I hope you are someone who regularly engages Sacred Scripture, the Bible. And I mean someone who reads, ponders, muses, meditates and wonders about God’s Word. And more than just on Sunday at church. Maybe you are part of a parish Bible study, a small faith group that gets together at someone’s home, or are taking time to know and immerse yourself in the Bible. And don’t worry this post is not recrimination about why you are not doing those things, but just a thought or two about how lucky we are that the Bible is available to us in books, online, audio, and in software that can interconnect Scripture to exegetical and theological dictionaries, books that can help us with Greek and Hebrew, commentaries, and a whole host of other tools. We are lucky that literacy is common in our day. It hasn’t always been that way.
But even when the literacy was not so common there was always the availability of accessing God’s Word at church when the Scriptures were proclaimed, explained, and preached upon by those who could read. But that depended on the printing press to make Scripture easily available without sky-high costs. Before that the churches relied upon hand-copied manuscripts which were costly and not always available. How about before that?
I imagine that in the first century of the Church, the believers gathered in synagogue and were able to hear the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) read aloud. But what about the gentile believers? Where was the New Testament? It was in the stories told and in the letters of St. Paul that were copied and circulated. Letters and accounts from that day seem to indicate that the early Christians figured it out. Luckily they were still an oral-people, who were used to receiving news, history, stories, etc. in public rather than private, individual settings.
Luke 4:16 and following tell of Jesus in the synagogue reading publicly from the Prophet Isaiah written on a scroll. But there were not always synagogues. And the written scrolls were not always available.The kings of Judea and Israel were not always godly men in the example of King David. One particularly horrible king was Manasseh: “He did what was evil in the LORD’s sight, following the abominable practices of the nations whom the LORD had dispossessed before the Israelites” (2 Kings 21) Truth be told he was just one in a series of horrible kings.
But his son, Josiah, was considered one of the great kings of Judah: “He did what was right in the LORD’s sight, walking in the way of David his father” (2 Kings 22:1) But we can also see the legacy that Josiah inherited. “The high priest Hilkiah informed the scribe Shaphan, ‘I have found the book of the law* in the temple of the LORD.‘” (2 Kings 22:8) Think about it…the “book of the law” – the first five books of Scripture (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were apparently unknown, lost, and people seemed to be amazed at the find. King Josiah was informed, was so stunned he tore his garment in despair, but he responded: “The king went up to the house of the LORD with all the people of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem: priests, prophets, and all the people, great and small. He read aloud to them all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord.” (2 Kings 23:2) King Josiah required the public reading of Scripture to the people.
The good folks at Bible Project have an interesting video this week on public reading of the Scriptures and its place in our spiritual life.
The Bible Project also has other resources available, e.g., podcasts. A related podcast can be found here. The second half (time marker 34:25-50:00) includes thoughts on the ancient Hebrew practice of reading the Torah out loud together. A practice that was instituted in the Old Testament and has continued all the way through to modern times in today’s synagogues.
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