The Bible and Culture



In the American world of bigger is better (and more erudite) it is refreshing to find a smallish book  (207 pages of text, including some pictures)  that makes its points in detail with full primary source documentation and then resists the tendency to be verbose or erudite for all the wrong reasons— namely self-display (although there are some words in this book which are over the top—- e.g. lacunose comes up repeatedly).   William A. Johnson is a classics scholar at Duke and a very good one indeed paying attention to detail and offering careful analysis.  His focus in ‘Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire’  (Oxford, 2010) is on elite reading circles in the High Roman Empire  (the 2nd-4th centuries).   In other words, his focus is on texts, manuscripts, readers, and reading circles precisely during the period when Christianity was growing rapidly and producing an abundance of texts and manuscripts of various sorts.  Let me be clear that this book focuses on people like Pliny or Aulus Gellius or Galen, or Fronto or Lucian, but there is much to be learned from this book that can be applied, mutatis mutandis to literate Christians, their scribes, and early Christian communities of reading and writing.

In the first place, Johnson helpfully reminds us, once again, that the ancient world was very like the modern era when it comes to texts, manuscripts, publishing anything, readers, or literacy for that matter.  Literacy, if it went at all beyond the bare bones of being able to read and write, was the provenance of the elites of ancient society, especially when it came to the production of reasonably literate texts.  Johnson is well aware of this, which is why he rightly focuses on elite reading circles.  It will be useful here to share some of his insights.  He begins by dealing with the old debate as to whether the ancients ever read silently, or if all reading was outloud. He is able to show that there is evidence of some silent and private reading, but not much.  Most ancient reading was out loud, and indeed most ancient texts were oral texts, by which I mean written to be read outloud so their oral and aural features can be appreciated.   The question that needs to be asked about texts in antiquity is how and for whom do they function in a largely illiterate and oral culture?  And the answer is, they mostly are produced by, and function for the literate elites, unless we are talking about those small business scoundrels called booksellers, who existed in some of the large cities in the Roman Empire.   And here is where it gets interesting.  Even the elite literate had scribes or scholars or slaves to read to them rather than doing the dirty work themselves.

Ancient texts were indeed written in scriptum continuum and one had to be learned to be able to read such a contentious flow of Greek or Latin letters well out loud, one had to know the text already in some cases,  and indeed real scribes and scholars were in the business of memorizing purple passages in important texts, and being able to locate them quickly with a stylus in the bookroll, despite the profusion of words.  But when did the ancients read?

Johnson cites a text from Pliny the Younger talking about Pliny the elder and his desire for reading ‘efficency’ which is to say a sort of reading that doesn’t require a lot of hard work of looking up words, or trying to divide the syllables and sentences and the like, which is painstaking and time consuming.  In Letter 3.5 he describes how his uncle had a lector read to him over meals, and he scolds a friend who makes the lector slow down to repeat a mispronounced word. When he is taking a bath, he has a book read to him, or he dictates notes, and he travels with a secretary who performs these same functions, and so not surprisingly he prefers to ride in a litter with the secretary rather than walking, to be able to more easily do his listening and processing and producing of texts. “When Pliny looks for increased efficiency in his study, silent reading is not, as for us, the natural solution.”  (p. 14). Johnson is exercised in this study to exorcise modern notions of how ancient scholars must have worked, particularly he wants to banish the ‘isolated scholar in his ivory tower working alone’  model.  Reading was largely a social activity in antiquity, whether public or private reading, and there was a considerable focus on the oral and rhetorical dimensions of reading, which meant reading out loud was the norm.  

In his second chapter, Johnson deals with the process of ancient reading and producing of texts.  Literary texts were usually produced in double column with considerable margins and space down between the columns as well, though there are plenty of early Christian manuscripts where there was only a single column with margins.   The production of a bookroll made out of papyrus, if we are talking about some non-commerical text was done with an attention to form and style as well as content.  The text was produced left to right in columns with a slight tilt of the script to the right, done in a fair legible hand, and in distinct letters (non-cursive) to make it easier to read. 

