29 May 2016

“Ordinary People” and the Bible in the First Century: Strange World of the Bible #5

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: A Gathered People, Bible, Church, Culture, Hermeneutics, Jewish Backgrounds, Uncategorized
My Pocket NRSV

My Pocket NRSV is a library no first century person, rich or poor, could have imagined.

An Opening Conversation

Last night a friend said to me in response to something about context, “Bobby I do not believe you have to be a scholar to read the Bible. I will just read the Bible like an ordinary person in the first century.” I looked at him and smiled.  He said “why are you smiling?”  And I replied, “you really do not want to know because it requires acknowledging context.” So he pressed me, “what!?”  So I said, “[name] ordinary people did not read the Bible in the first century.  Ordinary people did not own Bibles in the first century. In fact no one owned a Bible and no ordinary person read it.”

I too do not believe one must be a “scholar” to read the Bible. But we may have to do just a little homework to hear it like an ordinary person in the first century.  Most of us realize that we need to know how to add 2 plus 2 … but knowing that does not make us a mathematician.  It simply means we have mastered a basic fundamental skill to live in our world.  So …

Ordinary Me and My Bible

I suspect that I am about as ordinary as they come.  Plain manila envelope here folks. While I do not care that much for Elvis, I love mom and apple pie! I live in the Southwest, drive a Jeep, ride a Harley, love to explore and camp. I have a handful of friends to watch football and baseball with. Ordinary Me!

Like most ordinary disciples I love my Bible.  In fact like most ordinary disciples I have several versions of the Bible. To the left (or above) is a picture of my pocket size NRSV that is my always Bible. I carry it every where I go.  I have a shelf of a dozen different translations. I even have a Bible app on my phone that has the NIV and Westcott/Hort. I cannot imagine a world without Bibles all over the place.  Modern American disciples are awash in Bibles and now we simply pull up Bible Gateway and look at virtually any translation with in a few seconds.

But Ordinary Me is not Ordinary Disciple in the first century.  My little NRSV with the Old Testament, Apocrypha and New Testament is more than even the apostle Paul would have seen at one time in his entire life.

Ordinary Disciple and the “Bible” in the First Century

Ordinary Disciple never saw a Bible in his or her life.  So how did an “ordinary” person encounter the “Bible” in the first century?  This is such an important question because we simply retroject our ordinary back upon the pages of the New Testament our ordinary experience and it shapes (literally) how we then interpret the Bible itself.

The fact that no ordinary person actually owned a Bible for more than 1500 years after Jesus is a truth I am convinced we have not wrestled with. Most ordinary people would never have even held in their hands a portion of the Bible much less the Bible itself. Producing letters and books was an expensive task in the ancient world.  Paul’s letter to the Romans would have cost, according to scholars, approximately 2000 dollars, an astronomical sum even by today’s standards.  Only the exorbitantly rich, the powerful and institutions possessed “books” (mostly temples or government archives but there were some libraries in the ancient world, the legendary Library of Alexandria being the prime example. This library was founded and funded by the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt). For more on this aspect the strangeness of the Bible see my Evel Knievel, The Grand Canyon and the Deep Gulf to the Bible.

Isaiah Scroll from Qumran

Isaiah Scroll from Qumran

Books in the first century were actually scrolls.  Scrolls would normally contain a single writing (a copy of the minor prophets on a single leather scroll found at Masada but the Twelve were viewed as a single book and called “The Book of the Twelve”).  Thus the book of Isaiah was the scroll of Isaiah (as in Luke 4.17) and the book of Luke itself would have been a scroll of Luke.  Examples of what “books” look are the Dead Sea Scrolls. To consult another part of the Bible you would need to get a completely different scroll.  Paul’s letters were also scrolls just smaller (and papyrus not leather) than the great Isaiah scroll that Jesus would have held in hands in Nazareth.

The Ethiopian eunuch is only an apparent exception in Acts 8. The Ethiopian is not ordinary (he is quite wealthy) and he did not own a Bible but a scroll of Isaiah. powerful. For more on the Ethiopian see my Indiana Jones, Temples & Acts: Who Did Philip Talk to in Acts 8?

Scripture was held by the community. The Temple in Jerusalem would have been the primary place where official copies of the holy writings would have been stored.  Synagogues, like the one in Nazareth, would also have collections of the Scripture.  However it is not a foregone conclusion that even a synagogue would have all the scrolls. Economics are often times bitter but even in the history of the church many local churches often did not have a complete Bible. At Qumran we know the community there had a library that belonged to the whole community.

But no one individual owned these Scriptures.  Some very rich person may have some of the Bible, like the Ethiopian. But most will be like Jesus himself … when he read from Isaiah he read from a scroll owned by the group.

