If you’re like me you’ve perhaps assumed that private and individual reading of The Bible did not start until after the invention of the printing press. First off, competent literacy was hard to come by in the ancient world. Secondly, written materials, due to the slow production process, were also just as sparse. Sure there were rich or academic Christians like some of the Early Church Fathers who had this luxury, but for the majority of Christian history private reading of Scripture was rare. Or was it?
These assumptions regarding literacy and the availability of written materials are just that, assumptions, and they do not sit well with the evidence we have at hand. Archeological findings have given us strong reasons to doubt both of these default beliefs. Discoveries at Oxyrhynchus, a city of the ancient Mediterranean world, have revealed massive amounts of disposed of writings in a landfill numbering anywhere from 500,000 to 1.5 million individual pieces of written material.1 Remember this is just material that was considered to be worthy of a landfill and that was able to be found. If there was this much “trash writing” in antiquity it should be no surprise that libraries in Alexandria were reported, by Josephus, to contain nearly half a million books as well.2
Furthermore, there are many indications that even the poor and “uneducated” had the ability to read and probably even write. Ancient graffiti is scattered broadly throughout the archaeological record and ranges from obscure gladiator boasts written in barracks to curses placed on front doors cursing anyone who dares to defecate on the property.3 The underlying truth here is that random writing and the posting of public written material all point to the idea that many people could read. The earliest “picture” of Jesus that has been found contains poorly written letters of a slave mocking another Christian slave.4 There are many examples of this poor hand writing found throughout ancient writing, even in large numbers from common and low-ranking Roman soldiers, which further points to the literacy of those not formally educated.5 Poor hand writing is not to be expected from an academic education, but is expected if commoners could write.
Now take the early Christian community, a community heavily influenced and consisting of Jews who were already people of the written word, and consider the exhortations given for the private reading of Scripture within the Early Church, exhortation to the common people. Irenaeus, just in the second century, encouraged “daily study” of Scripture.6 Shortly after Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria could describe a Christian as one whose “sacrifices are prayers, and praises, and readings in the Scriptures before meals, and psalms and hymns during meals and before bed, and prayers also again during night.”7 Origen assumes that Christians have access to the word when he critiques those who are “neither occupied at home in the word of God nor frequently enter the church to hear the word.”8 The Apostolic Tradition, in the early third century, instructs Christians who do not receive public instruction to take a holy book at home (which assumes they have them there) and to read them themselves.9
All of this is just scratching the surface of the evidence that a diverse group of early Christians not only had access to the written Word, but were also capable of reading and studying it. We should be thankful for the“Bible at our fingertips” type of access that we have to the Word, but that should not make us draw the false assumption that private study and reflection on Scripture is a “new thing.” Yes there were certainly times in Church History where access was not easy and literacy was low, consider the pre-Reformation era, but we would be wrong to believe that this was always the case. Hear the preached Word, learn from those educated in the faith and do not take their efforts and knowledge lightly, learn from the faithful Christians who have gone before us and do not assume or act like we are the first to wrestle with God’s Word, but make sure that whatever we hear, whatever we are taught, that we are faithful to be like the Bereans who examined the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11) Sola Scriptura.
- Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence, Craig A. Evans, Chapter 3: In the books: reading, writing and literacy, 65 (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2012)
- Ibid. 65
- Ibid. 70-71
- Ibid. 71-73
- Ibid. 69
- The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, Edited by: D.A. Carson, Chapter 2: The Truth Above All Demonstration: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustin, Charles E. Hill, 86 (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016)
- Ibid. 86 (emphasis mine)
- Ibid. 87
- Ibid. 86