Bookrolls were generally the product of scribes, not of private persons. “Making a bookroll involved no more than taking a premanufactured papyrus roll, writing out the text, attaching additional fresh rolls as the length of the text required, and when finished, cutting off the blank remainder.” (p. 18).  Or not.  It is entirely possible that what happened with Mark’s Gospel is that the original ending of only a few verses about seeing the risen Jesus after Mk. 16.8 was lost, since the outermost edge of the end of the text was left exposed to the elements (no they didn’t heed the exhortation— be kind and rewind, that we used to hear during the videotape era), so more papyrus was added to the end, and the result was the production of no less than three alternative endings, including the so called long ending of Mk. 16.9ff. (of course here in Kentucky it can only be seen as bad news that Mk. 16.9ff is not an original part of Mark’s Gospel since it provides the only possible endorsement of snake handling and poision drinking as tests of faith).

Were there any aids to the reader in the text in regard to parsing all this continuous flow of letters?  In fact, very few were added.  There might be a straight line extending into a margin to indicate a paragraph break, and there might be breathing marks to help with pronunciation,  but little else in a typical scroll.  Yea verily no chapters and verses and no separation of words. Chapters and verses were introduced into the copying of Biblical manuscripts by Archbishop Langton of Canterbury, when he had far too much time on his hands, and frankly he botched a good deal of the divisions— Heb. 12.1-3 goes with Heb. 11, not with what follows, to give but one examples.  The chapters and verses are later aids added to the text, not parts of the original inspired texts of the Biblical writers.

Johnson describes the bookroll as an icon of elitism (p. 26), and he is right about this.  And texts required not only scribes but lectors, those who could read the text fluently. Sometimes slaves served as lectors, but this was a different function from being a scribe, and a still different function from being a scholar.  In part because texts were rare and precious and expensive, and written in scriptum continuum or as Johnson calls it scriptio continua training children to read focused on their memorizing Greek and Latin syllables, not merely letters. That way when they looked at a continuous flow of letters their minds were condition to see at least syllables if not words in the maze of letters. 

And though it comes as something of a surprise to us, the function of becoming literate was not so one could read silently for one’s own benefit, but so one could become part of a community of readers who read to each other out loud and as Quintilian urges the goal is to become an orator, a rhetor, and so eloquent.  “Reading out loud is intimately tied up with learning the phrasing– for everyone, not just budding orators– and phrasing is naturally linked with accurate apprehension of the meaning of the text.” (p. 29).   Quintilian himself says “As regards reading, it is only possible to show in actual practice such things as knowing when to take a breath, where to place a pause in a line, where a new sentences ends of begins, when the voice ought to be raised or lowered, what inflection should be used with each phrase, and what should be spoken more quickly or more slowly….[In order to do all this] “he must [already] understand” the text (Inst. Or. 1.8.1-2). 

Exactly, and so the notion that Paul would just send letters off to be deciphered afresh by bewildered semi-literate converts is a nonsense.   This is not how ancient literary texts were normally treated. To the contrary, it is far more likely that Paul had someone take the text his scribe had written, already knowing its contents, and then orally deliver the text at the destination, with full ability to comment on and explain the text.  Otherwise, it was just a bewildering maze of letters that could be parsed in various ways.  Texts in an oral culture do not function like texts in our world.

Texts that are worthwhile or important would not merely be read out once, but repeatedly read, repeatedly digested, and in part would be memorized, and the first person to do this would be the lector, tasked with delivering the text orally at the destination. Notice for example the distinction made between ‘the reader’ (singular) in Rev. 1.3 and the hearers (plural) to whom he would speak.  The reader is not the audience!  The reader is the emissary of John of Patmos, sent to orally deliver his apocalypse not just once, but to seven different churches. That’s a lot of reading.  What is striking about early Christianity is the sheer volume of texts, some of which bear the marks of eloquence in Greek.  The social world of early Christianity involved learning circles, some literate leaders or readers, and their texts were oral texts.  

One of the major emphases in Johnson’ study is that “Reading in this society is tightly bound up in the construction of the community. Group reading and serious conversation devolving from reading are twin axes around which much of the elite man’s community turns.” (p. 39).  In other words, reading of texts creates community. It is highly likely that the earliest Christians read out their documents over meals shared together or as part of the symposium that would follow the dining, just as normal Greco-Roman literate persons did.  The difference of course was the religious focus and content of the documents, but the process of delivery and consumption of information was the same.

