Pieter J. J. Botha wrote a fascinating article exploring the vast difference between contemporary and ancient reading practices. The article, “New Testament Texts in the Context of Reading Practices of the Roman Period: The Role of Memory and Performance,” published in Scriptura vol. 90 (2005) pgs 621-40, is well worth a read. I just wanted to note some highlights here.
Botha begins by painting the picture of a contemporary reading scene:
“One pulls the chair up to the desk and arranges some of the books and other papers already lying there. Then, glasses are picked up form a preferred place, cleaned [. . .], perched on the nose and steadied behind the ears to gaze at the now lucid pages. Adjustment of the study-lamp and little shifts of the chair and arms to reduce the shadows on the book follow. On reaches for a pencil or highlighter, and the soft sounds of scratching in the margins of book or notebook become audible.” (621)
This is the posture of many a contemporary reader – seated alone at a desk, wrapped in silence, bathed in incandescent light and aided by glasses. Botha observes how this picture is completely anachronistic in the first century. There was no electricity for light, no eye-glasses, no desks, and rarely was reading a silent solitary activity.
In regard to the texts themselves, Botha observes how unfriendly they are to modern reading practices. The dominant textual format—the scroll—was unwieldy and cumbersome. The visual landscape of the ancient text looks overwhelmingly cluttered to the modern eye with no paragraph divisions, punctuation or even spacing between words! “The Greco-Roman text was constructed with almost no aids to the reader, whose task it was to divide the lines correctly into words and sentences” (627).
It is not surprising, then, that ancient readers were expected to know the text before they read. Consider the orator Quintilian’s recommendation for reading,
“There is much that can only be taught by practice, as for instance when the boy should take breath, at what point he should introduce a pause into a line, where the sense ends or begins, when the voice should be raised or lowered, what modulation should be given to each phrase [. . .] I will give but one golden rule: To do all these things, he must understand what he reads.” (Inst. Orat. 1.8.1-2; Botha, 628).
Quintilian suggests practicing a text to the point that the reader knows his “reading” beforehand. Botha (drawing from J. Svenbro) suggests a fascinating illustration. He compares ancient reading practices to moderns “reading” sheet music. It is not impossible to “read” music in silence, but the most common way of doing so is by playing it on a piano to know what it sounds like (629).
Even the act of writing was drastically different in the ancient world. There were no editors, and often lengthy compositions were dictated in one sitting from memory. Pliny even mentions his preference for working out his texts in his head before dictating them to his scribe (Epist. 9.36). Or consider Cicero’s description of how the “speaking mind will forsee what is to follow” when delivering a speech (De Oratore 44.150; Botha, 633). These writing practices describe a very different literary concept that is far more oral than visual.
These ancient reading and writing practices ought to invite us to rethink ancient texts. This is especially so of NT texts which point to oral delivery as the primary means of distribution (1 Thess 5.27; Col 4.16; Rev 1.3). With these oral texts we must not fall into contemporary habits of “seeing” texts, but must have ears to hear.