Yesterday, our pastor preached a sermon on basic spiritual disciplines, including Bible reading. He included the usual scripture references: Psalm 119:11 and 105, and Romans 10:17. And he encouraged us to make reading the Bible, along with prayer, a daily ritual in our lives.
And I definitely agree. The fact that we have the Bible that we have is nothing short of a miracle. No other text from that same time period in history has come down to us in so many copies and with such coherence.
In fact, what the sermon made me think of was just how amazing it is that we even have the ability to read the Bible. Really, this time in history is the optimal time for the maximum number of people to be able to read the Bible and study the scriptures on their own.
The Jewish scriptures that Jesus would have read, were not widely available for everyone to read. It does appear, though, that there was enough literacy that Jesus, a manual laborer, was literate enough to read a synagogue scroll. By the time of Jesus, the Torah and the prophets were written down and were available in the synagogues and it is likely that a number of men were able to read them, but there was not a concept of having "books" available widely for everyone to read at their leisure.
The Christians scriptures were not actually "scripture" (i.e. canon) until about the middle of the second century. Before that, there were just a set of letters and documents that circulated among churches. The development of the "canon" or Bible was the agreement among the leaders of the church which of the letters and documents were inspired and most reliable.
From the early church through the time of the Reformation, there were no Bibles as we know them today. The Old and New Testaments were copied by scribes (often monks) for use in churches. The long and tedious process made these texts very precious. Add to that the fact that few people were literate in Latin, the language of the church, and you can see why only those educated in the church were reading the Bible.
So, how did the rest of Christendom learn about Jesus? If they were fortunate enough to go to school, they learned the meaning of the Latin, the language of the Mass and the prayers. Otherwise, the mystery plays were usually about biblical themes. The monks and nuns taught Bible stories. And the priests taught through the homilies (sermons) during church services. But, if a town had a Bible, only the priest was able to read it.
In the 1500's several things changed. Martin Luther and the Reformation was the first big thing. Not only did Luther break away from the Roman Catholic Church, followed by Calvin in Geneva, but he translated the Bible in German, the language that people could read.
The other big thing that happened in 1440 was the development of the printing press. Once the Bible was translated, it could be printed for distribution. Suffice it to say that this led to lots of upheaval, both religiously and politically. All of the sudden, people didn't have to take the priests' word for what the Bible said anymore. They could read for themselves. And what a mess that made! William Tyndale was only one of many persecuted for translating the Bible.
Fast forward to the late twentieth century. All of the sudden there is printing, mass media, and people motivated to translate the Bible into almost every language. By the time I was a teenager, reading the Bible was a normal part of life. Now that I'm an adult in the early 21st century, we have at least ten Bibles in our house. And, with digital culture, I often don't read from my physical Bible; I read online.
And what's really crazy is that in 1800, there were about 1 billion people alive, but now there are more than 7 billion people alive. This means that this is an amazing time to be alive!!! The ability to be able to read a Bible is not only higher by probability, but also just in terms of sheer number! Of course, there are places where people are not permitted to access the scriptures, such as North Korea, and we need to pray for these people. That being said, it's still an confluence of time and events.
So, read your Bible! People died so that you could have the Bible in your language. And thank God for such a privilege. (It's also good to read your Bible along with other people and with Bible study aids since it was written in a time and place very different from our own.)
What do you think? Have you read your Bible recently?