4 May 2019

Musings, How Did an “Ordinary” Person Encounter the “Word of God” in the First Century?

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Church History, Holy Spirit, K. C. Moser, Patternism, Restoration History, Worship

I have been reflecting a lot lately on how an “ordinary” person would have encountered the “Bible” in the first century. The fact that no ordinary person actually owned a Bible for many, many centuries – fifteen of them in fact – after Jesus is a truth we have not wrestled with. Most ordinary people would never have seen much less owned and held in their hands even a portion of the Bible much less the Bible itself. The Ethiopian eunuch is only an apparent exception to this: he did not have a Bible but a scroll of Isaiah and he was hardly ordinary, but rich and powerful. The world of the early church was an oral culture not print. They heard things rather than read things.

An Illustration

When I was young, my family lived in a small white house in Cloverdale, AL. We did not have a TV. We played games at the kitchen table. One day my mom discovered some old time radio shows on cassette. So we would sit and listen to “The Shadow” a detective show from the 1930s. There were no images, only us sitting there listening to the story. We got really 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.

In Communal Worship

People in the first century encountered the Bible in ways similar to how my family encountered The Shadow. A father or mother would tell the story. A rabbi would tell the story with his disciples. They memorized the Story. These stories would be told around a table.

Going to the temple or attending the synagogue (not all synagogues would have the whole bible btw and the scrolls belonged to the community not to individuals). But in the festivals the “Bible,” or more precisely the “story,” was relived and that is how the word was given and experienced. 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). 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.” There was no book for many centuries.

The Bible is Neither the Holy Spirit nor the Gospel

Some folks 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 literally came to think of the printed Bible as the Spirit. 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 position is not materially different from that held by a number like the famed false teacher Foy Wallace Jr. Wallace wrote

Apart from the inspiration of the apostles and prophets, it is impossible fro 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 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 virtually no congregation 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 according to Luke was the scroll of Isaiah. The Gospels do not start appearing in written form until the 60s. Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 and 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. The actual writing the New Testament church did have was the collection of scrolls we call Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms, the Prophets.

The oral 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 … or related an “episode.”

Paying Attention to Context, Theirs and Ours

We 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. This may produce fewer divisions among us for one thing. 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. “Blessed is the ONE {singular} who reads ALOUD the words of the prophecy, and blessed are THOSE {plural} who HEAR …” (Rev 1.3). This is how the ordinary person encountered what came to be the Bible for centuries on end.

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, I was part of nerd FB group in 2011 to read the whole KJV including the Apocrypha 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.

Such awareness is part of having “eyes to see” and more importantly in this case “ears to HEAR.”


3 Responses to “Musings, How Did an “Ordinary” Person Encounter the “Word of God” in the First Century?”

  1. Charles JP Collier Says:

    This has been a subject over which I have got into more than a few disputes with my brethren. But the written record is ironically clear about the oral tradition involved in th transmission of the word during the church’s formative years. An examination of history makes it clear that this would be true for all of antiquity – few would have had access to written texts and virtually all mass transmission of religious and cultural information would have taken place through oratory and music. Thus the admonition to Timothy “preach the word” and the rhetorical question “how shall they hear without a preacher?” It would have been an absurdly bad plan for God to insist that the majority of human learning of His message be accomplished by individual, personal reading, when the majority of the world could not possibly read it.

  2. Dwight Says:

    I have heard “the HS is the word” and/or “the HS comes through the word”.
    There might be some truth to the last statement, but not in the way most use it.
    If a person is open to the word of God, then they will be open to the HS as well and visa-versa. This was true about Cornelius.
    But the HS is the HS and is not limited to the printed word.
    Ironically when we read Corinthians we see that much of the gospel was revealed/confirmed through prophesy of the saints.
    Now if we take the position that miracles/spiritual gifts have ceased, then no person has any particular authority to relay scriptures to anyone else. We are all in the same boat. Now some might be clearer on scripture and able to relate better than others, but often times this leads to positions of pride and not being able to listen to others. We need to be careful that we don’t fall into the role of the Pharisees who thought they alone had the clear teachings.

  3. Drew Ellis Says:

    This is a great blog post, bro. I’m teaching “How We Got the Bible” from Dr. Lightfoot’s book. I’m deviating frequently from it, bringing in material LIKE your thoughts here; other scholarly journals, information about the formula quotations and their apologetic function, etc. It is fascinating how our heritage has sometimes elevated the actual text to the divine status itself. (Don’t know if it matters, but check your typo in Wallace’s quote). I agree that the “word of the Lord” is not the text of the book, but may document it, as closely as possible.

    Shalom brother.

Leave a Reply