Breathing Life into the Word: Towards an anthropology of reading in the early church – Richard Goode

Evidence suggests that, from the outset, the practice of scriptural readings was central to early Christianity. Although research has examined what these texts were and how they were transmitted, few have asked why these texts became so important, so quickly. Why did they gain (and still retain) such a crucial place within the liturgical experience? What was so special about voicing (probably very familiar) texts within a communal setting? What was expected from hearing these words being read out? How was the relationship between the material substance of the text, the voice of the reader and the ear of the hearer understood in antiquity and the early church? Richard Goode’s session ‘Breathing Life into the Word’ from the Dead Letters and Living Words Conference at Newman University (6th June 2015) looks for answers to these questions (video and text below).

Dr. Richard Goode, Newman University
Dr. Richard Goode, Newman University

This session begins by examining the development of the vocalisation of texts and their auditory reception within the ancient Jewish tradition. Using the example of the Decalogue (10 Commandments), the complex relationship between the text as a physical object and its oral proclamation is noted – as well as questioning some assumptions about oral-literary texts.

Of all the six hundred and thirteen commands and statutes traditionally believed to have been given to Moses on Mt Sinai, the Ten Commandments, being brief and (broadly) formulaic, are the ones most eminently suitable for oral transmission. However, they are the ones that are committed to writing and, despite this, they are textually (both in wording and word order) very insecure.

What might this Boustrophedon inscription tell us about reading in the early church?

Building on Jesper Svenbro’s anthropological study of reading in Ancient Greece, a clearer understanding begins to emerge about how written texts could have functioned within late antiquity. Attitudes and expectations to written texts begin to emerge and we can begin to see how these might be reflected in Jewish and then Christian use.

The significance of this is that it is not just the breath of the reader that is ‘used’ by the text, but that the readers themselves participate creatively in the re-playing of this initial oral/aural encounter. In this way, both past and present elide (merge) in the reader.


Text of this paper can be downloaded here: Breathing Life Paper. R. Goode

PowerPoint slides that accompany this session can be downloaded here: Breathing Life PowerPoint

More Information

More background information to this paper can be found in Chapter 5 of my thesis Looking for the Living among the Dead (letters): Textual transmission within first and second century Christianity (University of Birmingham, 2005). This chapter can be downloaded here: Reading; Listening to the voice of the dead. R.Goode

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