Reading the right books: memory

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Over the last few posts, we’ve seen how there is a continuing thread running from Judaism into Christianity of reading the scriptures in the context of giving worship to God. One of the obvious questions that the early church then found itself asking was “Which books should we read in public worship?”. 

This was one of the key drivers in developing a sense of “bible”: making lists of the books that Christians should read above all when they met in public to worship God, and which would therefore also form their core collection of texts when they wanted to think about faith and life.

Some of these books were clearly inherited from Jewish tradition, from Jesus as a user and interpreter of scripture, and then from his apostles and the earliest Christian communities. These earliest communities, the ones we find reflected in Paul’s letters, didn’t know they were Christian, of course. They simply thought of themselves as people who were finding the Jewish prophecies of justice, mercy, and liberation through God’s saving presence, fulfilled in Jesus. Some were ethnic Jews, others were of diverse ethnicity, who nonetheless saw themselves as sharing the Jewish inheritance. 

Some scriptures were more central to their thinking than others. Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, crop up all over the place, along with one key passage from the book of Daniel, concerning “the Son of Man”.1 Often the early Christian writers quote directly from a text, but very frequently they use language, concepts and phrases that are drawn from and shaped by texts they had in their heads rather than on their desks. Scriptures were memorized more frequently than they were consulted in the way we might look things up.

That sense of “I know what the text says, but I can’t quite remember where it’s from” is most obvious in the letter to the Hebrews. The writer has clearly memorised a great many scriptures, but still introduces a key quotation from Psalm 8 by saying: “But someone has testified somewhere” (Heb 2:5). It also means that sometimes the quotation or allusion a writer uses may not quite match up to the exact phrasing of the written text.

Once again, we’re reminded that most people in the ancient world experience books in memory, public hearing and performance. Reading is something they listen to. They are not individual readers looking things up in their own copies of books.


  1. The passage is Daniel 7:13-14. The phrase “son of man” is of course regularly used by Jesus. It seems to be deliberately ambiguous on his lips, as on the one hand it is an idiom meaning something like “A person like myself” – not unlike Queen Elizabeth II’s use of the word “One” to refer to herself. On the other hand, it could also be a title, referring back to a particular interpretation of Daniel. It seems that Jesus, using this phrase, is constantly inviting his listeners to ask themselves “what does he mean? Who is he?”

One thought on “Reading the right books: memory

  1. Pingback: Reading the right books: the rule of faith – Liturgica

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