript was far higher than producing a book today, both in terms of cost and labor. First there was the cost of the papyrus, or later, the parchment. Next, there was the process of cutting the papyrus (since it would have come in a roll form) and making it into a codex. Then there would have been the time cost of copying a manuscript by hand, a time consuming project.

As a point of reference, the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus is estimated to have cost 30,000 denarii (a denarii was worth a day’s wage during the first century; by the fourth, inflation would have devalued this).[3] Now this would not be typical of the earliest stages since Sinaiticus is a very fine codex, contains both the Old and New Testaments, and has quite large pages. While this is something of an exceptional example, it should at least give some perspective of how significant the production cost of an entire Bible could be. Most of the earliest manuscripts contained a single book, so the price would be lower, though it would have still been a significant undertaking to build up a collection of Scriptural books. 

3. Most Christians Were Illiterate

It is estimated that ancient Graeco-Roman literacy levels of the society as a whole ranged probably around 10-15%, with perhaps an upper range of 15-20%. Given the social setting, there is not much reason to assume that Christian literacy differed to any great extent from the society at large.[4] Given this reality, even if Scriptural texts were abundant and easy to obtain for private individuals, most would have had no capacity to make use of them. Those Christians who were literate would have filled the roles of copiers of manuscripts and public readers of the text.

4. Early Manuscripts Appear Intended for Public Reading

Larry Hurtado argues that “the format of early Christian manuscripts suggests that they were prepared for a certain spectrum of mainly non-elite reader-competence.”[5] Remember that Christian literature was not copied by an outside professional source; Christian manuscripts were produced in house, for their own use. Hurtado makes his case by documenting that the early manuscripts are usually written in a clear (not calligraphic) hand, the lettering in these manuscripts may be larger with fewer lines per page, and they may contain some punctuation and sense-units (uncommon in other literature). He concludes, in light of these features, “the Christian manuscripts with these features reflect an effort to place somewhat less of a burden on the reader to decide how to deliver the text orally.”[6] Since manuscripts of this time were written in scriptio continua, that is, in a continuous script with no spaces (see below), these aspects made Christian literature rather unique.

An example of scriptio continua.

5. Public Reading was the Primary Source for Scripture

Given the literacy of the general population, the logistics of copying Scripture, the cost-prohibitive nature of producing a both the Old and New Testaments, and the features of the manuscripts themselves, these factors point towards the public reading to be the primary source of Scripture for most Christians of the earliest centuries. Private ownership would have been rare, with only a few, probably most often the readers, having access to any books of Scripture within their own homes.[7] Beyond this circumstantial evidence, we have several further lines to consider.

Paul quotes the Old Testament, the Jewish Scriptures, authoritatively to Gentile congregations. Gamble finds that Paul’s expectation that his readers would be familiar with Old Testament citations to be highly suggestive of a practice of publicly reading these writings liturgically.[8] Further, we have Paul’s exhortation to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13), as well as his general expectation that his letters would be read publicly to the congregations (Col. 4:16; 1 Thes. 5:27). In later generations, we see Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165) recording that, during Sunday gatherings, “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”[9] Tertullian  (c. 155- c. 240), speaking of part of regular Christian practice, says, “We assemble to read our sacred writings.”[10] The public reading of Scripture during these times was an absolutely necessary practice for the laity to hear the Word of God; there was no other avenue for the majority of Christians. 

6. Conclusions

In light of this historical reality, access to the Bible was both difficult and costly. Even when access was available, only a small amount of Christians could do so without the mediation of a public reading. This lack of easy access did not mean that the church faltered; rather, it flourished and rapidly expanded.

Modern Context

1. Access to the Bible

Access to the Scriptures is incredibly easy in modern times, at least in the West; millions of Bibles are printed and sold every single year. In addition to the wide availability of the Bible in print, it is also accessible through smart phones and online resources. According to a 2017 poll, 87% of Americans own a Bible, with the average household owning three separate Bibles.[11] This type of access is far and away beyond what anybody prior to the printing press could have ever imagined. This increased access then raises a follow-up question: does increased access mean increased engagement?

2. Modern Literacy

The modern world is without a doubt far more literate than the ancient world. In America in 2019, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 79% of Americans are of mid to high literacy, while much of the remaining percentage would be considered in the low level.[12] Even only considering those with mid to high literacy, the vast majority of Christians in America are literate. 

3. Engagement with the Bible

The high literacy rate in the West, especially when compared to ancient literacy, means this wide access to the Bible means that most individuals would be able to read it for themselves without outside assistance. In practice, however, this is not what happens for the most part. In a poll conducted by Lifeway Research, about 40% of Protestants reported once a week or less.[13] Given the propensity of people to present themselves in a better light, I suspect the number of regular Bible readers is a bit lower than the poll would indicate.

The data presented by the State of the Bible 2020 are far less favourable: outside of a large church service or mass, 34% report they never use the Bible on their own, while those who report using the Bible daily dropped from 14% in 2019 to 9% in 2020.[14] If these numbers are representative of actual engagement, a majority of Christians are probably finding the Sunday gathering to be their primary source of Scripture, irrespective of their actual access to it within their own homes.

Now what this research into the frequency of Scriptural engagement does not account for is the quantity of Scripture actually read at a time. Since it is quite common for American Christians to only look at small passages at a time (think “verse of the day” mentality), I suspect the actual amount is quite low. Another Lifeway Research poll found that only one in five Americans have ever read the whole Bible, while over half of Americans have only ever read a very small amount (see below).[15] Granted, the poll only considers Americans in general and not Christians in particular, but I would be curious as to how significantly those numbers change when only considering that particular demographic. 