Example of HEARING the Bible

The world of the early church was an oral culture not print. They heard things rather than read things (no one read silently in the ancient world). Most ordinary people were functionally illiterate.  They did not need to read because they did not exist in a print based culture like we do today. Books like the Iliad were memorized in overall detail.

When I was young in the late 1970s, my family lived in a small white house in Cloverdale, AL.  We did not live in the lap of luxury.  We did not have a TV.  We played games at the kitchen table. Monopoly. Clue. Yatzi. Uno. Sorry.  However, one day my mom discovered some old time radio shows on cassette. So we would sit and listen to “The Shadow” which was a detective radio show from the 1930s. There were no images to look at. There was just the family sitting there listening to the story. In fact we would get caught up in that story. To this day I can hear in my head the voice of the narrator and the images that popped up in my imagination. We learned about the characters and most important we learned the story.

That is how people in the first century encountered the Bible. A father or mother would tell the story to the family.  A rabbi would tell the story. They memorized the Story.  The Bible was not carried around in hands rather the Bible was heard orally within a communal context, that is Ordinary Me normally heard the “Bible” not by myself but within a group (recognize I use that word accommodatingly to signify even portions of what we call the Bible).

There is another way the Bible was encountered by Ordinary Me in the first century and that is in worship. Going to the Temple or attending the synagogue. In fact this would have been the major way anyone encountered Scripture in the time of Jesus, Paul, Peter or even the John the Prophet. In the worship festivals the Bible was relived and that is how the word was given to the ordinary person. Disciples dramatically relive the central theme of the Scriptures through the Festivals. As one scholar recently put it, Israel did not read the Bible they acted it out. The festivals reenact the central features of the Story of Redemption (Passover, Booths, Shavuot, Purim, Hanukkah, etc). In these contexts portions of the Bible were read orally to the people. The festivals by their very nature point to the most important part of the “Bible” … what Yahweh has done to save and redeem Israel to make her his own.

One of the great lessons learned from how people encountered the Bible for centuries is that it focuses upon the essential part of the Story. I think we would do well to learn that. These early disciples were indeed “People of the Word” but they were not “People of the Book.

scrolls-pile2Ordinary Me, Printed Pages, Arguments and the Holy Spirit

Some modern disciples have practically come to believe that the printed page is the Holy Spirit. Early on in the Stone-Campbell Movement there were people that advocated the heresy that the Holy Spirit had retired from work in God’s world. Some of these seemed to literally think of the printed Bible as the Spirit. The great Walter Scott satirized these folks in this quip, “Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins, and you shall receive a New Testament.

This is a position that is not materially different and held by a number is that of famed false teacher Foy Wallace Jr. Wallace wrote

Apart from the inspiration of the apostles and prophets, it is impossible for spirit to communicate with spirit except through words. God and Christ never personally occupied anyone; and for the same reason, the Holy Spirit does not personally occupy anyone.”

Wallace goes on to say

“Now the Word of God is in the Book – THE WRITTEN WORD [his emphasis] – and the direct possession of the Holy Spirit is unnecessary and superfluous.” (Mission & Medium of the Holy Spirit, pp. 7-8; as a side note this is why Wallace thought K. C. Moser was a heretic!)

There is not a person alive in the first century that could have endorsed Wallace’s position. They never had the WRITTEN word, that is they did not have a Bible. Before the end of the first century no congregation, much less an ordinary person like me, had anything remotely like what people typically call the Bible today.

We mentioned the eunuch above. When he returned to Meroe he had nothing whatsoever of our WRITTEN New Testament all he had was the LXX, if he had all of that. The Gospels do not start appearing in written form until the 60s (Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 and both Peter, Paul, James were all dead by then).

How did those people encounter the Bible? Not as Wallace suggests. They encountered the Word of God like I did the Shadows as a kid. It was spoken in worship. The Story focused upon God’s work thru Israel and culminating in Jesus. And like my family years ago they encountered the Word most frequently at a table where some one would tell the Story.

Context Matters even for Ordinary People

Sometimes we just need to reflect on how radically different our experience of the “culture” of the Christian faith is from people living in the first Christian centuries. The world of the Bible is strange to us in every possible way. And the more we recognize that the more it challenges us to approach it humbly and seek to hear it just like an ordinary person would in that day

Recognizing the strange world of the Bible could also help end our tragic divisions. It may also help us realize that contrary to Wallace’s claim God’s word is not equivalent to a written page. The written page may be (and is) a RECORD of the word of God but the written page is not what the Bible itself calls “the word of God.” The word of God was HEARD and empowered by God’s own Spirit.  The scroll of Revelation records “Blessed is the ONE {singular} who reads ALOUD the words of the prophecy, and blessed are THOSE {plural} who HEAR …” (Rev 1.3). Revelation was encountered in worship among a gathered group of disciples … One read and the rest listened with rapt attention.

rhema_smFinal Words

I am sooooooooooooooo grateful to have my own “Bible.” Anyone that knows me, knows I have a fascination with anything that has to do with the Bible. I have, and have read, old “Bibles” from cover to cover like Wycliffe’s Bible, Tyndale’s OT and NT, the Geneva Bible, was part of a nerd FB group in 2011 to read the whole 1611 KJV cover to cover for its 400th anniversary.

