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Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices

Author: 
Brian J. Wright (Author)
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Description

Much of the contemporary discussion of the Jesus tradition has focused on aspects of oral performance, story telling, and social memory, on the premise that the practice of communal reading of written texts was a phenomenon documented no earlier than the second century C.E. Brian J. Wright overturns that premise by examining evidence that demonstrates communal reading events in the first century. Wright disproves the simplistic notion that only a small segment of society in certain urban areas could have been involved in such communal reading events during the first century; rather, communal reading permeated a complex, multifaceted cultural field in which early Christians, Philo, and many others participated. His study thus pushes the academic conversation back by at least a century and raises important new questions regarding the formation of the Jesus tradition, the contours of book culture in early Christianity, and factors shaping the transmission of the text of the New Testament. These fresh insights have the potential to inform historical reconstructions of the nature of the earliest churches as well as the story of canon formation and textual transmission.

ISBN: 
9781506432502
Price: 
$39.00
ISBN: 
9781506438498
Release date: 
December 1, 2017
Pages: 
320
Width: 
6
Height: 
9

Table of Contents

Foreword

Preface

1. Introducing a New Control Category

2. Finding Communal Reading Events in the Time of Jesus

3. Economic and Political Factors

4. Social Context

5. Communal Reading Events in the First Century: Selected Authors and Texts

6. Communal Reading Events in the First Century: The New Testament Corpus

7. Concluding Remarks

Appendix: Some Additional Evidence

Bibliography 

Quiz

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Endorsements

Wright's results are important, indeed seminal not only to those who work in this field, but to our knowledge of early Christians who give every sign of being book-driven believers.

“The last few decades have witnessed a substantial move away from picturing the early church studying texts to assuming that most Christians could not read: orality trumped written text. Various efforts to balance the evidence have collided with one another. Enter this ground-breaking work by Brian Wright, who demonstrates how common ‘communal reading events’ were in both Jewish and Greco-Roman contexts. Reading and hearing are suddenly not so far removed from each other as some have thought. Wright's richly supplied evidence from primary sources is convincing; one wonders why these things have not been brought to light before. Wright's results are important, indeed seminal, not only to those who work in this field, but to our knowledge of early Christians who give every sign of being book-driven believers.” 

D.A. Carson | Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

Unlike most publications, this book fills what was a genuine and essential gap in our knowledge of antiquity relevant to the New Testament.

“A truly worthwhile, wide-ranging and ground breaking work! Unlike most publications, this book fills what was a genuine and essential gap in our knowledge of antiquity relevant to the New Testament. Although subsequent scholarship regularly debates some conclusions of any ground breaking work, it remains indebted to the foundations that such a work lays. This work exhibits careful methodology and thorough engagement with both primary and secondary sources.” 

Craig S. Keener | F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies, Asbury Theological Seminary

This is a thorough study of an important topic. 

“This is a thorough study of an important topic. It is thorough in demonstrating that communal reading events were ubiquitous in the first-century world in general and in the early Christian movement in particular. Virtually everybody, it seems, would often hear texts read aloud. There are important implications for the much discussed relationship of the oral and the textual in early Christianity. Texts were more available and more stable than we may have thought.” 

Richard Bauckham | University of St. Andrews

This ground-breaking discussion provides another important pillar in arguments for the reliability of the New Testament oral and literary tradition.

“B. J. Wright’s masterly discussion of the communal reading of ancient texts, facilitated by an exhaustive analysis of twenty Graceco-Roman authors from the first-century CE and the Jewish literature, is the bedrock for his investigation of the New Testament writings. The author’s authoritative analysis of the New Testament documents demonstrates substantial continuities with ancient writers as far as communal reading practice, the strict control over literary tradition, and the broad spectrum of society involved in these public oral performances of texts from diverse geographic communities. This ground-breaking discussion provides another important pillar in arguments for the reliability of the New Testament oral and literary tradition.” 

James R. Harrison | Sydney College of Divinity

I commend Wright for bringing this to our attention

“Communal reading has clearly been a neglected factor in understanding ancient literate culture. Recent attention to questions of literacy indicates that communal reading was an important part of the cultural experience of texts, as Brian Wright so ably shows in his extensive survey of the ancient evidence, biblical and otherwise. I commend Wright for bringing this to our attention, and, by doing so, for opening up areas for further exploration regarding how texts were used, how traditions were transmitted, and how ancients communicated.” 

