Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Brian J. Wright on Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus

Today I’m happy to introduce a guest post from Brian J. Wright who is currently an adjunct professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He has a forthcoming book on communal reading published by Fortress. I heard Brian present some of his research at ETS last year and thought our blog readers would be interested in his work.

I’ve been a follower of this blog for over a decade, and have benefited from it in numerous ways. I also genuinely appreciate the work you all continue to do and look forward to getting my hands on a copy of the THGNT.

In my new work on communal reading, I’m essentially asking, “Who was reading what in the first century AD, and where?” The main reason I’m asking this question is because over the past few decades various scholars have argued for or against certain “quality controls” that must have been in place—consciously or unconsciously—in order to account for the transmission of the earliest Jesus movement (eyewitnesses, communal memory, memorization, performance, etc.). By successfully identifying one or more of these controls, it is thought, one can better account for the similarities and differences between the various Christian traditions, get closer to the earliest sources of the nascent Jesus movement, and ultimately understand the historical Jesus more accurately.

The problem, as I see it, is that the entire subject of communal reading events and their role in controlling literary traditions has been largely neglected in early Christian studies. Academic literature even hinting at the fact that communal reading events were a means of controlling literary traditions is sporadic and implicit at best—often centuries removed from the traditions’ inception. By asking the question I mentioned above, we can begin to answer the first of a series of important historical questions regarding communal reading events in the first century, namely, what evidence exists that would suggest that they were a widespread phenomenon? I ultimately argue that communal reading events were already a prevailing practice over a wide geographic range in the first century CE, and that these events acted as a conserving force over the transmission of literary traditions.

For readers of this blog, let me briefly mention just one important aspect that might not be immediately evident from the title and that I will not be covering specifically in my different presentations on various aspects of my book at the annual conferences next month (i.e., one at ETS, one at IBR, and two at SBL).

I document and discuss various comments made by first-century authors regarding manuscripts they hear, read, excerpt from, or examine. Based on their comments, it seems to me that more people in the world of the ancient biblical scribes and translators did care about consistency, and the aspiration for consistency was not merely an invention of later centuries. I’ll summarize just a few of the sorts of remarks here to illustrate my point.

Some first-century authors mention their community getting angry and throwing away manuscripts they receive to read because they contain mistakes. Other first-century authors write at length about textual differences, such as changes to earlier manuscripts and spelling differences between them, in order to highlight a quality control they think should be in place when audiences hear poets read their works. Still other first-century authors mention posting their communal readings publicly so others can read and verify the content, and/or they write about making corrections to manuscripts during readings.

Even in spite of the radical suppression of literature at certain times during the first century, such as the exiles, book burnings, and bans during the reign of Domitian, there was still a “vast flood of literature,” to use one of Petronius’s phrases; “thousands who recite,” as Epictetus states; and opportunities for “advertising your abilities” before “a multitude of fans” at communal reading events, according to Seneca the Younger and Martial, respectively. As I now see the evidence, the prevalence of literary works, activities associated with them, and more kinds of quality controls embedded in literary traditions in the first century CE suggests a world carefully shaped and controlled by a book culture typified by commonly held, albeit highly diverse, communal reading events. I believe the implications this will have on many other disciplines and subdisciplines, such as canonicity, NT textual criticism, orality, social identity, and performance criticism, are wide-ranging.

That said, perhaps I should conclude with a first-century quote: “One thing remains: please be equally honest about telling me if you think there are any additions, alterations, or omissions to be made. […] It is more likely to be long-lived the more I can attain to truth and beauty and accuracy in detail” (Pliny, Letters 3.10.5–6).


  1. Replies
    1. We have gone through a couple of versions now. In speaking we have settled on 'Tyndale House Edition' or in short 'Tyndale House'. In abbreviation this will indeed be THE. If there is ever going to be a second it will be TH2.

    2. I just recalled Peter Williams using "THGNT" in one of his recent posts in October. Probably should have double checked if that was the official abbreviation. Thanks for clarifying Dirk!

  2. I like THGNT as a long and unambiguous abbreviation like SBLGNT. However, for some purposes a three letter abbreviation is required. Of course one can abbreviate SBLGNT to SBL and ours to TH or THE. I'm hoping for TH2 in 5 years if Dirk's up for it!

  3. Hi Brian, and ETC bloggers, I've been a follower of the blog for a few years now. I'm not a "real" scholar (yet?), but I've kept my academic interests sharp by reading this blog regularly. PhD work might be in the near future.

    Anyway, I've followed the topic of the public reading of Scripture for a few years now, and Brian, I'm excited to read your book as soon as I can get my hands on a copy here in East Africa (I teach theology in Ethiopia). I was wondering if you would be interested in reading an article I just published in JJMJS on this very topic, but engaging it from a theological and sociological perspective, through the rubric of covenantal identity. From your synopsis, it seems that your study deals with a great deal of primary data, engaging the Graeco-Roman socio-cultural milieu. For Ancient Jewish (and perhaps early Christian) public reading, what would you say about covenant being the sociological/theological matrix of this practice?

    Here's the article:


    1. Jacob -

      Thanks for your comments and sending your article along. Yes, I'm interested in reading it. I just printed it out, and hope to read it this weekend.

      Since it has your email address on it, I'll email you a fuller response there. But in the meantime, I can say that I completely agree with you that some scholars downplay (or haven't fully considered) the role of communal reading in the formation of social identity. It sounds like your "covenant textuality" contribution has much to offer us in this regard!

      Again, thanks for your comments, article, and question. I look forward to reading your article and dialoguing with you via email.

    2. Please note that the site has a forum. I commented there a couple of times, and I wish more would, as it's a good open source site. Perhaps consider that venue for conversation about Jacob's paper.

    3. Thanks for the suggestion. I haven't used it yet.

  4. Brian,
    I look forward to reading your work and hopefully talking over its implications at SBL, if you have the time. I find it fascinating how closely our research overlaps. I will be presenting a paper at SBL "Exposing Textual Corruption," which focuses more broadly on "publication" practices and communities circulating literature acting as a transmission control. I end up lumping public reading into "publication," because circulating books was intimately connected with reading them communally and commenting on them.
    Congratulations on your book, great work!

    1. Thanks! And yes, looking forward to some conversations at the conferences. Excited to hear/see your work as well.