But what about the production and publication of texts? Here the chapters on Pliny and Galen are especially helpful (pp.53ff.)  “In Roman society, there was no publisher or other agent who acted as a gatekeeper for publicatrions…Since there were no publishers (in the modern sense) the only clear route to recognition as an author was by attachment to and promotion by one of these [literary] circles.” (p,53).  This caused a problem for someone like Paul who could not allow himself to become the in house paided after dinner speaker of a Corinthian or Philippian or Ephesian convert, because that produced ongoing entangling social alliances and expectations, and Paul needed to be free to come and go as God led.  

Patronage in some cases, if you were itinerant in task, had to be avoided. Such a dilemma did not apparently confront someone like Luke, who appears likely to have had a patron— named Theophilus to whom and for whom he wrote two of the largest ever early Christian documents, making up a third and more of the NT.   What we need to realize about a massive document like Luke’s Gospel (over 39,000 Greek words) is that it presupposes an audience who is both literate and has the time to consume and process such a lengthy treatise.  Theophilus was such a person, as Luke calls him kratiste ‘noble’ the very same term Josephus uses for his patron.   It was likely Theophilus who was responsible for making further copies of Luke and Acts, and the notion of publication needs to be thought of on a very small scale and for a very limited audience.  It is doubtful these texts showed up in the bookstalls in Rome during the first century A.D.  They were written for a limited audience and were privately copied.

What we need to understand, as Johnson points out, is the definite link between patronage and clients, and oratory and finally literature. “The thread runs from from the society’s pervasive clientalism to oratory— the critical ability to speak on behalf of one’s friends, both in public and private– to literature. Literary efforts are a reflex of the community’s consensus that mastery of language is key.”  (p. 57).  Just so. This is precisely why one needs a socio-rhetorical approach to the NT– the social networks and structures are interwoven with the speech and the documents and are mutually reinforcing.  The living voice is primary and normally preferred, but failing that, oral text, performed by a trained lector who knows the content of the text, will have to do when the apostle is elsewhere.

Galen comes into the picture especially because he produced a massive number of texts, and had a concern about forgeries, which did happen of very popular, very public texts.  Galen is gladdened one day when in the bookstalls when he hears a browser declare that this manuscript cannot be by the genuine Galen as it does not reflect his style and content. 

And this brings us to an important point (made even more important because of the next salvo from Bart Ehrman entitled ‘Forged’ coming out this Easter when we seem to normally get a dose of attempted debunking).  A text had to be popular enough, copied enough, circulated enough to inspire the desire to emulate, imitate, and in general rip off.  Producing texts was an expensive business, and furthermore, there was a whole ethical code involved in the literate production of texts. The ancients who were well trained could smell a forgery a mile off, as the example from Galen shows

It is unlikely in the extreme that there was any sufficient interest in the first century A.D. when Christianity was just emerging to create forged texts attributed to a Paul or a Peter or others.  The Christian community was small, its social networks were tight, and the usual motive for forgery was to make money.  Thus, while it is not impossible there were some ancient forgers of Christian documents in say the second century and later (in fact we know there were some), the social, and economic, and indeed the moral setting of earliest Christianity, makes this an unlikely hypothesis if applied to the canonical texts 

Consider for example the fact that we have exactly two documents in the NT ascribed to Peter, the major bridge figure between the ministry of Jesus and the early church— two!   And one of them is a compilation of stuff from several apostles including Jude and Peter. Consider the fact that we have no account in any of the canonical Gospels of the all important first appearance of Jesus to Peter or James mentioned in 1 Cor. 15.1ff.  By contrast we have 13 documents attributed to the man who was not one of the Twelve, a Johnny come lately named Saul, and a further third of the NT attributed to one Luke, not an eyewitness, and at best a sometime companion of Paul.  If the earliest literate Christians (a distinct minority) could find it morally acceptable and financially feasible to create documents attributed to their apostolic heroes, they certainly would have produced documents that look different than what we find in the NT.  They would look far more like some of the apocryphal documents from the second century like the Gospel of Thomas or of Peter, or the Protoevangelium of James.  

