(Mis)reading the New Testament (and other ancient texts)

Protestants have been dividing from one another pretty much continuously since Luther’s excommunication.  Before your next disagreement with another Christian I would like to suggest trying an experiment:

  1. Pick an issue over which Christians divide. It doesn’t matter which one.
  2. Pick a book of the New Testament that contains verses addressing your view of the controversy.
  3. Find a public domain version of the Bible online and copy the book into a word processor, or better yet a plain text editor.
  4. Use “find and replace” to remove all the punctuation, numbers (chapter and verse marks), and all the spaces between the words.
  5. For good measure remove the paragraphs.
  6. Now try to read it.
Folio from Papyrus 46, containing 2 Corinthians 11:33-12:9
Folio from Papyrus 46, containing 2 Corinthians 11:33-12:9

This is an approximation of scriptio continua, the normal mode of writing used in classical Greek and late classical Roman texts[1]. It is also found in early manuscripts of the New Testament.

The original form of these texts may have implication for how we read them today.  Some time ago I was introduced to the idea that our communications media affects the physical structure of how our brains work.  There is a very good chance that our brains function a bit differently from the writers and readers of ancient texts.

We are awash in print. Books emails, text messages, tweets, news pages, magazines, captions – we see it everywhere but we really don’t see it. Reading happens below our level of conscious thought.   This flood of text that started with the printing press has completely saturated us with the advent of electronic media.

It wasn’t always so.  The mechanics and logistics of reading and writing in the ancient world presented a far different environment.  There was far less of it.  The composition format in the ancient world would make writing laborious and persistent media (parchment and papyrus) was labor-intensive and costly[6] to produce.

And the process reading/writing was hard work. If you doubt that just try the experiment I described above. Or follow this link.

If you were literate, which wasn’t likely, you probably didn’t do that much reading and writing unless your occupation demanded it.  And you probably read aloud.  Silent reading is extremely difficult without spaces between words.  And if you had sufficient means, there is a good chance that a literate slave did a fair bit of your reading for you. After all, slaves did most of your other menial stuff.

Occupational literacy did demand some personal reading and writing and utilitarian texts appear predominate in archeological finds.  Literary texts comprise only about 10% of the papyri excavated from the ancient garbage dumps at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, following their discovery at the end of the 19th century.  The rest are government and private records and correspondence. They include “…codes, edicts, registers, official correspondence, census-returns, tax-assessments, petitions, court-records, sales, leases, wills, bills, accounts, inventories, horoscopes, and private letters.[2]”

Reading and writing seems to have been tools of practical communication in a primarily oral culture, rather than mechanisms of the information saturation we experience in the present day.  What was spoken seems dominate what was what was written.

This orality appears also to extend to those who would be considered literate in a modern sense. Pliny the Younger described (his uncle) Pliny the Elder’s study habits as including the use of a reader.  His uncle would listen while taking notes (Letters 3.5).  The passage describes the reading as out loud, so presumably some silent reading was known.  But that was clearly not his uncle’s preferred way of interacting with the text.

Some years ago in an attempt to step outside of my own thinking on the matter of origins I read (most of) The Literal Meaning of Genesis, by Augustine of Hippo. It took weeks to read – the struggle was something of a surprise, having read much longer books by 19th century authors. I also started but never finished City of God – I mostly just nibbled around the edges and never really digested the book.

Now I may know why.  In the seventh century Irish scribes started inserting spaces between words and also started adding punctuation. Latin was a foreign language and this made it easier to read[3].  Our ability to speak is innate. Reading and writing, however, are learned.  The idea I was introduced to last fall is that the learning process creates new neural pathways in the brain.  Which means that a brain that does not read will have not have the same pathways as one that has learned the skill.  It is different.  And spaces between words make that skill easier to master.

By making reading easier, spaces and punctuation made reading more efficient and possible to do far more of.  More reading, more neural pathways.  Spaces between words facilitated the development of a brain that is saturated in text, the way mine is.  It has different neural pathways from one that is not.

