Misreading the New Testament

Protestants have been dividing from one another pretty much continuously since Luther’s excommunication. I would like to suggest 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 spaces between words, punctuation, and numbers (chapter and verse marks).
  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.

Last fall I was introduced last year to the idea that our communications media affects the physical structure of how our brains work. Ever since then I’ve been wondering how that might affect my understanding of ancient writers in general and New Testament writers in particular.

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. The flood of text that started with the printing press has completely saturated us with the advent of electronic media.

It wasn’t always so. Most reading may have been done out loud and far less of it was done than we are accustomed to. The composition format in the ancient world would make reading and writing laborious and persistent media (parchment and papyrus) was labor-intensive and costly[6] to produce. If you were literate, which wasn’t likely, you probably didn’t do that much reading and writing unless your occupation demanded it. If you had sufficient means, there is a good chance that a scribal slave did it for you. After all, slaves did most of your other hard work.

Occupational and utilitarian writing appears to have outweighed the literary use. 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 seem to have been tools of practical use in a primarily oral culture, rather than mechanisms of the information saturation we experience in the present day.  Which suggests that what was spoken seems more like the dominant mode of communication than what was written.

This might also 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 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. Language is innate. Reading and writing are learned. 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]. 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 will have not have the same pathways as one that has learned the skill. By making reading easier, spaces and punctuation made reading more efficient and possible to do far more of. They facilitated the development of a brain that is saturated in text, the way mine is. And it has different neural pathways from one that is not.

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.  Which suggests his mind didn’t function quite the same way mine does, and might 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 than others. I thoroughly enjoyed Xenophon’s Anabasis – his account a mercenary army’s misadventures in Persia and subsequent escape. It was probably easier 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.

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 we may be trying to force out more than the text actually says.

And we follow this up with modern-style textual analyses that can lead to no end of mischief. Around the beginning of the last century someone cooked up the notion of “Q” as a source document for textual material common to both Matthew and Luke. This has been followed by various literary reconstructions of what this document must have looked like. But no physical evidence of Q has ever been found. Oral cultures can transmit coherent histories and traditions. Texts might serve as an anchor for these, but first-century Palestine was an oral culture. Nobody had a leather-bound Torah resting on their coffee table. It is far more likely that Matthew and Luke drew from common oral sources, rather than from common documents. Q strikes me as an unnecessary, text-saturated inference.

Scholars are beginning to engage the inherent orality of ancient texts. 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, 2014: 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 “Misreading the New Testament

    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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