There is much much more excellent food for thought and conversation in Johnson’s book, but I will not spoil it for you. This book is expensive ($55 or so), and absolutely worth it.  As Erasmus said— ‘when I get a little money I buy good books.  If I have a little more, I buy some food and drink’.  This book is worthy of a long slow process of consumption and internalization.     











For those of you who know the literary works or life of Tolstoy, you will find this story from the NY Times this week rather depressing.  The Orthodox Church, in its wisdom, still can’t seem to practice that quintessential Christian virtue, forgiveness, when it comes to one of its greatest Christian writers.  Even if you have only seen ‘The Last Station’  this story should resonate.  See what you think.


Producing the first biography of Cicero in more than a quarter century, this well written, well reviewed biography (see Amazon reviews) first appeared in 2001 and has continued to be well-received and widely read.  Everitt went on to write similar biographies of Augustus and most recently Hardrian.  Everitt knows his primary sources, and sites them frequently (see his notes),  and there is no reason to quibble with most of his judgments which are fair and balanced.   My interest in this biography is not merely because it gives you an excellent feel for the Greco-Roman world leading up to the NT era, but helps one understand the rulers of that world, increasingly the Romans. 

There can be little debate that Cicero was the greatest rhetorician and politician of his age (he died in A.D. 43, on the cusp of the rise of the Empire through the efforts of Octavian).  What he demonstrates over and over again is the power of the spoken word in an oral culture, and therefore equally, the power of formal rhetoric as the means of persuasion in that era.   For those unwise enough to think that oration was merely about eloquence or funerals, and not about politics or real politik, the life of Cicero will quickly disabuse one of such notions.  But there is much for, for Cicero reveals as well the intertwining of politics, religion, and rhetoric, a combination of great importance to the understanding the burgeoning Christian movement, increasingly converting Gentiles in the first century A.D. and all under the shadow and the rather ample Roman noses of Emperors and there governors and proconsuls.  But there is still more because Cicero used rhetoric to advance key philosophical and ethical ideals he shared, and indeed he believed that a good education in rhetoric and literature was an essential part of a moral education which produced such virtues as fortitude, justice, prudence, and one of Cicero’s personal favorites— being a reconciler of those at odds with one another.  Indeed, it was Cicero who coined the phrase ‘Reconciliation is a sign of greatness’,  a quote St. Paul himself could have coined and endorsed.

To me one of the most fascinating points about Cicero is that he was a New Man, that is an outsider, an upstart from Arpinum, who rose to the top of the Roman cursus honorum through dint of sheer personal brilliance and hard work,  chiefly through his oratorical skills.  What his life proves over and over again, for he was not really a military man, and hardly ever led any military excursions, is that one could reach the pinnacle of one’s society through rhetorical talent alone, that and a certain amount of good personal judgment and hard work. Cicero is a constant reminder that students of the NT prone to avoid the rhetorical study of the NT do so at their peril, as rhetoric was at the heart of all ancient education, and the writers of the NT were indeed educated, literate, and in some cases, eloquent.

Another thing this biography reminds us of, is that the world of Jesus and Paul under Empire was a world without a welfare state, a world without a proper banking system, a world without most public services, a world without a proper civil service. Rome itself had no city police or garbage collectors, for example.  In such a world, things got done through aligning one’s self with the wealthy— patrons and clients being the stuff of economic and political and social and religious and rhetorical matters.

A further fascinating line of discussion in this biography is the rise of public libraries and the publishing enterprise during the Empire period. I will say more about this in a later review of William A. Johnson’s fascinating monograph— Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire, but suffice it to say here, that NT scholars need to give far more thought to how the earliest Christian documents were not merely copied, but distributed— by whom, where, and when. If one studies a figure like Titus Pomponius, an acquaintance of Cicero (see p.43) who collected a large skillful staff of copiests in his mansion and became both a noted scholar and a successful publisher of note as well.  It was Julius Caesar, no less who founded the first public library in Rome in the 40s(p. 178), a sign of the increasing literacy of many Romans.

