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The Public Reading of Scripture in the Early Church

February 5, 2008

In 1 Timothy 4:13, Paul explicitly tells Timothy to read the Scripture publically in the early church:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.

We see elsewhere that he did not want the reading limited to the Scriptures of the Old Testament, but those connected with the dispensation of Christ as well (thereby putting those writings on par with the inspired texts of the Old Testament):

Colossians 4:16 And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.
1 Thessalonians 5:27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.

The Apostle John likewise assumes that the book of Revelation will be read in the churches:

Revelation 1:3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.

We then see this patten continued into the liturgy of the primitive church.* Second Clement, an early Christian sermon, says, “So then, brothers and sisters, after the God of truth I am reading to you this appeal to pay attention to the things that have been written in order that you may save yourselves and also the one who is reading among you” (19.1).

Justin Martyr in the 150’s said that on Sundays, “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits.” (1 Apology, 67).

The late 2d century Christian theologian Tertullian said, “We meet together in order to read the sacred texts.” He continues, “With the holy words we feed our faith, we arouse our hope, we confirm our confidence” (Apology 39). In another place he stresses why the public Scripture reading is so important: “The church unites the Law and the Prophets in one volume with the writings of evangelists and apostles, from which she drinks in her faith.”**

Clement of Alexandria (c. 182-202) talks of early Christians in their worship, “always giving thanks in all things to God through righteous hearing and divine reading.” (Miscellanies

Later, Theodore of Mopsuestia in the late 4th century said, “All of us, having come to faith in Christ the Lord from the nations, received the Scriptures from them and now enjoy them, reading them aloud in the churches and keeping them at home.” (Commentary on the Twelve Prophets***)

So it appears evident that throughout the first five centuries of the church, the Scriptures were, in accordance with the command of Paul, regularly read in the church’s public worship.


*See Everett Ferguson, Early Christians Speak vol 1, 3d ed (Abilene Christian University Press, 1999), 80-81; Idem., Early Christians Speak, vol 2 (ACU Press, 2002), 8;

**David Bercot, Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, (Hendrickson, 1998), 606

***Fathers of the Church 108; trans. Richard C. Hill; Washington, D. C.: Catholic University Press, 2004, 289.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2008 6:15 pm

    You and Chuck must be studying the same material.

    (It is good material!)

  2. February 6, 2008 7:57 am

    I can’t figure out what the “Eary” Church is?! Perhaps if I could get past that, I might be able to concentrate!

  3. February 6, 2008 8:41 am

    Oh, dear.

    What a blunder.

  4. February 6, 2008 11:21 pm

    The eary church is, of course, the church that listens — to the public reading of Scripture! “Eary” (not to be confused with “eerie” or “Erie”), as Ryan well knows, is an archaic adjective meaning “full of ears,” hence “characterized by listening.” He was just making a play on words, substituting “eary” where one would expect “early,” in order to see who would fall for it.


  5. February 8, 2008 1:27 am

    Hi, Ryan,

    Long time, no comment (though bloglines keeps me updated on every new post you make here!).

    Here I will put in a plug for the classic western catholic (note the small-c) worship, which includes the singing of at least one Psalm from the OT Psalter, a reading (aka “lesson”) from the OT prophets, a second lesson from the NT epistles, and a reading from one of the Gospels. All four chunks of Scripture are present in every service.

    These readings are provided in lectionaries that go back almost as far as the sources you quote above, and they follow a yearly cycle that runs one year, or two years, or (in the case of the Revised Common Lectionary), three years.

    I have been monitoring a pilot group of men I convened three years ago now. They worship weekly with other men following an order of service crafted on the early monastic hours of prayer. Early on, one of them observed that in a single month of meetings (four meetings, that is), he heard more Scripture read than in an entire year at his church. When he made this observation in a debriefing I do with these men a couple of times a year, everyone else in the room grumbled their agreement. They have come to love hearing the Scriptures read to them in a worship setting; they lament its absence in their churches.

    Second observation: the corollary to public reading of Scripture is the public LISTENING to scripture. This is important, so pay attention here …

    If you have a text in front of you while the lector is reading, you will NOT be listening. You will be doing one or the other of two things: (1) Reading privately, with all the attendant private mentation that goes with such an activity, or (2) you will be sitting in judgment on the lector, alternately applauding him or dissing him for how he is rendering the passage in audible speech.

    Neither activity above entails the sort of focused passivity that one must adopt if one is to actually listen to what is being said to you during a reading of the Scripture.

    Try this a few times (that is, if you’re fortunate enough to attend a church where the Scripture is read) … when the Scripture is read, put away your Bible or the bulletin insert, and look at the lector, and listen to what he says WITHOUT ever looking at a word on the page. I predict that you will find the experience disconscertingly difficult at first. It is difficult because you have little experience listening to Scripture being read.

    You can always read Scripture for yourself, and you should do so. It is rare these days to find a normal and routine occasion for listening to Scripture being read in a worship service.

  6. Alex Tuisang permalink
    December 3, 2008 6:08 am

    I think its GODS will that we read out the scriptures publicly because people need to listen to the life in the word of GOD.
    People should learn to listen to what is read out aloud in addition to what they themselves have studied on their own.

  7. January 7, 2009 11:40 am

    Our church will publicy read the entire Bible out loud outside starting in February. We begin each year with a corporate 40 day fast and this year will take the last 7 days of that fast and read aloud the entire Bible.
    Pray for us as we take our charge to be a “city on a hill” seriopusly.

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