To be clear I am not equating this difference with intelligence.  I doubt very many of us could master extemporaneous oral composition in the way that was expected in ancient Greece and Rome.  Ancient orators did not have teleprompters.  What I am suggesting is that maybe the thinking processes of those ancient orators was a bit different from ours.

There is a frequently cited passage in Confessions where Augustine describes silent reading by Ambrose of Milan in ways that make it clear it was highly unusual (Confessions 6.3). Augustine probably read out loud – which means there is a good chance his primary mode of thinking and composition was oral, and his writing  consequently anchored in an oral mode of thought.  This orality might help to explain why I struggled to track with his writing. If this is true it also ought to affect the conclusions I draw from what he was communicating.

I have been working my way through quite a number of ancient texts since that point – some have been easier to read than others. I thoroughly enjoyed Xenophon’s Anabasis – his account of a mercenary army’s misadventures in Persia and subsequent escape. It was probably more readable because it is very linear, something which is imposed by the sequence of events. But other ancient writing seems somehow disjointed compared to writing of later millennia. It seems far less linear.

Which brings me back to the subjects of our disagreements.

Ancient writing is just different enough that we ought to have some caution about the conclusions we draw from what we read. If strong and incompatible arguments can be made for several very different interpretations of the same ancient text, it is entirely possible that none of them were ever in the mind of the author. In ignoring the inherent orality of the original writing risk reading our own ways of thinking back into an ancient text.  First-century Palestine was an oral culture. Nobody had a leather-bound Torah resting on a coffee table in their house.

Modern  scholarship is  beginning to engage this inherent orality.  Richard Bauckham notes that the way Mark structures “…his narrative are mostly characteristic of oral composition.[4]”  Other books of the New Testament have identifiable oral underpinnings as well. Transmission of Paul’s letters may have involved more of an oral performance[5] than the sterile textual “reading” to which we are accustomed.

I’m not suggesting we return to the reading aloud of continuous text with no punctuation. But given the oral underpinnings of ancient writing, in order to engage with biblical texts on a personal level (and on their own terms) we might be better off hearing more of it than just simply reading it.

I have been attempting to do exactly that. I am currently playing the New Testament on CD in my truck on the way to work in the mornings. It’s not a perfect approach. The particular version to which I am listening has soothing music in the background – this does nothing to contribute to my engagement with the performance. But I am hearing (and engaging) things I used to gloss over while simply reading.


[1] Scriptio continua. (n.d.). Retrieved September 13, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scriptio_continua

[2] Oxyrhynchus. (n.d.). Retrieved September 13, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxyrhynchus

[3] Modern English, Punctuation, and Word Separation. (2010, October 30). Retrieved September 13, 2015, from http://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept10/2010/10/30/modern-english-punctuation-and-word-separation/

[4] Bauckham, R. (2006). Jesus and the eyewitnesses: The Gospels as eyewitness testimony (p. 232). Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[5] For an example see: McKnight, S. (2015, June 11). Performing a Pauline Letter. Retrieved September 13, 2015, from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2015/06/11/performing-a-pauline-letter

[6] Update April 11, 2016: writing media was more costly than I had any idea, especially parchment.  It appears that the cost of a complete book could be one hundred times (or more) the daily wage of an unskilled laborer.  https://sarahemilybond.wordpress.com/2016/04/04/sacrificial-lambs-livestock-book-costs-and-the-premodern-parchment-trade/  In view of this books seem unlikely to have been plentiful.  At least not in the way we experience them.  Casual reading would be a pastime for the literate wealthy (or perhaps for the literate with wealthy patrons).



2 thoughts on “(Mis)reading the New Testament (and other ancient texts)”

    1. Thank you. Oral sources absolutely do help explain them.

      I don’t understand why we expect the the Gospel accounts to agree at the detail level. We don’t expect this of modern eyewitness testimony.


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