If this were not enough, there are of course lessons to be learned from the example of Tiro, Cicero’s famous scribe, who developed his own method of shorthand with numerous abbreviations we still use today  (etc.  N.B., e.g  i.e. and so on).   Why is this important?  What it means is that before the time any NT documents were written there was an established practice of ‘fast writing’  where a scribe could take down, virtually verbatim, everything an orator said.  Granted, the Tiros of the world were rare, but they did exist and were in increasing demand during the rise of the Empire. It would be very surprising indeed if the early Christians did not employ such people to take down, for example the speeches of Peter, and in fact, we are told by Papias himself that Mark was the one who took down Peter’s Aramaic speeches and translated them into decent Greek. What if Luke was a person like Tiro, going around and interviewing eyewitnesses and original preachers of the Word (Lk. 1.1-4) and taking everything down?   If he did, then it is farewell to old school Form Criticism with its belief in a long gestation of oral tradition before things showed up in the Gospel form.

Another of the insights one gains from studying Cicero is that there was Asiatic rhetoric and there was Atticizing rhetoric, and the former was more popular. A good rhetorician could vary his style with the audience he addressed. So for example,  Ephesians reflects rather clearly the more florid, verbose, long-sentenced Asiatic style of rhetoric, and it stands in marked contrast to some of the rhetoric Paul uses in, say Romans, and earlier document.  

Cicero was a man of high moral principle, at least most of his life, and in his important study De Oratore he sets out his view on a proper education for politicians and rhetoricians like himself. “What Cicero had in mind was a justification of rhetoric not as a technique but as an approach to the morally good life, a means of expressing and enforcing morality.” (p. 179).  That is,  Cicero saw rhetoric as tool for philosophy and religion and its promoting, just as Paul and the author of Hebrews and Luke and other NT writers did.  We must banish from our minds the notion that rhetoric was nothing more than mere verbal eloquence or learning to speak well, though that was crucial in an oral culture.  Rhetoric in the age of Cicero and thereafter was not mere “words full of sound and fury…. signifying nothing”.  On the contrary, words were seen as the change agents of society, especially words spoke well, at the right time and in the right manner. 

An evangelistic religion like Christianity could only ignore rhetoric at its own peril, if it indeed wanted to persuade the world about Jesus.  What is most interesting here about Cicero is though he was a Westerner, he preferred and was trained on Rhodes and in Asia Minor in  Asiatic rhetoric, and it was the tool he used to build his remarkable career in Rome as both a lawyer and a politician. (pp. 252-54).  It appears that the Romans had more affinity for things eastern, including eastern style rhetoric and religion than some Romans wanted to let on.    Cicero himself, though he once served as an Augur put little faith in the religion of auspices and rea
ding of signs in the sky. His own personal religion was more Stoic in character— all things suffused with a bit of the divine spark, the logos.   The importance of this observation is that within Greco-Roman religion itself, there was considerable push back against the truth and validity of such religion. If even a priest at Delphi named Plutarch could lament, ‘nowadays, few believe the gods are gods’ and  ‘Olympus is now overcrowded’  we may gain a glimpse why there might be a ready reception of Christianity even in Roman colony cities like Philippi and Corinth, and even in Rome.   

Everitt sums up his assessment of the significance of Cicero in his own day by saying: “Cicero was a statesman and public servant of outstanding ability. He had administrative skills of a very high order and was the pre-eminent orator of his age, if not of any age. In a society where politicians were also expected to be good soldiers, he was pre-eminently a civilian and this makes his success all the more remarkable.”  (p. 321).  I agree, and more than anything else, his life reveals the supremacy of words well spoken in an oral culture, and the power orators had in such a culture.  It turns out that the foolishness of persuasive preaching was precisely what was needed to start a new world religion in the Greco-Roman world.  Words, especially sacred words, were believed to have inherent power, something Cicero new and modeled better than most anyone.   


Robert Harris is perhaps not a name you will be familiar with, but he is a fine historical novelist indeed.  On this blog we have already reviewed his two previous novels about ancient  Rome— ‘Pompeii’  and ‘Imperium’  both of which are fine reads indeed.   This novel, published in 2010 by Simon and Schuster here in the States, surpasses both of the previous ones.   In it Harris continues the tale begun in ‘Imperium’ of the life and times of Marcus Tullius Cicero,  not merely the greatest orator of his age,  but the greatest politician as well, much great than either Pompey or Julius Caesar,  for the forte of both those men was the military, something Cicero almost entirely eschewed, as he abhorred violence. had no stomach for it at all.

