Saturday, October 4, 2014

Early Christian Reading and Moral Instruction

From the earliest times that Christians gathered together for worship and community, the public reading of their sacred writings was the norm. The reading of what they considered as scripture was discussed and applied morally and ethically to the lives of the Christians gathered together. In the minds of early Christians, the writings they read during their worship gatherings were as much scripture as they were practical. They were applicable in a practical way to their every-day lives.
Pliny the Younger, during his time as governor of Bithynia and Pontus, wrote to Emperor Trajan for advice in regard to Christians that refused to offer worship to the image of the Emperor. In his famous letter Pliny described the worship gathering of Christians at around 112 CE;
They affirmed, however, the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. (Ep. Tra. 10.96)[1]
Though Pliny does not mention the reading of any texts or scriptures, I find it interesting that Pliny mentions that Christians "bound themselves by a solemn oath." Besides their "devotion to Jesus" (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Larry Hurtado) there was an emphasis on moral behavior, which Pliny described as taking an "oath."
Just a few decades later in the 140s CE Justin Martyr described the worship gathering of Christians in Rome (and most likely described Christians in Palestine and Asia Minor, the other areas he resided during his Christian life);
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and 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. (1 Apol. 67)[2]
After the reading of the New Testament, the leader who presided over the gathering gave moral instruction out of the reading for that day; the practical application of the scriptures in the lives of the listeners.
At the very end of the second century, around 197 CE, Tertullian of Carthage also described the public reading of scripture during their worship gatherings and the moral instruction gleaned from the day's reading;
We assemble to read our sacred writings, if any peculiarity of the times makes either forewarning or reminiscence needful. However it be in that respect, with the sacred words we nourish our faith, we animate our hope, we make our confidence more steadfast; and no less by inculcations of God’s precepts we confirm good habits. (1 Apol. 39)[3]
Here is another example of how the public reading of scriptures were used to give moral and practical instruction for early Christians gathered in worship. Reading in early Christianity, then, had a view to practicality and moral application. This, of course, would affect how early Christians manufactured their books, that is, they manufactured their copies of the New Testament with a view to practicality. They used the codex format and implemented spaces between words and phrases and other lectionary aids (see earlier post) in order to better facilitate reading. Each of these features of early Christian copies of the New Testament confirm the practical way they viewed their sacred writings.
[1] Pliny the Younger, Letters, Books 7-10, (trans. William Melmoth, and W. M. L. Hutchinson; LCL; London: W. Heinemann, 1915), 403-405.

[2] ANF 1:186.

[3] ANF 3:47. 

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