Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus

A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices

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Brian J. Wright
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    Fortress Press
    , December
     2017.
     320 pages.
     $39.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781506432502.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The stated goal in Brian J. Wright’s Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus is to establish that “communal reading events” (CRE) were common throughout the Mediterranean in the time of Jesus. Wright also has a second, more provocative thesis: CRE served as quality controls for the transmission of literary traditions. In support of these arguments Wright examines the social, economic, and political factors behind CRE, highlights examples of CRE mentioned by Greek, Roman, and Judean authors, and identifies a plethora of CRE in the New Testament. Wright argues convincingly that texts were read in groups across the Mediterranean, but Wright’s major categories of “communal reading events” and “quality control” are under-theorized, and as a result his conclusions are not as convincing as they could be.

Chapter 1 situates the book within the fields of Christian origins and book history, and chapter 2 presents Wright’s methodology, key terms, and ancient sources. Chapters 3 and 4 examine the economic, political, and social factors that facilitated common and widespread CRE. Wright argues that the traditional view of an impoverished and illiterate majority does not fit with the evidence of economic growth in the 1st century, and that reading and writing was more widespread than traditionally thought. Chapter 5 surveys CRE in many 1st-century Greek, Roman, and Judean authors including: Epictetus, Strabo, Martial, Ovid, Dio Chrysostom, Quintilian, Celsus, Philo, and Josephus. From these literary sources Wright finds examples of authors and orators reading texts in groups. 

Chapter 6 is by far the longest chapter (ninety pages) and therein Wright identifies and examines CRE in the New Testament. The nature of the CRE that Wright identifies range from narratives about texts being read in group settings (such as Jesus reading from the Isaiah scroll in Luke 4:16-30), to explicit instructions that texts should be read to a group (such as 1 Thess. 5:27). Wright finds multiple examples of CRE in every book in the New Testament, and once again finds support for his argument that CRE were widespread geographically (201-202). Wright ends with a brief conclusion, followed by an appendix of CRE evidenced in Greek, Roman, and Judean literature from 100 BCE to 200 CE.

In many ways, Wright accomplishes exactly what he sets out to do: he argues persuasively that CRE were geographically widespread in the 1st century. His review of the political and economic factors that facilitated CRE, and of the social settings in which these readings would have taken place, is helpful in challenging the still-held notion that Roman antiquity was marked by rampant poverty and illiteracy. Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians, that the letter be read among all of them, certainly fits with Wright’s CRE. This is also the case for some other Pauline letters and sections of the Gospels, Act, and letters. But more careful qualification is required for a number of the CRE that Wright identifies. Wright does not spend enough time establishing the difference between a text commanding that it be read, and CRE imbedded in narratives. Many of the CRE identified in the Gospels and Acts are parts of the narrative. They may serve as evidence that the author was aware of CRE, but they do not necessarily indicate that the author expected their text to be read communally. Further, Wright does not differentiate between letters written by Paul and those pseudepigraphically written in his name. The narrative fictions of pseudepigraphical letters present challenges and contexts that differ from letters with known authors and recipients.

Second, what constitutes a “communal reading event” is never fully theorized, nor does Wright address the growing body of scholarship that has criticized the concept of “community” as a romantic, Protestant ideal projected into the past. Wright cites but dismisses Stanley Stowers’s critique of “community” as a social category (Stanley Stowers, “The Concept of ‘Community’ and the History of Early Christianity,” MTSR 23 [2011]: 238-56), and this dismissal seems to misunderstand the force of Stowers’s critique. It is not that we cannot imagine ancient people doing things socially; rather, describing these groups as “communities” brings with it assumptions about the social makeup of the group. For Wright, a CRE is simply a reading that is not performed alone. This definition casts a wide net into which any oral performance of a text falls. That people read in groups is well established and non-controversial, but in what sense were these groups “communities,” and in what ways does one CRE differ from another? How is a school setting different from an exchange of letters? How are both different from a history lecture or juridical reading? In sum, what analytical insights are gleaned from renaming “reading in groups” CRE? This question is never answered.

In turning to the texts of the New Testament, Wright argues that CRE were a common denominator amongst early Christians: “These events were a widespread controlling factor in the transmission of the Christian tradition” (209). Wright ignores the diversity present in the CRE he identifies in the Greco-Roman-Judean world, and focuses on the ways in which CRE are found in all Christian texts. Wright shifts from using CRE as the common thread that connects various authors, to viewing Christian texts as the common thread in which he finds CRE. The shift is subtle, but the result presents early Christians as distinctly communal. Finally, Wright asserts in multiple places that CRE served as a quality control, especially for Christian texts. Wright presents a possible instance of “quality control” in Epictetus’s classroom (66), but this example is specific to a school setting. Outside of schooling, it is not at all obvious that group readings were an “operative and pervasive” form of quality control as Wright concludes (209). One could just as easily imagine CRE serving as sites for elaboration, epitomizing, and other creative modifications of texts.

Wright provides a very helpful collection of sources in support of his stated thesis that group readings were common throughout the ancient Mediterranean. But he does not flesh out the ways in which group reading constituted “communities,” nor the ways in which CRE served as quality controls over texts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ian Brown is a doctoral candidate in New Testament at the University of Toronto.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian J. Wright is Adjunct Professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University and has published a number of academic studies in the Journal of Theological Studies, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, Bulletin for Biblical Research, Trinity Journal, and Tyndale Bulletin. He is also coauthor of Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (2011). 

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