Stanley E. Porter | President, Dean, and Professor of New Testament, McMaster Divinity College

A must read for anyone who still thinks that this tradition was largely uncontrolled and constantly distorted.

“People of all kinds regularly read their and others’ compositions aloud in public in the ancient Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus. Christians regularly read the Hebrew Scriptures, along with their own literature in similar fashion. Public declamation regularly stemmed from or produced careful preservation of texts, sometimes from memory. Wright comprehensively surveys all this material, mounting an impressive case for all kinds of checks and balances in the preservation of early Christian tradition. A must read for anyone who still thinks that this tradition was largely uncontrolled and constantly distorted.” 

Craig L. Blomberg | Denver Seminary

This is a notable addition to knowledge about books and reading in the earliest churches.

“‘Haven’t you heard?’ Jesus asked the crowd, assuming the Law had been read to them. How widespread was public reading and how may it have affected the preservation and dissemination of the Christian message? By surveying and analyzing numerous Greek and Latin texts, Brian Wright throws fresh light on the practice and underlines its relevance for the study of early Christian society and especially the composition of the Gospels. Through communal reading, he argues, people would know those texts and be alert to any changes readers might try to introduce. This is a notable addition to knowledge about books and reading in the earliest churches.” 

Alan Millard | The University of Liverpool

Wright's results demand a reconsideration of the whole process by which texts were controlled and, eventually, a canon emerged.

“Why did early Christians write? When and where did they read? What did reading mean in the social contexts and practices of the first century? Meticulously sifting a wide range of evidence, Wright introduces us to ‘a complex, multifaceted cultural field’ that shaped that reading. His results demand a reconsideration of the whole process by which texts were controlled and, eventually, a canon emerged.” 

Wayne A. Meeks | Woolsey Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies, Yale University

We can be grateful for a work that opens new vistas in the study of both the ancient world and the New Testament.

“In this innovative study Brian Wright brings to the forefront a matter which has been neglected in New Testament studies, namely, the role of communal reading in the first century. Wright’s thorough analysis has implications for our understanding of literacy in the first century, gospel traditions, and the preservation of texts. We can be grateful for a work that opens new vistas in the study of both the ancient world and the New Testament.” 

Thomas R. Schreiner | James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Wright has demonstrated for the first time the importance of communal reading in the Greco-Roman world during the first-century A.D.

“Ever since the publication in the 1960’s of Gerhardsson’s ground-breaking work, Memory and Manuscript with Tradition and Transmission in Early Christianity, there have not been significant advances in this highly important area of study until this highly important work of Dr. Brian Wright. He has demonstrated for the first time the importance of communal reading in the Greco-Roman world during the first-century A.D. and its relevance for the reading of the New Testament corpus for the first Christians.” 

Bruce W. Winter | Macquarie University

This changes a lot of what we think about textuality, book culture, and the preservation of texts in early Christianity.

“Brian Wright’s compelling claim is that literacy rates were much higher than normally assumed and reading communities were far more prevalent than usually supposed. If he is correct – and broadly I think he is – this changes a lot of what we think about textuality, book culture, and the preservation of texts in early Christianity.” 

Michael F. Bird | Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia

This is a fine study that deserves a reflective read.

“I have spent a lot of time working on the issue of the movement from event to gospel wrestling with how orality and tradition worked in the interim. The idea of communal reading and its role was not on my radar screen. Not anymore. This study introduces and takes a close look at a category that is very helpful in thinking about how material was passed on in a primarily oral and aural context. This is a fine study that deserves a reflective read.” 

Darrell L. Bock | Dallas Theological Seminary

Brian Wright’s excellent study of literacy and the practice of communal reading is a missing piece in the puzzle

“Studies of the Jesus tradition and its transmission in the first century operate under many assumptions. Brian Wright’s excellent study of literacy and the practice of communal reading is a missing piece in the puzzle and has keen relevance to historical reconstructions of the nature of the earliest churches as well as the story of canon formation and textual transmission.” 

Brian S. Rosner | Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia