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UW Religion Today: Ancient Readers

October 14, 2015
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By Paul V.M. Flesher

When people read the Bible, the works of Homer or any other ancient text, they link themselves to the people who read these works millennia ago. “We have read the same text,” they may think, “so, we are alike.” This happens particularly within religions; modern Christians who read the Bible, for instance, often imagine themselves to be like the ancient Christians who read the same Bible.

But, nothing could be further from the truth. In the ancient world, reading was a different kind of activity from what it is today. The difference in reading indicates a difference in character in three ways.

First, in ancient Mediterranean cultures, the ability to read marked someone as elite, as an influential member of society. Not many people in countries such as Egypt, Palestine, Rome or Greece could read more than a few special words. Reading required learning, which required time. Few members of agricultural societies had the leisure to attend school rather than working for the food and other materials that enabled them and their families to survive.

Although there is some debate over the exact numbers, only 2-7 percent of adult males in antiquity could read. Almost no women could read. Since ancient Judaism emphasized reading’s importance, perhaps a percentage point or two more of their men could read, but probably only in the cities.

Second, in antiquity, people did not read books; they read scrolls. Scrolls were heavy, awkward rolls of parchment or leather, which required manual dexterity to be read. Readers looked at one column at a time, perpendicular to the scroll’s length. To read a new column, one had to take up the finished column onto a roll at one end of the scroll while letting out a new column from the roll at the other end. The new-fangled notion of a codex, or book, with pages bound together on one side, did not become popular until the end of the fourth century -- almost the Middle Ages.

Third, people always read out loud. They did not read silently, as we are taught today in school. St. Augustine, fourth century, tells of his astonishment upon discovering that St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, not only read without sound but without moving his lips. Apparently, Ambrose became hoarse quite easily from speaking. So, he developed a technique of reading that did not strain his voice.

To read, then, was to perform the text, even when one was alone. The meaning of the text resided not on the page, but in the performed, spoken words. This performance required choices, even interpretation, for writing during antiquity had not yet developed ways of representing all elements of the language.

As late as the fifth century, for example, Greek was written in a continuous form with no breaks between the words. Nor did it yet indicate accents and breathing marks. A reader had to know by memory the possible spoken words represented by the incomplete written code. So, the task of a Greek reader was to decipher the written text and render it into speech so that it could be understood. Identifying different locations for word breaks, as well as supplying different required accents and breathings, could change both the sound and the meaning of the words being read.

Semitic languages like Hebrew and Aramaic developed the practice of word separation many centuries before the Greeks. The problem facing these languages was that writing represented the consonants but not the vowels. Readers had to know every possible oral combination of vowels that could be placed with a particular set of consonants to make valid, spoken words.

Readers had to choose the right vowels to give the right meaning. For instance, take the two consonants R and N. One could supply vowels to make the present tense “run” or the past tense “ran.” The letters also could stand for the boy’s name “Ron” or the girl’s name “Erin.”

This requirement of decoding the written text into spoken language means that the complete text existed only while the reader performed it. To be sure, someone could try to remember it. But, if a reader returned to study the written text a few days later, he or she would have to perform it again, and that person may not perform it the same way as he or she did the first time.

So, what makes ancient readers different from today’s readers is that modern readers believe the text to be solid and unchangeable. Ancient readers knew it wasn’t.

This uncertainty led groups of rabbis known as Masoretes to create a set of signs to represent vowels and accents for Hebrew and Aramaic in the ninth century. At that time, the Masoretes used them to identify the words in the biblical text and, thus, to fix its meaning. This aimed to guide future readers so that they would no longer know the uncertainty of the reading experience, which had been common in antiquity.

Flesher is a professor in the University of Wyoming’s Religious Studies Department. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at To comment on this column, visit

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