Friday, March 8, 2013

Early Christian Readers

The ability to read and write are much more widespread and common place today than they were in antiquity. The population of Rome during the Imperial age enjoyed a much lower level of literacy. After extensive research of ancient sources, William Harris estimated "that the overall level of literacy [in Rome was] likely to have been below 15%" (267). Consequently, the early Church would have followed closely the literacy levels of the surrounding culture of Rome. Harry Gamble compared Christian literacy with these figures concluding
"that not only the writing of Christian literature, but also the ability to read, criticize, and interpret it belonged to a small number of Christians in the first several centuries, ordinarily not more than 10 percent in any given setting, and perhaps fewer in the many small and provincial congregations that were characteristic of early Christianity. (5)"
 This culture of illiteracy can be seen throughout the New Testament. The early Church accommodated for this lack of reading ability by publicly reading scripture during their worship gatherings. Paul alludes to this practice when he wrote to the Colossians;
"And when this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea. (emphasis mine, NAS, Col 4:16)"
 Paul writes a similar command to the Thessalonians;
"I adjure you by the Lord to have this letter read to all the brethren. (empahasis mine, NAS, 1 Thess 5:27)"
The apostle John assumes this type of reading practice when he penned Revelations;
"Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it. (emphasis mine, NAS, Rev 1:3)"
Notice that John mentions only one person reading and a plurality of people hearing the prophecy being read. John is obviously referring to a congregational or community setting in which Christians are gathered for a reading of the Apocalypse.

The earliest extra-biblical description of this Christian reading practice is given by Justin Martyr in the middle of the second century. Some time around 150 CE, Justin wrote an Apology of the Christian faith addressed to Emperor Antoninus Pius. In it Justin wrote a detailed description of their Sunday worship;
"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. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability. (emphasis mine, Apology, 1.67; ANF 1:186)"
Here Justin refers to the Gospels as "the memoirs of the apostles" and "the writings of the prophets" are a reference to the Old Testament writings. Because literate Christians took the time to use their gifts to read the letters of Paul, the Revelation of John, and the memoirs of the apostles (the gospels) a largely illiterate population could enjoy hearing and learning from the scriptures when they would not be able to otherwise!
Harry Gamble concluded his discussion of early Christian literacy by writing;
"In sum, the extent of literacy in the ancient church was limited. Only a small minority of Christians were able to read, surely no more than an average of 10-15 percent of the larger society and probably fewer. Thus only a small segment of the church was able to read Christian texts for themselves or to write them. Still, every Christian had the opportunity to become acquainted with Christian literature, especially the scriptures, through catechetical instruction and homiletical exposition of texts in the context of worship. (10)"
Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885.
Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.