…alternatively titled – “Why we should all spend way more time reading the Bible aloud with lots of other people around, and relatively less time reading it alone and silently.”
It can seem like an oxymoron to refer to the Bible as a collection of “Oral Texts.” How can written texts be oral? Such an idea is a little confusing in a text-oriented culture like ours. Let me explain.
When it comes to texts, we envision sitting for hours in front of our computer screens typing and reading silently. The internet, by design, is a text-oriented platform (not forsaking the fact that video, audio, and images are all accessible there, but text almost always surrounds and contexualizes these things). We buy books to read in bed, at our desks, or in our studies — and unless we’re reading a children’s book to our kids at night, we are, for the most part, reading our books silently with no one else around.
Just for fun, look at what happens these days when you interrupt someone while they are trying to read!
The idea that the Bible — a collection of writings — is really a collection of oral texts, is pretty foreign to those of us who own our own Bibles and read them silently to ourselves in morning devotions. I mean — it’s written, right? So how can it be “oral?”
We’ve been told since we were small children, “Read your Bible and pray every day and you’ll grow – grow – grow.” But for the most part, no person who wrote these texts, and no person who received them, ever envisioned people sitting in quiet solitude, reading the text alone and silently, let alone owning their own individual copy.
Here’s an example of what I mean. The image here is a picture of a page out of the p46 manuscript which contains the epistles of Paul, including Romans, Hebrews, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, and some other unknown material.
This page happens to be the first page of the first chapter of Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. Do you see any chapter headings? Verse numbers? Punctuation? Paragraph or sentence breaks, or any space between words? Nope. That’s because (1) those were added over 1,100 years after the New Testament was finally compiled by a bishop with way too much time on his hands, (2) putting too much extraneous stuff on an expensive piece of parchment and paying the costs of scribal services would be incredibly expensive and take more space than necessary, and (3) because they were written to be read aloud there was no need for all the extra stuff that present-day silent solo-readers want in their literature. Individual hand-copied texts of literary works were for the wealthy, and were incredibly rare. The scriptures were for everyone, and they were meant to be read aloud in groups of people. This letter from Paul and just about every other text in the Bible, was written and structured to be read aloud with an audience of listeners in mind.
If Paul had followed this form of oral text writing in English, the first chapter of Ephesians might look something like this:
In these days of guest speakers, podcasts, conferences, radio bible teachers, crusades, and Christian TV preachers, we tend to miss what much of the Bible really is. It is, in the simplest terms, written communication that is intended to be spoken aloud in front of a gathering of people, large or small. It is not that reading the Bible by ourselves is a sin. It’s just that embedded into the very structure of the text of the Bible is the presupposition that the words will be read aloud, heard aloud, read publicly, heard publicly, and applied publicly. The whole idea of reading larger portions of the Bible publicly, and then exhorting God’s people, and calling them to apply what they have heard seems to be exactly what Paul has in mind here…
1 Tim. 4:13 – 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.
When I was a teaching-pastor I taught verse-by-verse through nine books of the Bible. I wish I could go back and do a couple of things in addition to teaching through those texts again. In the first place, I would try to read each of the texts completely through in one hearing before teaching through the particulars of this verse or that. Why? Because most of the texts I taught through were either written sermons already, or written communications that were intended to be spoken aloud – not read silently and alone. Just to pick four from my own teaching history —
Luke is a Gospel. It is a good-news announcement about Jesus (cf. Lk. 2:10-11). You have to hear the whole thing from start to finish in order to get the whole message.
Ephesians is an epistle to an entire church (cf. Eph. 1:1). There should be no doubt that Paul would have written this letter envisioning a reader standing before a gathered group of Ephesian Christians who listened to the entire letter in one sitting from start to finish.
1 Corinthians, like Ephesians, is an epistle to an entire Church (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2). When you read 1 Corinthians aloud from start to finish in front of a gathered Church, and when you try to imagine that the people named in the very letter itself (whether by their name or by their circumstances) are hearing that letter (about them!) read publicly, it takes on a whole new level of potency (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-11, 3:1-3, 3:18, 4:1-3, 14, 5:1-2, etc. etc.).
Thus, we should not envision hundreds and hundreds of copies of the letter being passed out to individuals to take home and read alone. No. Paul could not be there himself to preach to them, so he wrote his sermon, or address, or exhortation, or whatever you want to call it, sent it with a courier who was likely also the reader, and had it read before a gathered assembly. We call these texts “epistles” (which means letter), but in reality, these were way longer than a typical letter. These are verbal texts
Nehemiah is a historical narrative of Israel’s return to the land, and the rebuilding of the Temple, but notice that embedded in the narrative is the scene of God’s word being read aloud in a public gathering, non-stop from morning until mid-day, and then again every day for seven days straight along with teaching, dialogue, and application.