The  novel is basically divided into two major parts, the first chronically the year of Cicero’s high water mark, politically speaking when he was consul in 63 B.C.  The second half could be called the denouement that followed in 62-58, ending with Cicero refusing to serve as Caesar’s legate and lackey, and instead choosing to go into exile and mourning.  It is surely clear enough that Harris doesn’t intend to stop there, as there is more to tell of Cicero’s subsequent life, so we may expect a trilogy on Cicero by Mssr. Harris and the third novel on the great statesman may be eagerly anticipated if its half as good as the second one.

‘Conspirata’  as  title gives away the fact that the real cause celebre in dealing with the year of Cicero’s consulship  was the conspiracy of Catalina and his cohorts.  Here we see up close  Cicero’s finest hour in preserving the old republic from violent, and internal overthrow.  Cicero’s great rhetorical skill is on full display in the courts and in the Senate as consul, and we gain a clear insight into the man himself, whose nickname,  Cicero, means Chickpea.   It may come as some surprise to our readers that Cicero was the constant companion of  John Adams and  Thomas Jefferson, both of whom called him Tully (after his actual nomen  Tullius) when it came to their trying to forge a democracy based on noble statecraft.  Again and again they read his speeches and treatises hoping to shape our fledgling country in a way that Cicero had shaped Rome.  And indeed both men gained a good measure of their eloquence and forensic skill from memorizing Cicero’s witty and wonderful rhetorical masterpieces.

Those wanting to understand the Greco-Roman world on the cusp of Roman Empire, could do worse than read Harris’ novels accompanied by the most readable of biographies of Cicero by Anthony Everitt (which I will review in a further post shortly).  Here laid out before our eyes, as seen through the eyes of Cicero’s remarkable scribe, Tiro is all the treachery, treason, tyranny, and yet also nobility and virtue of Roman conduct.  For a Christian, it becomes a peculiar read in some ways because some of the things Romans would not scruple at (a Roman army is not allowed to cross the pomerium [boundary] and enter the capital city ever, unless as part of a Roman triumph), we take for granted, and some of the things we have considerable scruples about (e.g. polytheism)  they would take for granted as normal and acceptable.  Here the mores and trials and tribulations of patricians are laid out for full viewing, and it produces a mixture of admiration and revulsion.  

Cicero was that rare breed— an honest politician, but one who knew there were needs to compromise from time to time.   Like Cato,  the Stoic, Republican throwback to an earlier era, Cicero resisted the drift to Empire and dictatorship that Caesar and then his heir Octavian drove Rome to, in due course.  Along the way we learn much about Rome in the first century B.C. a city without a police force, a city without banks, a city without a public service branch of government. One quickly realizes how different that world was than ours.  But at the same time, one realizes that human nature has changed little since then, and the wiles of politicians even less.  Sometimes one wishes to kiss Cicero, sometimes to kill him as he weaves his way up the cursus honorum, serves as consul, lets his vanity regularly get the best of him,  but in a crisis, defends Rome against her greatest enemy— the enemy within.

I love lots of the different ancient Rome novel series, by Stephen Saylor, by Coleen McCullogh, by Lindsey Davis,  but Harris’ contribution is that he is in fact a better historian than most of these comrades in writing.  He also writes well and clearly.  And if you ever doubted how important rhetoric was in the ancient world, not merely in the law courts but in the forum and not merely in the forum but in the Senate, and not merely in the senate but at the games and in the agora, you have only to read a novel like this to see how much mere words were prized, and how powerful they could be in antiquity in a largely oral culture.   Caesar and Pompey both knew—- the pen is, in the end mightier than the sword, which is why both men tried to co-opt, marginalize, partner with, coddle, and neuter  Cicero.   But Cicero would not have— he would be no tyrant’s lackey, choosing rather to loose his home and go off into exile, as it turns out,  in Thessalonike.    You have to like the guy, even if you are apt to say with Hamlet after reading this novel—-

“What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals–and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.”