Did Christians in the first few centuries of the church read Scripture regularly outside the formal worship gathering? While this might seem like a straightforward question, the historical complexities of the ancient literary culture make it notoriously difficult to answer.
There is little doubt that the church read Scripture publically. After all, Paul reminds Timothy not to neglect the public reading of Scripture (1 Timothy 4:13), and as early as Justin Martyr, we find the church gathering and reading long portions of biblical texts.
The question of private Scripture reading, though, is important. I can recall from my earliest days in the church pastors and church leaders exhorting me to “study the Scriptures!” or “take time to read Scripture every day!” They assured me that regular encounters with the Word of God were essential for healthy spiritual growth. But can it be said that the early church shared this same conviction?
These questions surfaced for me while working on a project on patristic exegesis and re-reading the little treatise Bible Reading in the Early Church, composed by the great champion of Protestant Liberalism, Adolf von Harnack. This book is one of the first complete treatments of the topic and, though it suffers from Harnack’s larger Hellenizing thesis, it’s rather helpful for a general survey of private Scripture reading in the first four centuries of the church.
After navigating his way through many allusions to Scripture reading in the early church, Harnack concludes that laypeople not only read texts outside their worship gatherings, but the church actually encouraged them to do so. In Harnack’s words, laypeople in the early church “actually did read Holy Scripture; the presbyters had not to give any permission; the Holy Scriptures were not in their ‘keeping’ but were accessible to all, and were in the hands of many Christians.”
In one sense, Harnack is correct. The patristic exhortations to read Scripture begin very early. The second century apologist Aristides, for example, describes his own encounter with Scripture, saying:
Take, then, their [Christian’s] writings, and read therein, and lo, you will find that I have not put forth these things on my own authority, nor spoken thus as their advocate; but since I read in their writings I was fully assured of these things as also of things which are to come.
In fact, many of the apologists in the second century, including Justin, Tatian and Theophilus, describe their conversions through personal interactions with Scripture. In another passage, Irenaeus encourages regular contemplation of the Scripture, saying:
A sound mind, and one which does not expose its possessor to danger, and is devoted to piety and the love of truth, will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed within the power of mankind, and has subjected to our knowledge, and will make advancement in them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study. These things are such as fall plainly under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures.
Other fathers of the church, such as Clement of Alexandria, encourage Christians to read Scripture before meals.
Beginning in the third century, the works of Tertullian, Hippolytus and Origen contain references to private Scripture reading. Hippolytus commends his readers to attend worship frequently, but on days when there is no service, they should read Scripture at home. Origen speaks often of reading Scripture privately, and in one sermon, he even challenges those who are so devoted to eating and drinking or other “secular affairs” that they give God only “one hour or two out of the whole day.”
By the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem exhorts his catechumen, “What is not read in church is not to be read privately” in order to encourage new converts to avoid pagan writings and dedicate themselves to reading Scripture.
From these few scattered allusions, it’s evident that, whenever possible, the regular encounter with Scripture was encouraged in the early church, at least for those who could acquire to copies and actually read them.
In another sense, though, Harnack falls short. He never really takes up the larger historical questions, such as the extent of literacy in the ancient world (a point that is still hotly debated), the actual availability of copies of different biblical books, and even the cost of purchasing books for private use. These and related questions have been taken up by others.
But the greater problem with Harnack’s work is that while the early church encouraged reading Scripture privately, they also exhorted the church to read the Scripture rightly. Private Scripture reading did not mean that all private interpretations were equally valid.
When the early church exhorted the faithful to pick up and read, they also reminded them that any reading should be faithful to what Christ taught and apostles proclaimed.
Irenaeus, for example, speaks often of the church’s rule of faith as a helpful guide for reading Scripture. He characterizes the rule of faith as that which the church believes, professes and hands down, saying:
… the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points of doctrine just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth.
The one who rejects the church’s faith but still turns to read Scripture will “always be inquiring but never finding, because he has rejected the very method of discovery.”
Like Irenaeus, Tertullian advocates for reading Scripture with the rule of faith. He describes how some heretics even appeal the Lord’s words from the Sermon on the Mount—“seek and you shall find”—to justify their own private interpretation. Tertullian responds, “Let our ‘seeking,’ therefore be in that which is our own, and from those who are our own: and concerning that which is our own, that, and only that, which can become an object of inquiry without impairing the rule of faith.”
In a similar way, Athanasius also writes about the rule of faith and Scripture, saying, “We may easily see, if we now consider the scope of that faith which we Christians hold, and using it as a rule, apply ourselves, as the Apostle teaches to the reading of inspired Scripture.
This is only a sampling, but in the early church, the urging to read Scripture rightly is just as strong as the encouragement to read Scripture privately. This manner of reading Scripture celebrates, rather than ignores, faith in Christ and the way that Christ has fulfilled what was proclaimed through the prophets and apostles.
So did early Christians read Scripture privately? It seems that many did, and they even saw Scripture reading as a vital part of a healthy spiritual life. At the same time, they also insisted that whenever Scripture is opened, it is read with “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3).
Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 67.
Harnack, Bible Reading in the Early Church, 145.
Aristides, Apology, 16.
Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, 7, Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 29, Theophilus, To Autolycus, 1.14,
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.27.10.
Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus, 2.10, Stromata 7.7.
Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 41.
Origen, Homilies on Numbers, 2
Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical lectures, 4.35.
The best place to start with this topic is Harry Gamble’s work Books and Readers in the Early Church.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1.10.2.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.27.2.
Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, 9-12.
Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics, 12.
Athanasius, Against the Arians, 3.28.35.