I love the Bible. But as grateful as I am I need to be historically aware enough that sometimes having my own personal Bible creates both assumptions and expectations that were not only not shared in first century Christianity but simply did not exist in any form in most cases until after the Protestant Reformation.

The point here is not to discourage Bible reading.  Just the opposite is the case.  This is to encourage reading that ushers us into the realm of the first century so we can indeed hear and understand as did Ordinary people in the time of Jesus and the Jerusalem church.  Recognizing the strange world of the Bible is part of having “eyes to see” and more importantly in this case “ears to HEAR.”

Shalom,
Bobby V

You may also enjoy my Ancestry of the KJV: Making Books in the Ancient World

7 Responses to ““Ordinary People” and the Bible in the First Century: Strange World of the Bible #5”

  1. Profile photo of Jerry Starling Jerry Starling Says:

    Thanks for a much needed post. I am convinced that much of the biblical illiteracy today is due to our failure to communally read the Scriptures.

    Sometime back I posted a “Tempted to Do Good” at committedtotruth.wordpress com in which I argued that if a spirit (the satan) can tempt us to do evil, then surely the Holy Spirit of God can ‘tempt’ us to do good. I suggested that these ‘temptations’ come in those nudges we feel to help a stranger in need or to speak a word to one who doesn’t know Jesus. To me, though I think I understand its origins in excesses attributed to the Holy Spirit, the dogma that the Holy Spirit is confined to the written scriptures is anathema.

  2. Steve Hopkins Says:

    I have been thinking these same thoughts just recently. I made the point to some fellow church-goers that people in the first century would not have been able to obsess over every word and nuance the way we do. They would have heard it and come away with a forest, not trees, much less all the leaves. While they agreed with that, they went on to state that since every single written word we have was inspired by the Holy Spirit, then our parsing was OK and allows us to be exact and more adequately understand the message as it was intended.

    I didn’t completely buy that. I’m a musician and I know from experience that “old” music becomes more alive when you perform it as close to the original intentions as possible. For example, much music written before 1600 was written without barlines (designated measures). When we put the barlines in to help modern performers keep up, despite our best efforts, it changes the way we perform (much like the way that chapters and verses and paragraph headings probably inhibit our Bible reading.)

    I would love some feedback on the conclusions from the first paragraph that my brothers came to on this matter.

  3. David P Himes Says:

    This is just another relevant point on this topic — and I pretty much agree with Bobby.

    However, we should also note that the canon of NT scriptures was compiled in response to the politics of the Roman Empire. It was an effort to establish a line between who was heretical and who was not. So, what we have as the NT was compiled for purposes of judgement and condemnation — not the best of foundations.

    The NT is very useful for revealing the revelation of God, the covenant between God and Humanity — but the NT Text itself, is not the “Word of God.” The Word of God is Jesus — at least, it is if you believe what John wrote in his gospel.

  4. Dwight Says:

    This is something that we need to realize in the context of the feast and in particular the Lord’s Supper. These were feast of remembering of deliverance and God’s blessing, because they didn’t have the word right in front of them all of the time. And this is why the communal aspect of the Lord’s Supper was so important and in fact all assemblies, because they could bring with them the word “implanted in their heart” and share it with others who had the same. They didn’t just read the words in text, but lived the words in context. Then they went out and did the same. They lived the word and in that sense shared it with others.

  5. Joshua Pappas Says:

    Hey brother Bobby, thanks for the article. Do you know where I can find documentation for the high cost of Bible scrolls in the first century? I’d love to say something about that in a lesson sometime, but would like to make sure I can back up what I say. Thanks again!

    • Profile photo of Bobby Valentine Bobby Valentine Says:

      Joshua Pappas delighted to have you reading and commenting on my blog. Yes a great source on the whole process of letter writing from beginning to end is Randolf Richards, Paul and First Century Letter Writing. The cost analysis is based upon figures provided by various sources nearly contemporary with Paul for the cost of materials and secretary etc. I have provided link in the title to Amazon. The book is a great window into the first century.

  6. Joshua Pappas Says:

    Thanks for the link brother!

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