I’m never quite sure whether to be astonished at how much of value survives from the ancient world, or regretful that there are so many things we don’t know. But all our descriptions of the ancient world, including the world(s) of the early Christians, are a mix of things we know, and our best (often very well educated) guesses. But there’s also an awful lot of knowledge that, frankly, is simply missing.
A lot of that has to do with culture. It’s a slippery word and people write books trying to describe it, but one way to think of culture is “the things everyone knows but no-one bothers to explain”.
A trivial example might help. When someone says “Can you pass the salt, please?”, we instinctively reach for the container with one hole in the lid. But almost certainly, someone describing the scene would simply say: “She passed the salt.” They would not think to write: “Emily looked at the table. There were two containers there. She knew which one was the salt even though they were made of metal she couldn’t see through, because salt containers typically have one hole in the lid, whereas pepper containers typically have several holes. English tables normally only have salt and pepper on them, and not other spices that can be shaken over the food.”
The lengthy informative description might help a future foreign historian, but no-one would think of writing it down. That’s also true of the biblical and other early Christian writers. They leave out the stuff that “everyone knows”. Trying to fill in the blanks by careful reading, profound study, and ingenious deduction is what keeps the ranks of scholars busy, as they agree and disagree with one another’s detective work.
Over the following days’ posts, I’m going to look briefly at three short descriptions of reading in the ancient world, noting a few features of the public reading described there. I shall take one from each of the Old and New Testaments, and one from a second century author. It both shows the deep and rooted nature of this ministry that people are still fulfilling in today’s church, and illustrates an issue all modern readers face – however well studied they are.
We usually know enough to understand the main thrust, and often a great many details of what we’re reading. However, there’s always more we might discover, and there’s almost certainly some missing information we may never find. Anyone who feels they have to understand everything before they can read in public may well be waiting for ever.