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Acts 17 tells us that the Bereans examined the Scriptures daily to see if the things Paul was saying were so (Acts 17:10–11). But what exactly did that look like?
As evangelicals, we’re people of the sacred text, committed to the centrality and authority of the Scriptures. Yet in our concern for the enduring sacred text, we can be unmindful of the considerable developments in the history of the physical book, and of the various technologies by which our relationship to that text has been mediated and framed. Ignorance of this history can leave us unaware of the ways technology has transformed (and at some points even deformed) our encounter with Holy Scripture.
Brief History of the Book
The timeline from ancient scrolls to modern Bibles is an astonishing story of technological progress and invention. Some awareness of this history may help us in our contemporary reading of the Scriptures.
The earliest copies of what we now call “Old Testament” books were largely written on scrolls, that is, rolls of papyrus or parchment. Scrolls would’ve been the primary form in which Jesus and the apostles encountered the Hebrew Scriptures.
The passage from ancient scrolls to modern Bibles is an astonishing story of technological progress and invention.
In contrast to the wider cultural practice of their day, the early church strongly favored and pioneered the use of a newer technology for its books: the codex. The codex was more like the modern form of the book; you didn’t need to unroll a lengthy stretch of papyrus, but could simply turn to the desired page. It could hold more text than a scroll, and in a less cumbersome form. What was once a collection of scrolls could now be consolidated in one volume.
Books are such a familiar feature of our world that we’re seldom mindful of how much is required to sustain a textual culture. Libraries, schools, paper mills, paper merchants, binders, printers, book distributors, authors, translators, typesetters, editors, publishers, inventors: all of these and more have played their part in making possible various cultures’ encounters with written texts. Although our texts usually have an unobtrusive presence in our world, they represent what is perhaps the most far-reaching, remarkable, and significant achievement of human civilization.
What Exactly Is a Shakespearean Play?
Because of how accustomed we are to specific forms and ways of engaging with texts, we can regard them almost as if they were natural features of the world.
If I were to ask a group of people what a Shakespearean play is, for instance, I might get a variety of different answers. One person might pull a copy of Hamlet down off a shelf and hand it to me. Another person, however, might lead me to a theater and point to the stage, where Hamlet was being performed.
The difference between these responses reveals something important about the under-appreciated complexities in how we speak about texts. In a sense, neither answer is wrong, but both fail to capture some aspect of the reality.
The first response identifies the Shakespearean play with a physical book in which the words of Hamlet are printed, the sort of book that students might study in a high-school English class. This response might give the impression that the Shakespearean play is a text situated primarily in the realm of private reading and academic study that the physical book encourages.
The second response captures something important about the Shakespearean play that the first misses: the Shakespearean play isn’t written chiefly for personal reading and study, but for communal performance on the stage. “Interpretation” of the play principally involves the work of actors and actresses who deliver their lines in a way that conveys their sense to audiences. However, the performance of a Shakespearean play still isn’t the same thing as the play itself, which exceeds and provides standards by which we can judge any single one of its performances.
What Exactly Is the Bible?
If you were to ask people at different stages of church history what the Holy Scriptures are, you might receive similarly contrasting answers.
If you were to ask most modern Christians, you would most likely be shown a leather-bound Bible or an app on a person’s mobile device. Like the copy of Hamlet, such a book is primarily encountered in the act of silent, private, personal reading.
An early Christian, by contrast, might take you to the place where their local church met and show you a collection of scrolls with an incomplete collection of books of the Hebrew Scriptures and perhaps a few codices containing various Gospels and epistles. They might then take you to a gathering of Christians, where these texts would be read aloud and some leader might instruct the congregation from them.
Brian Wright has recently explored the prominence and extent of communal-reading events in the first century. Such communal reading was pervasive and the dominant form of early-church engagement with the Scriptures.
So How Did the Bereans ‘Examine the Scriptures’?
Changes in book production have led to a privatization of reading and interpreting Scripture, which brings us back to the Bereans.
In Acts 17:10–11, Luke praises the Bereans, who eagerly received the words of Paul and Silas and daily examined the Scriptures to see if what they were saying was accurate. Many of us grew up being exhorted to be “Berean Christians,” meaning we were encouraged to go back home and study our personal Bibles to see if our pastors’ teaching was accurate. While there is doubtless merit in this practice, it’s exceedingly unlikely that this is what the Bereans were doing.
Rather, as members of a Jewish synagogue, it’s more likely that they were assembling together regularly over the course of Paul and Silas’s visit for a collective discussion of the accuracy of their teaching. In such a setting, there would’ve been a scribe consulting and reading aloud passages from specific scrolls in the synagogue’s collection as they were mentioned in the discussion.
Reading and interpretation were more communal than private acts.
Becoming True Bereans
Our primary encounter with the text has moved from the context of the communal Bible reading in the assembly of the church to the private Bible reading of the individual Christian. Reading has shifted from an activity chiefly engaging the ears to one chiefly engaging the eyes.
With such shifts, there has often been a privatization of our understanding of the sense of the text: we can forget that the Scriptures were largely addressed not to detached individuals but to communities of reading—communities where interpretation was a collective activity overseen by skilled readers and guided by traditions of scriptural reflection.
Reading in a book-saturated society has also developed different reading habits from those that would’ve prevailed in premodern societies with few texts. When books were rare and costly, texts tended to be much more dense with meaning, rewarding forms of attentive reading that are uncommon in our age.
Our relationship with Scripture should be anything but a sedentary, solitary, and uniform activity.
Our relationship with the Scripture can also be flattened out. We don’t (or shouldn’t) merely read the Bible. We sing the psalms. We pray the Lord’s Prayer. We practice the Lord’s Supper. We meditate on the Law and hide its words within our hearts. We hearken to God’s instructions and observe his commands. We discern the meanings of proverbs. We proclaim the gospel. Using the words of Scripture, we recount, we lament, we exhort, we teach, we comfort, we rebuke, we absolve, we encourage. While what we conceive of as “reading” is generally a sedentary, solitary, and uniform activity, the relationship that Scripture calls us to have with it is anything but!
In these and many other ways, close attention to the material history of the book has the potential to enrich our relationship with the scriptural text.