Hearing the Bible

Last summer about this time I was reading Ken Follett’s massive novel The Pillars of the Earth. It is a gripping historical novel. It tells the convoluted story of the construction of a gothic cathedral against the backdrop of civil war in 12th century England.

Follett captures the atmosphere of medieval life vividly. You feel you are living it. But in one small detail, he gets medieval life badly wrong.

In one scene, a young noblewoman named Aliena and her brother visit their father in a prison dungeon. Their father, an earl, has been imprisoned for treason. Aliena asks her father what they can do to alleviate his misery. “Can we bring you a Bible to read,” she asks.

I winced when I read that. No such thing would have ever happened in the Middle Ages. For one, most medieval people could not read. Only an elite could. An earl might have been literate, but most likely not.

But more importantly, books were rare and expensive, and therefore precious possessions indeed. The production of books was labor intensive. All books were duplicated by handwriting, a slow and laborious process. Books were also published on animal skins. It might take the skins of several hundred sheep to complete a whole New Testament.

So the Scriptures were largely the possessions of churches and monasteries who could afford them. Few individuals would have owned a Bible. And certainly no one would have thought of bringing a bulky and expensive manuscript into the grime and dirt of a dungeon to a chained man to read.

So how did believers access the Bible for Christianity’s first 1,500 years? By hearing it read aloud in church. This contrasts dramatically with today, when most people enter the world of the Bible by opening the pages of a printed book and reading silently to themselves the words printed there.

We access the Bible through our eyes. But early and medieval Christians accessed it through their ears. And they retained it by memorizing it.

When medieval monks chanted the psalms, most did not have an individual prayer book in front of them in their prayer stall. They had memorized all 150 psalms and recited them by memory.

I wonder if this fact of Bible reading accounts in part for the phenomenon that the words of Scripture seemed to sink deep into their consciousness.

When I teach the New Testament, I like to point out how deeply infused New Testament writers are with the stories, images, and the very words of the Old Testament. Students are amazed at how much these writers were steeped in the Old Testament. How could they be so?, students will often ask me.

Well, one answer is that they heard the Bible always read aloud, not silently. The rhythms and cadences of Scripture were entering their minds and even bodies along with the stories and the concepts. Memorization imbedded the word even deeper into their consciousness.

We get a taste of this experience as we today hear Scripture read aloud in church services. But it is easy for our minds to wander in such readings because we know we can always turn to the printed text if we missed something. But what difference might it make if we had to listen intently to the reading, because that oral reading would be our only opportunity to access the text?

Future generations may in fact find out. There is some evidence that the skill of literacy is slowly declining in many segments of the population, as people rely more and more on TV, cell phones, and other electronic media for communication. We may be slowly migrating towards a world where the tools of oral communication, rather than written, are the preferred form for transmitting the faith. 

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