8:1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
8 They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
13 On the second day the heads of fathers’ houses of all the people, with the priests and the Levites, came together to Ezra the scribe in order to study the words of the Law.
18a And day by day, from the first day to the last day, he read from the Book of the Law of God.
Ezra used the scriptures as a verbal text. Of course, none of the people had their own Bibles to read at home, but that should clue us in to what I have already said. The texts within the Bible are written with the presupposition that they’ll most often be read aloud in the presence of God’s people as a gathering, that they will hear the word together, and that they will respond to what they hear together (just like what you see in Neh. 8).
Here are two other indicators from inside the texts of Scripture that they were meant to be read aloud and publicly in one hearing.
Revelation 1:3 – 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
This is a very interesting thing for John to write. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud.” Is John envisioning the solo-devotional reader reading the text aloud in his morning devotions here? Nope. He has written the letter of Revelation (yep, it’s a loooong letter) to seven churches in ancient Turkey. John knows that his letter will be circulated and read aloud to gathered Christians who are enduring incredible persecution, engaging in various levels of unfaithfulness and failure, and needing a very strong exhortation and encouragement to “overcome!” This letter would have been read aloud, and heard aloud as it was circulated by those who carried it to the churches on behalf of John.
Does that mean you can’t read the book of Revelation alone and silently? No.
Remember, the point of this post it to remind us all that the scriptures are verbal texts. Hearing them together with the rest of God’s gathered people would have been (and still can be even today) a very powerful experience. It is how they’re written. Embedded in the very text is the ponouncement on the one who reads the text aloud to the gathered family of God, and to the gathered family of God themselves as they listen to what is read!
And guess what else! That means that this Jesus-revealing letter from John is really a sermonic epistle. Just like most of Paul’s letters, it is written to be everything that John (and Jesus) would say to the gathered church themselves as though they were standing there speaking. What an amazing thing. Speaking of Paul’s letters…
It’s pretty obvious from Philemon 1:1-2 that Paul knows his letter is an oral text. The function of Paul’s letter is powerful when we can envision how it would have been delivered. Either Onesimus himself, or a reader who was sent to Philemon’s house with him would have been instructed to gather everyone named in the letter into the same place, and to hear the letter read aloud in front of all of them. That would be Philemon, his wife Apphia, their fellow Christian Archippus, and indeed – every Christian who was regularly gathering with them in their home. The letter takes the place of Paul himself. From their perspective and his, the letter might as well be the same thing as Paul standing there talking to them in person. And notice Philemon 1:1 — Paul wants them all to know that Timothy is standing right there next to him as he talks to them. And in case that wasn’t enough, look at Philemon 1:23-24 where Paul says
23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark,Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
This letter is a very public text. It is an oral text. That is the case for most of the texts in the Bible.
As a way to end with a few illustrations, I ask you to click here to watch a scene from the HBO miniseries Rome. In this scene, Cicero has written a letter which, it is understood, is to be read in his absence and is to carry the same weight that it would were he to address the senate in person. It is not a personal correspondence. It is a verbal text. Additionally, to get a true idea behind the meaning of the word “herald” and what it means to preach the message of the Kingdom, this link to multiple clips from Rome is incredibly illustrative of how oral texts were used, and what Jesus meant by using the word “Gospel” (which means a good announcement) to tell his disciples what they should be doing with his message.
Finally, I encourage everyone to watch this entire video by Covenant Fellowship Church. It is recited by Joel Shorey completely from memory. CFC wanted, in this service, to demonstrate the power of the book of Hebrews when it is heard the way its original recipients would have heard it — as an oral or sermonic epistle. They would have heard it as a sermon because it was written as one, should be read as one, and should be heard as one. See if you don’t agree with the impact of it when you’re finished listening.
Should we stop reading our Bibles alone and silently? No! But I think we should spend way more time reading them aloud in gatherings of multiple believers, doing “theology in community.” Something is lost when we are all alone reading silently to ourselves. Perhaps this is why Paul told Timothy to do three things with respect to God’s word during his ministry tenure in Ephesus.
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. – 1 Tim. 4:13
If the scene in Nehemiah is anything close to what Paul had in mind here, then I don’t think he was telling Timothy to read an “opening verse” before his sermons. I think he envisioned Timothy standing before the gathered Church, reading whole books of the Bible to them, exhorting them to listen with obedient hearts, and teaching them how to live the things they were learning together. That is the power of the word of God when it is used as an oral text.