Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus, Book Review

Title: Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices
Author: Brian J. Wright
Publisher: Fortress Press, 2017
Price: $39.00 (amz)
Binding: Hardback
Pages: 293
“Until I come,” Paul tells Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13). In this volume, Brian J. Wright investigates whether or not this type of exhortation would have been out of place or commonplace during the era of the earliest churches.

The notion that literacy rates in the first century CE were extremely low, that only a select few in most societies read or heard texts regularly, that professional scribes were responsible for the production and transmission of most texts, and that the proclamation of the gospel message was transmitted orally for many years before being committed to writing are relatively uncontroversial assumptions in much academic study of the New Testament and early Christianity. Wright seeks to challenge several parts of this basic picture by emphasizing the role of “communal reading events” in the time of Jesus and the apostles (1-10; 207-09).

Wright’s primary goal is to demonstrate definitively that communal reading events were “a widespread phenomenon in the first century CE” (10). As Wright concludes, the second century practice is actually based on an established first century practice: “communal reading events were already a prevailing practice over a wide geographic range in the first century CE” (207).

Once the presence of these communal reading events is demonstrated through a body of literary and historical evidence, Wright aims to raise the network of interconnected historical and hermeneutical questions that are prompted in light of this historical reality. In particular, Wright examines the possibility that these communal reading events functioned as a “control on the transmission of the Christian tradition in the first century CE” (10). These two aims are interlocked, in that once Wright demonstrates the presence of these communal reading events, it is clear that the significance of these events will need to be carefully considered.

While all of the main areas covered in this volume have been pursued in other scholarly projects, Wright’s limited scope and the established (though sometimes fluid) timeframe in the first century CE represent an original contribution. In making his case, Wright considers the methodological cautions necessary for this type of study (chapters 1-2), and then outlines the economic, political, and social factors in Roman, Greek, and Jewish culture that would have impacted communal reading events (chapters 3-4).

The heart of the argument comes in chapters 5-6 where Wright surveys and analyzes quotations, references, and allusions to communal reading events in Greek, Roman and Jewish authors as well as every book of the New Testament.

Because of his careful attention to method, this survey never feels like special pleading and usually notes when a communal reading event is explicitly referenced, strongly implied, or possibly in the background. The result is a carefully sourced argument that will convince most readers that accept the basic parameters of the study. Wright’s exegetical analysis in light of the nature of communal reading events also provides an alternate interpretive angle for many familiar NT passages.

To be sure, while Wright’s thesis is modest and only suggestive in its implications, these fresh historical and textual insights have the potential of informing our understanding of the story of canon formation, textual transmission, and the way the earliest churches strove to be a “people of the book” even among varying levels of literacy.

Also in SWJT, forthcoming.
Book Review
July 11, 2019


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