4. Considerations

Access to Scripture is near universal in the West; if someone wants a Bible, there are few circumstances where they would not be able to gain access to one. While Bibles are more abundant than ever, it would seem that does not translate into more biblical engagement; the levels of biblical ignorance common in evangelical churches is quite clear evidence of this. Where does the issue lie? We may be tempted to lay the blame solely on the individuals for failing to devote personal time, but we may perhaps find another factor in the general lack of public reading. It would seem that, though biblical access is at its highest point, Christians are generally hearing and/or reading less of the Bible.

The early church thrived and expanded in a time when most could not even read the Scriptures even if they could have personally possessed them, which implies that the health of the church is not directly tied to the daily private reading of the laity. Some consideration must be given to the contrasts and comparisons between the early context and the current context and whether perhaps churches are neglecting one of the primary tools for providing Scripture to the congregation.

Implications

The ancient context and the modern context are vastly different in terms of overall literacy rates and general access to Scripture. Most early Christians could have never taken advantage of a privately owned Bible, while most modern Christians can. Potential access is significantly increased, though it would seem fair to say that actual access has not increased at anywhere near a proportional rate. Prior to the printing press, the corporate gathering would have, of necessity, been the primary source for Scripture for most Christians. What is interesting is that even today, perhaps as many as half of all Christians still find the Sunday gathering to be their primary source. What are we to make of this?

Thinking through these patterns, there is a major implication I would consider. The ancient church assumed and functioned as if the primary source for the people to hear Scripture was in their meetings, because this was the reality for the majority of the laity. Today, easy access to the Bible has shifted that assumption to the point where, at least in personal observation, the majority of Scripture is expected to be heard/read outside of the corporate gathering. Anecdotes such as the man complaining that he only eats once every week on Sunday at 11 AM serve to demonstrate the disdain we tend to have for the idea that people would not be consuming the Word primarily outside the Sunday congregation. I would ask, must we assume that Scripture reading/hearing should chiefly take place outside of public worship? Why not actually operate under the assumption that we provide the primary source in the corporate gathering? That is not to say stop encouraging private reading, but rather operate under the assumption of what is likely the reality in many congregations: most people simply are not readers, whether of the Bible or of other books.

Turn back to Paul’s exhortation to Timothy: Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” The early church of necessity had to emphasize the public reading if the laity were to know the Word of God. Has our access diminished our emphasis on the public reading? I would be curious to see a survey of churches and how much Scripture reading they do on average on a Sunday morning. I suspect the average church would probably not typically read more than a full chapter, if even that much. If we are to be devoted to the public reading of Scripture, why not publicly read more of it? Do we truly believe that the word of God is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”? 

In light of the preceding considerations, I would submit the following proposal: on a typical Sunday gathering, churches should regularly and publicly read significant portions of Scripture from both the Old and New Testaments. Read an entire Epistle, read long passages from a Gospel, read extended excerpts from the Old Testament. Assume that the public reading is the primary source of Scripture for a large part of the congregation. Assume that the people need to hear the Word of God.

There are two benefits I see for publicly reading large excerpts of Scripture: 

  1. Extended readings provide context and help train away from the practice of reading only short snippets and of proof texting. This benefit is not just for those who are irregular readers, but is also pertinent for those who are regular readers. In reading Scripture in a fuller context, it helps demonstrate how the argument of Scripture naturally flows. 
  2. Lengthier public readings allow the Word of God to speak for itself. I would suggest that perhaps we explain too much and could stand to allow the Word of God to speak more for itself, trust that the congregation is capable of understanding, and let the Holy Spirit speak through the unadulterated Word. 

There are some possible implications for preaching that may be worth considering, such as whether we should consider preaching on longer passages, or how much explanation there should be proportionate to the Scripture reading. I may consider those at a later time, but for now, I am thinking through only the subject of the public reading alone. 

The early church thrived during a time when the laity had to rely on the church for access to the Word of God. While Christians no longer need to rely on the local church, it seems that much of the burden does still in fact rest upon it: a large portion of Christians simply do not read much. Rather than decrying the reality that many are not readers, why not accept it and devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture? 


[1] Harry Y. Gamble, “The Book Trade in the Roman Empire,” in The Earliest Text of the New Testament, eds. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford University Press, 2012), 24-31.

[2] Ibid. 33-35.

[3] Bruce M. Metzger & Bart D. Ehrmann, The Text of the New Testament: It’s Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 26.

[4] Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (Yale University Press, 1995), 4-5.

[5] Larry Hurtado, “The Sociology of Early Christian Reading,” in The Earliest Text of the New Testament, eds. Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger (Oxford University Press, 2012), 55.

[6] Ibid. 57-58.

[7] Gamble, Books and Readers, 147.

[8] Ibid. 213.

[9] Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 67.

[10] Tertullian, Apol. 39.

[11] LifeWay Research, “LifeWay Research: Americans Are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It,” April 25, 2017, accessed August 21, 2020, https://lifewayresearch.com/2017/04/25/lifeway-research-americans-are-fond-of-the-bible-dont-actually-read-it/

[12] National Center for Education Statistics, “Adult Literacy in the United States,” July 2019, accessed August 22, 2020, https://nces.ed.gov/datapoints/2019179.asp

[13] LifeWay Research, “Few Protestant Churchgoers Read the Bible Daily,” July 2 2019, accessed August 21, 2020, https://lifewayresearch.com/2019/07/02/few-protestant-churchgoers-read-the-bible-daily/

[14] American Bible Society and Barna Group, State of the Bible 2020, pg. 36, https://1s712.americanbible.org/state-of-the-bible/stateofthebible/State-of-the-Bible2020.pdf

[15] LifeWay Research, “LifeWay Research: Americans Are Fond of the Bible, Don’t Actually Read It.”

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