If you take the vast sweep of Christian history into account, far fewer people have read the Bible than have heard it read. When the New Testament was still just a collection of letters and a few strange things called “Gospel” (say from about 50 to 325 CE), specially trained performers recited entire letters and books from memory during worship. In the middle ages, the majority of people never heard scripture read in a language they could understand and probably wouldn’t have recognized a book if it fell on them from a scriptorium window. Even as the Reformation gained steam and the printing press made vernacular versions of the Bible available, most people heard scripture, but never read it. The “family Bible” didn’t become fashionable until the 18th century, and even today churchgoers hear more scripture than they read (no matter the ubiquity of the Bible online and on store shelves).
What’s this have to do with biblical interpretation? I’m glad you asked. The texts that make up the Bible were always meant to be read aloud. Acts 8 makes this quite clear: Philip approaches the Ethiopian eunuch and knows he’s reading the prophet Isaiah because he is reading out loud. To himself. Follow the eunuch’s example (no, not that example). Read your passage out loud. I know you are reading a translation, but the beauty and rhetorical power of the biblical text do not necessarily suffer in an English treatment. When you read aloud, you will notice oratorical patterns and cadences that the Biblical writers employed to make recitation easier and listening more captivating.
Try this one on for size: say the following two verses in your mind and then say them out loud. “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).
Notice the oratorical power in the repetitive cadence. This is called a “step argument”: each phrase builds on the previous one until the sentence climaxes on the word “glorified.” Paul obviously wrote this sentence to be spoken rather than read. So there’s no point in studying these verses as “written.”
Besides appreciating the oratorical flair of Biblical writers, reading aloud gives you the opportunity to engage the drama of the Bible. A good chunk of the text is narrative and a good chunk of the narrative is dialogue. Now, we have no audiovisual documentation of the conversations recorded in the narrative, so it falls to us to interpret how the dialogue sounds.
Let’s take Pilate’s response to Jesus as an example: “Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’ ” (John 18:37-38). How does Pilate say, “What is truth?” Is he angry? Is he skeptical? Is he desperate? Each of these readings offers a different insight into the mind of the Roman governor. If you take reading aloud seriously, the dialogue will force you to make interpretive choices of tone, emotion, and motive. I’m not going to lie. Practicing a text for performance is an awesome way to enter into an interpretive mindset.*
A trained musician may be able to “hear the music” when she looks at a score, but most of us cannot comprehend music’s beauty and power without hearing it played. Similarly, the Biblical text soars when it is read aloud. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being. When we read the Bible aloud, we access that creative voice within ourselves and use the breath and the bodies that God created.
So, read the Bible, yes. But don’t just read it. Speak it. And don’t just speak the Bible. Proclaim it.
* The next few posts on this blog will expand this discussion of exploring dialogue in the Bible by presenting a three part Midrash on Pilate’s statement “What is truth?” Stay tuned.
** I want to thank the writer of the first comment on this post. Reading scripture aloud during worship is the main way people are exposed to scripture. Knowing that, we’ve got to make sure our lectors are trained and know what they are reading ahead of time. Too often, (for various reasons) priests are running around five minutes before services looking for people to read. Reading scripture aloud is too important for that to be the norm.